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Mathias Hausmann and Eric(h) Zeisl at the Café Bazar

When I meet baritone Mathias Hausmann on a swelteringly hot August-Saturday in Salzburg—nearer to a hundred degrees than ninety—in the casual atmosphere sitting outside the Café Bazar next to the Salzach, sipping on drinks, the idea of conducting a formal interview is rather far away. I leave the recorder off, which always assists the conversation… even if it means scratching the noggin a bit harder a month or so down the road, when it’s time to write something up. But whenever the disposition of the interviewee allows it, it’s better just to chat than to formally 'interview'. That saves the dumb and tired questions one generally comes up with and, assuming it goes well, conveys a flavor and an impression of the person behind the artist. An additional advantage is that it can be fun, rather than a work-exercise. This meeting, thankfully, turned out to be a wholly pleasant, entertaining early afternoon. Hausmann, who studied in Vienna with Walter Berry and whose English was perfected at his extended stint at the Royal College of Music, is very approachable, pleasant, no signs of attitude: not (yet) a ‘singer’, but a chap who happens to sing really well.

Not that I remembered it (to my shame), but I had heard Mathias Hausmann in concert a few times; last in Munich in Ton Koopman’s St. John Passion, where he impressed in the small Pontius Pilate bit; before that as Lord Tristan in Flotow’s forgettable Martha (Vienna, 2008). He was last in Washington in 2006 when he sang a Freud anniversary program at the Austrian Embassy. We—ionarts—were either not there or at least didn’t write about it, but Celia Porter, the Washington Post’s spokesperson for Austrian cultural events, had it well covered. This and the upcoming recitals with Craig Rutenberg on the 6th in New York (Austrian Cultural Forum) and 12th in Washington (Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater) bring up Margareta Ploder, the lady in charge of plotting culture at the Austrian Embassy in Washington D.C. Her name elicits great excitement, especially on Hausmann’s part who swoons about her enthusiasm and programming skills.

Rather than ask my usual opening question, which would have been: 'are you a singer or a musician', we talk about the question and how different singers or musicians have answered it. We share in our common admiration for some (like Christian Gerhaher), and irritation of others. I learn from him about Krenek’s “The Dissembler” (op.229), a twenty minute long monologue for baritone and small orchestra, premiered in March of 1979 in Baltimore with Michael Ingham and the American Camerata for New Music. It’s about “not-an-actor, atonal, graphic, horribly difficult to learn” and (yet) sounds rather intriguing. I find Krenek a mixed bag, generally, but there lurk jewels everywhere within his serially-polystylistic—which is to say: touching every imaginable style in music in turn, as opposed to simultaneously à la Schnittke—output. (My favorite so far: The “Travelbook from the Austrian Alps” op.62, a sort of 20th century sardonic-alpine Winterreise in a convertible. I quiz him on Hanns Eisler’s songs, because I find so much of Eisler musically dissatisfying and I want to know where the goods lie and how to best approach them. He sings them a good deal and ought to know. He points me to the Hollywood songbook: “direct, punchy immigration stories” that are—as I check later that day via the Naxos Music Library—admittedly gorgeous in their wistful beauty. Like 'To My Little Radio'… which is stylistically miles away from the agitprop-music à la “Ballad of the Welfare System” (op.22/2) et al.

In New York and Washington he will perform Mahler's Rueckert Lieder – “that’s the popular bit, plus a melange of lighter music of immigrant composers, including Korngold, Zeisl, Krenek, Stolz and Kálmán.” He first came in touch with that music, almost by accident, when an “Music in Exile” program was put together at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, the heart of the German artists’ WWII immigrant community near Los Angeles. Now it’s almost a calling card of his, and his most common foray into non-operatic repertoire… the latter which makes up at least three quarters of his engagements, mostly because ‘opera is easier for his voice’ and because he feels dramatically at home in opera. We talk about the seemingly divergent trend of opera becoming increasingly ‘historically informed’ in the pit, while becoming increasingly ‘modern’ on the stage. As if to illustrate, across the river Mark Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble perform Mozart’s Così fan tutte, directed by Claus Guth on the past Friday and coming Sunday. Hausmann's gist is “what’s the point of putting on an operatic classic if the direction so convolutes the going-ons that you need as much time in commentary or explanation to understand it?” We start a prolonged argument at the end of which he humors me by agreeing, more or less, that the most important thing is to communicate the essential ideas of the story to the 21st century audience in a way that makes sense to them. We might differ on how best to do that, but don't dwell on it. And it’s not like he objects to full-out acting on stage… “I’d be happy to do more or less any physical stunt… but I do have to sing, also, and that should be my priority.”

Contemporary music? “I select carefully but do it, and gladly, assuming the music arrives in time. Without perfect pitch, it’s just so very difficult to stitch that sort of thing together.” Twelve tone music? “Usually more interesting as a concept than in the concert hall.” Would you sing Donizetti? “Sure—if I am short on money.” Snicker. But very gladly Wofram from Tannhäuser, any lighter Verdi roles, or the Spielmann from the fabulously darkly-playful Die Königskinder (Humperdinck). Eventually we come around to Eric(h) Zeisl again, a few of whose songs he will perform at the Terrace Theater on Wednesday. Zeisl is one of the members of the several strands of “lost” classical music that became extinct in the 20th century; Zeisl being more of the romantic vain of which Erich Korngold, Franz Mittler, Joseph Marx are fellow members. Hausmann’s fellow Austrian colleague Wolfgang Holzmair has these songs in his repertoire, too, which he showcased at a recital at the Austrian Embassy about six years ago. Zeisl was born in Vienna in 1905 and published his first songs at 16. The Anschluss put an end his flourishing career in Vienna and he had to begin his exodus which brought him first to Paris (courtesy Darius Milhaud) and then to New York. Hanns Eisler recommended Zeisl to Schoenberg and from 1942 he worked in Hollywood as a film composer for MGM, albeit without the success of his friend Korngold. For Zeisl it wasn’t scores for “Robin Hood,” or “Sea Hawk,” but “Lassie Come Home” and “Money, Women, and Guns.” All the same, it’s a pleasure to hear Zeisl in recital—and as we boil in the heat Hausmann and I chat about him before eventually parting: I to Muti’s Macbeth, he to a recital of Schubert and Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (piano version) with András Schiff, Christian Gerhaher, and Piotr Beczala.

Photo courtesy Mathias Hausmann, © Wilfried Hösl, 2010