My beloved swan

Klaus Florian Vogt makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker

Klaus Florian Vogt
(Photo: Harald Hoffmann)

What a success story! For twenty years Klaus Florian Vogt has been the go-to choice for the hero of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. No one else sings the mysterious knight as he does: bright, clear and effortlessly, retaining a sense of the heroic but avoiding the can belto vocal posturing associated with too many tenors. Vogt’s Lohengrin hails from another world, a mysterious, androgynous being. At the end of June he is finally making his long-awaited debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the annual Waldbühne concert in Berlin.

When it comes to casting the great tenor roles in Wagner’s music dramas, the tall north German with his fine head of hair is in universal demand: Tannhäuser and Parsifal, Siegmund in Die Walküre and Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have all been performed by Klaus Florian Vogt in all of the world’s leading centres of music, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to La Scala, Milan, and from Tokyo to Berlin. And he has also, of course, appeared on frequent occasions at the Bayreuth Festival, on the town’s Green Hill. Only a few months ago he made his role debut as the eponymous hero of Siegfried, when he took on the part at the Zurich Opera in March. His role debut as the Götterdämmerung Siegfried is already firmly booked.

Yet a vocal career was by no means a forgone conclusion. But he was given a French horn as a Christmas present. His father was a medic with a passion for classical music and gave his son the instrument because he wanted to form a wind quintet at home. The plan worked out and the young Klaus Florian evinced an impressive gift for playing the horn, so it was not long before the group’s five members were performing in churches all over the Holstein heathland. Still only sixteen, Klaus Florian applied to sit the entrance examination for the Hamburg University of Music and Theatre. He passed and only three years later auditioned successfully for a permanent position with the Philharmonic State Orchestra: the Hamburg State Opera’s resident orchestra.

His career begins in the pit

“It was a dream come true for me,” says the tenor in the course of our interview. “I really love Hamburg, for me it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” But pressure on the newcomer, who was still exceptionally young, was intense, more especially during his probationary year. “It was like being thrown in at the deep end,” the singer reports. “At University it’s impossible to learn the qualities that you need in an orchestra, especially at the opera. This is something you learn only once you’re sitting in the pit.”

He often had to sight-read works since a different opera was put on almost every evening. But he enjoyed the challenge, and yet it was not long before he sensed that he wanted more than just playing in the horn section. He wanted a greater sense of personal responsibility and wanted to shine as a performer, and so he applied for the position of principal horn player with a number of different orchestras. Although he always reached the final round, he was ultimately not taken on. “This left me feeling very frustrated,” he openly admits.

But this sense of frustration also made it easier for him to switch from the orchestra pit to the stage. It was his later mother-in-law who discovered his second talent as a tenor when he sang at a birthday party. A new career option opened up to him. He took on the risk of studying singing in Lübeck while also holding down his position as an orchestral musician in Hamburg. He then took a year’s unpaid leave of absence from the Hamburg Philharmonic in order to be able to see if he could survive as a member of the ensemble of the Flensburg Stadttheater. He wanted to find out if he felt comfortable in the limelight.

Klaus Florian Vogt
(Photo: Harald Hoffmann)

From largely overlooked instrumentalist to a fêted tenor

It all passed off smoothly and between 1998 and 2003 he was under permanent contract to the Dresden State Opera: the largely overlooked instrumentalist became a fêted tenor. In making this move he followed in the footsteps of his fellow tenor Fritz Wunderlich, who had also started his career as a horn player.

Despite this, Vogt had little stomach for the itinerant life of a star in the world of classical music constantly jetting round the globe and staying in expensive hotels. Whenever possible, he drives to his engagements in his own campervan.

I like to lead a relatively normal life offstage,” he says. “It’s important for me to be able to plan my own day and to find myself in familiar surroundings. With my campervan I can even take with me a part of my own life from back home.”

