An internationally respected German countertenor Benno Schachtner values music for what it is. He is being praised for his musical intelligence, emotional depth, and a warm soothing timbre. The singer takes pleasure in the unpredictable art that is created in the spark of the moment, following the atmosphere of the performance. His passion project, currently occupying all of his time and attention is the festival Diademus, counting its third year. The musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė conducts an interview with a singer about the beginning of the festival, career struggles and the voice of good guys – countertenor.
Your festival Diademus was founded three years ago. How did you come up with the initial idea to organize such a festival?
In the year 2015 I was at a festival in Norwich, Trondheim. It was my first big solo with Rene Jacobs as conductor – before that I’ve done only a very little role with just 20 bars of the solo with R. Jacobs. Then I was discovered and invited to Trondheim festival, where I performed B minor mass. It was a big Saint Olaf’s festival at the cathedral of Trondheim. One night there I just couldn’t fall asleep – the sun was not setting until 2 am, because we were in the north. I was sitting in my hotel room and I caught myself wishing there was that kind of festival in my hometown. My mother is working as an organist here, in the church of Roggenburg, so I knew the people. I wrote an email to the chief of padres, who was also a musician and an acquaintance of mine. I asked him in the letter if it would be possible to organize a festival in this church. They answered me after a few weeks: “yes, we have decided that you can start a festival here”. This was the first and the easiest step in the process of organizing Diademus. The biggest difficulties are with the money because you have to pay not only for the musicians and their performances, but also for their stay expenses and it is a lot of money. Now the festival is in its fourth year and I would say that it is going really well.
What were the main changes in the program of Diademus during these years?
I think the program changes also depends on how much finances we have. Of course we are very proud and happy, that we are still supported by the communal government Bezirk Schwaben and Landkreis Neu-Ulm and we still have a few sponsors, but it could be better, if the “Land Bayern” could help us more. Still, since we don’t have enough finances, we have to change the program constantly. In the first two years, we performed big oratorios: Vivaldi, Handel, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. With a big orchestra, accompanying the singers and I was conducting myself. This year we have a smaller program, because we have less funding from the Government. We still perform Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, but with a smaller chamber music ensemble.
How did you come up with the program?
There is one program about the composers – criminals at this festival, that will be explored this week. We don’t know anything about these composers, just from the judge and their criminal records. A few years ago in 2016 another musician gave an idea about criminal composers. And I had it in the back of my mind for the whole time. And that’s how I discovered the main theme of the festival.
Do you think early music is still important to the modern person? In what way can we connect to it?
I think it is very important. We should stop the interpretational thinking from behind, like from Stravinsky to Mozart. We should start thinking from Palestrina to Mozart – as the real development of the interpretation went in time. Now we are judging music stylistics from the wrong perspective.
How did you discover early music?
I started playing church music in Detmold and of course, as a church musician I played a lot of Bach on the organ as well as other composers for organ music. We had the baroque academy, where there is a small choir of selected people, only singers. The main subject is singing and I take the choir management. I chose the singers and prepared them. I also organize the rehearsals, but the concert was conducted by my teacher. In the baroque academy we did perform a lot of Bach and Handel’s pieces. And then I discovered my voice because at first I was singing thinking that I was a tenor, but I am not a tenor. My voice type is a baritone and only used my counter-voice for the tenor. Such use is very good because there is a low range, and no vibrato. Countertenors can be good choir tenors. I started singing and in one rehearsal there was no alto and so I sang the role of alto. And it was a very comfortable. At this moment I realized that singing in alto really fits well to my voice. Then I had some singing lessons as a countertenor and went to Ulrich Messthaler to start learning singing from the year 2010 to the year 2012.
How did your organ studies had influenced you as a musician?
As an organ player, you are always sitting and playing in a dark corner, behind the audience, where nobody can see you. Then it becomes only about hearing, about the music and the interpretation. My organ teacher Gerhard Weinberger was a really good musician. The main intention I also have as a singer is to focus on music and less on the show. I think this comes from organ playing. But as a singer, at the beginning I had to learn in a very hard way to make myself be seen, because I am an introverted person. So I had to learn that if you are a singer, you have to show what you are feeling and this was completely new to me. Maybe this is a reason why I am not a typical countertenor. If there is a big concert, I only want to put the focus onto the music.
What other musical values were told to you by your teachers?
Yes, of course. My organ teacher was very sad when he heard that I am going to start singing. But he heard me sing on stage and after the concert, he had told me that I have to study this. And my singing teacher Heiner Eckels in Detmold, with whom I did the first steps with my countertenor’s voice, was also very fresh, because it was new for him to teach countertenors. At the beginning I was not sure if I want to stop playing church music and become a singer, because it is not an easy job to sing. It is not sure whether you can live from it or not.
Now you perform a very broad repertoire, as a countertenor – early and contemporary music, concerts and operas. How do you form your repertoire and what roles do you get as a countertenor?
Oh, I want to sing a lot of roles in my life. Just that it is not really me choosing the repertoire. I get the requests from festivals and opera houses. I have some pieces and some roles that I like and in some places they are asking “what do you want to sing?” But usually, there is the opera house that makes decisions, because they have heard me sing and they know me. They have a piece that they want me to perform and then they call me. That is the way it goes.
Your singing is described as “spontaneity and joy in a musical moment”. What does this mean to you?
