A Poet’s Love: Paul Houghtaling, bass-baritone

On Monday March 14 at 8pm in Brooks Concert Hall, Paul Houghtaling, bass-baritone will perform Robert Schumann’s infamous song-cycle Dichterliebe. Learn more about the upcoming performance in this Q&A:

What makes singing a song cycle like Dichterliebe different from performing other vocal works, such as an opera aria or a recitative? 

Dichterliebe is one of the most beloved lieder cycles in the repertoire.  It’s special in that the 16 songs tell the story – the journey – of one protagonist, in this case a poet who is struggling with unrequited love. Other cycles by Schumann and Schubert are similar in this regard and that gives the work an “operatic” quality in some ways.  But only because of the narrative.  Vocally, the cycles allows the singer to explore more intimate sounds than one could afford to use in most operas, yet the cycle also requires a full, open approach when the poet is at his emotional extremes.

Why do you think Dichterliebe has become such a focal point of Schumann’s career and a major work in his repertoire?

Dichterliebe is widely considered to be autobiographical in nature with the struggles of Heine’s poet mirroring those of the composer with regard to his relationship with Clara Wieck.  Everyone can relate to the emotional journey of a man desperately in love, especially when Schumann created some of his most profoundly human music to accompany the poet’s story. The relationship between the vocal writing and the piano part is especially important. A hallmark of the romantic style, of course, Schumann’s piano writing in Dichterliebe is masterful and as integral to the poet’s journey as the voice line and the text.  One need only listen to the opening of “Im wunderschonen monat Mai” for its magical quality and the very final statement of the cycle, which is among the most poignant and moving piano solos in the entire repertoire.

The subject of Dichterliebe (“A Poet’s Love”)is wrought with emotional intensity. What would you say is the emotional turning point or climax of this cycle? How do you go about singing such emotionally-dense material? 

The cycle comes to a mini-conclusion, or its first shift in tone, at “Ich grolle nicht,” both vocally and emotionally. From this point forward, the poet is resigned to the bitter nature of his unrequited love, and then nature begins to speak to him, he hears music in flutes and drums, he sadly recalls his love singing, he weepily remembers  better moments from their past, and he struggles with his dreams.  Again, personification, dreams, nature, tears — these are all common obsessions of the romantics. As a singer, looking at the work as a whole allows me to find the pacing and the high and low points for the protagonist.  I also think of the work theatrically – his journey – and the fact that I’ve been singing it for 16 years helps a great deal as well.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of this work?

That’s a good question.  Certainly I think about pacing the half-hour cycle, but also to remain true and authentic to the moments in this man’s life as they unfold over the cycle.  As an actor, the most sensitive part is finding the balance between the despair and the resolution, the realization that while this ill-fated romance melted away like foam, there will be a shining summer morning yet again, this time, perhaps, filled with hope.

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