Most of all he likes being where his roots are in Dithmarschen. “Whenever I’m away from home, I always miss the rolling vistas, the light, the wind, the water – and the air, which you can breathe only there,” he says enthusiastically. Klaus Florian Vogt is as north German as it is possible to be, a point that also emerges from our interview: he listens attentively, answers in a direct and friendly manner and never uses more words than he needs. Indulging in pointless digressions, recounting anecdotes and dismissing difficult subjects with a vacuous smile is not his way. With him there is no beating about the bush. Everything is to the point, everything is concise and clear.

British understatement and a dry sense of humour

All of this makes Vogt an agreeable interviewer. When speaking, he often gives the impression of being laconic, an impression coupled with an almost British use of understatement – not to mention his wonderfully dry sense of humour and his short bursts of hearty laughter.

I ask him what feelings were triggered by the invitation to make his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Was it a mixture of pride and pleasure or the feeling that after more than twenty years at the top of his profession it was finally time for him to appear with them? He thinks for a second before answering, which he does with disarming honesty: “Both!” And once again I hear a peal of merry laughter that clearly comes from the purest of hearts.

He adds that he had previously received an invitation from the orchestra that he had finally been unable to accept because of a clash of dates. And so the fresh-air fiend that he is was all the happier to work with the orchestra for the first time in the open-air Waldbühne. What is more, he will be appearing with Andris Nelsons, a conductor with whom he is friendly and who also has a past as an instrumentalist – as a trumpeter in the Latvian National Orchestra.

Outdoors debut

Vogt has appeared once before at an open-air concert in Berlin. It was at a “Classic Open Air” concert on the Gendarmenmarkt in 2007. The spectacle was trailed as a “Wagner Night in the Magic Fire”. And the 2023 Waldbühne concert will also focus on Wagner’s works, of course. The tenor will be singing two key scenes from Lohengrin: the Grail Narration and the hero’s final hymn of gratitude to his “beloved swan”. He will also sing Max’s great aria from Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, “Durch die Wälder”. This is a particularly appropriate choice since this most Romantic of all German operas was first performed at the Schauspielhaus on the Gendarmenmarkt in 1821.

At the suggestion of Andris Nelsons, the programme additionally includes three orchestral songs by Richard Strauss, Ständchen, Freundliche Vision and Cäcilie, which will be framed at the Waldbühne concert by the tone poem Till Eulenspiegel and by the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. “I’m extremely fond of these songs,” says Vogt. “My initial reaction was to question whether they were suitable for an open-air performance, but Andris persuaded me otherwise.”

These more intimate pieces will be heard during the second half of the concert, while dusk slowly descends over the Waldbühne. “If the weather is good, then this can produce an atmosphere that allows the audience to concentrate and soak up the mood of the songs,” Vogt says, exuding optimism. “The most wonderful atmosphere can be created out of doors, where everything around you is tranquil and calm. I’m really looking forward to this.”

I ask him if he might not have preferred to sing something more popular at the orchestra’s last concert of the season? Perhaps Johann Strauß instead of Richard Strauss? After all, the tenor is also known for his love of light opera. “It was in operetta that I got over my sense of stage fright,” he says. “You can learn a tremendous amount as a performer here, and I was fortunate to be able to do this during my early career. It helps you a lot in terms of gaining a certain understanding of yourself and learning how to be free onstage.”

When the orchestra, Andris Nelsons and the tenor sat down to discuss the Waldbühne programme, hits from the world of operetta were not on the agenda. “We immediately settled on the selection that we have now,” he reports. “And I think that this is great.” But Klaus Florian Vogt will still have a chance to join in a popular number on 24 June because the concert will end – inevitably – with Berliner Luft. No Waldbühne concert can conclude without Paul Lincke’s song in praise of Berlin.

The tenor may join in spontaneously and add vocal lustre to the orchestral version – or he may grab a horn and join the Philharmonic winds for the finale. “We’ll see,” says Klaus Florian Vogt with a smile. “I want it to be a surprise!”

Frederick Hansen