The Idea Machine

Johannes Held is full of unique ideas. The most recent, “Winterreise Staged,” opens the lied genre up to a broader audience.

He pulls an oversized black duffel bag on wheels, built for carrying a drum set. It’s heavy – he has to stop every fifty meters or so, otherwise the axels will overheat from the strain, and the wheels will break. But after a short rest, he keeps going. The things inside that bag are precious; they are the rolled up pictures and metal frames of an entire production set. They need to get to where they’re going, and so does he.

It started a few years ago as an idea, like all interesting things do. Take Schubert’s Winterreise, well known in a singer-pianist duo format, eliminate the tuxedo, and put it on stage with direction, sets, lighting, and costume. The result: Winterreise Staged.

One of the the things that I admire most about baritone Johannes Held is his ability to take an idea, and before reacting on personal judgement, posing the question: how can we make it work? (I’ve witnessed this in some very extreme situations: a dancer colleague once considered producing a street performance where he would receive kisses from the audience instead of money. Other bystanders brushed the idea off. You don’t earn money? What’s the point? Johannes, however, listened intently, offering suggestions that would celebrate the project’s un-entrepreneurial quality instead of making it something to scoff at.)

Even more remarkable is Johannes’ ability to do the same for himself. Not only does he have an idea (an undeniably good one), but he also has the courage to take all of the little steps in order to realize it. And what’s more, he approaches the project with an infectious excitement. (It also doesn’t hurt that he is an excellent musician who people enjoy both hearing and playing with.) People around him are inspired to help in any way they can in order to be included in the story.

And that’s exactly what has happened this time. After having an idea, Johannes carefully gathered the people who could help him make it happen. Artist Jörn Kaspuhl drew beautiful comic-inspired graphics to be printed on large strips of white material methodically pulled down from two metal easels and strewn across the stage – a changing winter landscape. Director Ebbe Knudsen acted as a dramaturg, offering feedback to Johannes’ personal interpretation of the cycle. Pianist Daniel Beskow studied the German text to help define his musical coloring, and rehearsed deliberately with Johannes in order to develop a cohesive musical partnership. Johanne Thisted Højlund conducted an interview to provide a platform for explaining the project to a potential audience. (The list goes on, but it might seem biased to name everyone.)

Winterreise Staged toured throughout Sweden during fall 2015, and made it’s German debut in Johannes’ hometown Sindelfingen for a seven-show run from February 11-18, 2016 at the Sindelfingen City Gallery. Otto Pannewitz, the gallery’s manager, was proud to host this unique fusion of art, music, and theater as part of his final year with the gallery. Performances are also planned for 2016 in Limburg, and for 2017 at Theaterhaus Stuttgart, with support from the Hugo Wolf Academy.

A commonly asked question: how much does the material within a work of art need to be personalized by the artist? Winterreise is about a young man who loses his love because she chose to be with someone else. Left with no social ties or job to hold him there, his only option is to leave. People love to question both Schubert’s motives, as well as the performer’s: How much should the artist identify with being alone?

When he first studied the cycle for his graduation performance from the Freiburg Music Conservatory in 2010, Johannes prepared using the all-too fresh pain of a breakup and the feeling of not progressing in his singing development. Now, more than five years, further studies with the Royal Danish Opera Academy, experience as in an opera ensemble and as a freelancer, and multiple Winterreises later, he relies on the music to prepare him: honing technique, finding expression from the text, and experimenting. This method, rather than a projection of his own personal experience with heartbreak, is a more reliable foundation on which to perform. (I mean, what if it’s going well?)

Another favorite quesiton: does the man die at the end? (It would be so easy, wouldn’t it?) It is common for singers to avoid Winterreise until later in their careers, sung from a position of retrospection. An audience witnessing such an interpretation can easily be swung to consider passing on. But, Johannes, at 32, points out that Schubert was a young man as well. He thinks that one can sing about loss without immediately implying death.

One of Johannes’ favorite and seldom discussed details about Winterreise is that even though it is a cycle completely devoted to being alone, there are always two musicians, singer and pianist, present: one is never actually alone. Within the cycle, the man interacts with many aspects of his surroundings in nature: a stream, a crow, a linden tree, his own tears. He too is never really alone.

Above all, Johannes considers this version ideal for engaging new and potentially younger audience members with the lieder genre; loss and isolation are topics that anyone has experience with. The pictures and staging could help a non-lieder audience engage in the work, he says. And to add, I observe a unique interpretation in Winterreise Staged where Johannes can truly be himself within the work, and it is beautiful to watch.

A commentary on words: two German words for experience come to mind: Erlebnis, and Erfahrung. Leben means to live, and fahren means to drive. Both are active words of propulsion: throwing the doer in a forward motion. This is how Johannes has approached his Winterreise Staged. It’s how he can step onstage to sing for eighty minutes a night, seven times in eight nights.

It’s also how he inspires an audience to be a part of his locomotion. With this project, they have a chance to enter a world that that they might normally consider too stuffy or distant. Johannes will keep on moving, both presenting his Winterreise Staged and coming up with his next idea. (He’s already working on another staged lieder concept in Berlin this fall.)

As artists, we are always trying to keep the nagging gremlin at bay who threatens to stop the momentum if we’re not careful. But I have no doubt that Johannes will ride far beyond even his own imagination can perceive, even if he sometimes has to do it while dragging a much-too-heavy rolling duffel bag. And I, like the rest of the onlookers, will offer to help carry the bag, because I am excited to see where he’ll end up.

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