This quality comes from my first life as an organist. In the performing just the music is important. And I try not to do always the same things – it is simply boring. I just use the energy from the moment. Otherwise it is not a true feeling. Of course, you have to make some adjustments to the orchestra. But at each concert there is a different atmosphere. And I think I have found a way to catch the atmosphere. In this way I am very spontaneous, so if the orchestra is playing softer, I adapt. I think it is very important to be free and flexible with the music. In my opinion every musician should be like this.
How do you search for a connection with music or the role?
I love the opera. Not the system of opera houses and mafia, of course. But I like to be on stage and to act. And I am developing the music and the role always from myself, from the inside. It is not only important if you really believe in the story. You have to feel it. It is the same, no matter if you are singing Giulio Cesare or if you are singing Tolomeo or Ottone. You have to create the role from yourself, from the inside. It is not authentic if somebody tells you how to feel or what to do. You just have to be honest with yourself and find it only the way that you can find it.
Do you have any strong inner experiences, when singing?
Sometimes, if it is really good, I feel like I am flying, like I am not on this planet. But this happens not at every concert, of course. It depends on the orchestra, on the conductor, on the audience, and on the atmosphere.
You work in many different countries. What were your experiences?
I just been in New York, had my Carnegie Hall debut this year in June. And I was in Salzburg with Arvo Pärt concert. This was a very special experience, because the composer was in every rehearsal and it was very interesting to listen to him. I think I love Arvo Pärt, he is a really great artist and his music is very simplistic, slow, only few notes. It is conpletely different when you are working with him, though, because he is so free. He had told us – don’t sing the note as long as it is written, because the hall is too small. Just feel free, be free with the music. I had a really great experience rehearsing with him.
Do you see any differences while performing in other countries?
Yeah, I was surprised, when I was in New York. Then I was singing with a Orchestra st. Luks. The first rehearsal was only with the piano rehearsal, without the orchestra. Then I went to the orchestra rehearsal, I saw the instruments of the orchestra players and I whas shocked. They were playing an early music program with modern instruments. They told me that in New York the early music instruments are not used. There are not a lot of them and it was really new to me – a difference between America and Germany or Austria, or Switzerland. Then in the first rehearsal I thought that the music was too high for me. My first thought was that this was a jet lag, but then I saw the instruments and I thought that we are literary playing half note higher than usual.
I also wanted to ask about your new CD “Clear or Cloudy”. You wanted to tell a love story through the music in this CD. Maybe you could explain this concept a little bit? And how did you come up with the idea of CD?
I recorded the CD in the library of the church in Roggenburg. This is the repertoire of early music that I love very much. Purcell music was one of the first pieces that I sang ever. The first and the last piece of CD is from Purcell. And then I had an idea of a love story because I find it always interesting. There are a lot of recordings with bad guys, so it´s time to start up with a new idea. But because of my high countertenor’s voice I thought that I should record a good guys CD instead. But then I went with the love story. It is in every opera and it is the most important in music. Then I started to look for pieces I love and I don’t know. For example “Cleare or cloudie sweet as April showring” is a composition I didn’t know before. I had a list of music pieces and I started to select the ones that would fit to the story, from the beginning with the first feelings of loving someone and to the very end of unrequited love. I put pieces in such a system. At the beginning of CD I sing the music of Purcell and Francesco Cavalli. It says – “let’s forget about all our sorrows, just listen to the music. Music can make you free.” The last piece in the CD is like a prayer to say thank you to God, for the day or for life, you never know. In the end, if the other person is not in love with you anymore or never loved you, it could be that you want to die. Or you want to close the CD. This is the concept that I came up with.
Such early music is my favorite repertoire, because it fits my voice. I didn’t want to make only coloratura arias. I think fast singing is impressive and expressive, but I value music, not the tricks or the show. Music has to touch people.
And do you have a favorite composer to perform?
Of course Bach… and Handel, Scarlatti, Monteverdi, etc. It depends. I don’t want to sing all the time Bach or Handel. I need a mixture of all of them.
You are originally from this Roggenburg, Ulm. How could you describe the musical traditions here?
Oh, the musical traditions here are just playing the trumpet, clarinet, and saxophone. The brass orchestra music, folk music. There is a similar tradition in Austria. But I grew up in a musical family – my father was a teacher and he conducted a choir, my mother still is an organist in the church. I grew up listening to the music of Mozart and Haydn. Then I started to study church music and I came in contact with Bach.
I don’t think that religious music has strong traditions in this area. Here, close to this area, there is no festival like this that we are doing, so it is a completely new thing for this area. There are a lot of festivals, but not in this place.
How do you treat your voice? Do you have any rituals?
Drinking beer. Typical from this area. No, not really. But every third day I should sing. Because I am singing on Sunday at the concert, today I am starting to rehearse. I need some days to pick my voice up.
What were your impressions from the performance in Salzburg festival this year?
It is a very big festival and very famous, it was an honor for me to be the first time there. The audience was very international and very touched by the performance too. I think it was because Arvo Pärt was there and he came to the stage at the end and bowed around. It was a very touching moment, especially the performance of “Echo” composition, because then the choir surprised the composer with another piece. Arvo Pärt was crying. He is just such a nice person. He came to the soloists and thanked everybody. A few years ago in the stated this composer was not happy with singers, because they were opera singers. This time he was very happy with us, with the choir and with the soloists.
Thank you for the conversation!