The Role of Paul
A Vocal Journey Through Naturalness,
Sophistication and Ecstasy
by Wilhelm Pfeiffer
My first contact with E. W. Korngold’s opera DIE TOTE STADT was the studio record from 1975 (conducted by Erich Leinsdorf). It was unconditional love at first sight or rather at first listening. The gloomy and partly surreal but also psychological modern story, the grandiose melodies, the brilliant and colorful orchestration… in one word: a masterpiece, which impressed me quite a lot. At this time I was just at the beginning of a very long personal journey to myself: my studies in singing (more of this a little later). After I had listened to the record of DIE TOTE STADT several times and after I had gone over it with the piano score I asked myself:
“Who is able to sing this on stage…, especially in large opera houses like the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala or the Vienna State Opera with more than hundred persons in the orchestra? These long monologues with expressive and dramatic vocal lines and lots of emotional eruptions in very high tones…? (I thought this concerning as well the role of Paul as also the even more demanding double-role Marietta/Marie). Had Korngold been about to lose his mind while he had been writing this?”
It seems too heavy, too difficult for the human voice. It seems so, but of course it isn’t. Korngold knew very well about the abilities of the human voice and he had an explicit secure feeling for using it in the way of an instrument. The human voice is quite an instrument but it includes much more than only the vocal cords. The vocal cords are very important, but to the same extant important are the physical condition of the singer, the relaxation of the body and most of all the love for singing itself, the love for telling stories and portraying people by means of singing. Only this kind of love – in combination with a little consequent learning – can bring every person’s body so far, that it will be a wonderful, brilliant and most various musical instrument. And Korngold knew how to make such a human instrument an integrated musical and dramaturgical part of the story or rather the opera. He does it in a way similar to Wagner or some composers of the so-called “Verismo” (for example Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano). From such a point of view and doing, all these so heavy, difficult opera roles are relatively easy to sing, especially compared to some typical pure so-called belcanto operas. But there is only one thing singers have to keep in their hearts and in their minds: operas like Korngold’s DIE TOTE STADT or Wagner’s great music dramas leave the singers no place for any vocal vanity, singing self-admiration or singing self-satisfaction. They are demanded to let in the music into their hearts and their whole personality and then also to bring it out directly in the same way. Especially Wagner animated his singers to be actors too. He always searched for so-called singer-actors.
At the time when I was about to learn or rather find out all this, E. W. Korngold was playing an important part in my life. I may say that he partly guided me on my first steps into the world of opera. Until the age of seventeen I couldn’t find any access to this form of musical style. One reason for this was of course the fact that all my interest was focused on another musical style: film music. I had begun collecting records of film-soundtracks from any decade, actual as well as classical. And there the name E. W. Korngold appeared the first time in my life. Well, it’s not necessary to write here anything about Korngold’s film musical scores; each one is without any doubt a masterpiece. One day, when I was listening to some of Korngold’s film music, my mother came by and also listened with quite some interest. After a while she said:
“Wonderful…, it sounds partly a bit like Wagner.”
We had some Wagner-records at home. My interest had awoken and so I took one (it was LOHENGRIN) to listen, or rather to make up my mind. But it was not necessary because Wagner’s music entered my heart and all my other senses immediately. In this LOHENGRIN-record – it was live recorded at the Bayreuth Festival 1953 – I heard singers who unconditionally sang their roles. They really brought out every tone and every phrase with clarity and with cultured as well as powerful guided voices. They never sounded forced, overdriven or tired. So my interest had not only awoken for Wagner but also for Wagner-singing and this was exactly the style of singing I preferred most.
In the next few years I tried to find someone who could help me to bring this vision into practice. But this was not quite so easy. Among my very large family there were two uncles, one aunt and an older cousin, who had studied singing very seriously, but never used their voices in a real professional way. They were singing in choirs only as hobby. I tried to ask for advises and support but they found my visions ridiculous:
“Oh no, you may never sing Wagner. Wagner is a voice killer…” or something like this.
My first singing teacher argued in the same way:
“If you sing Wagner all your lyrical timbre and all your height will be gone. Maybe your voice would be damaged!”
After a lot of discussions and attempts to find other teachers, I decided that there was at last only one way: I had to be my own teacher and had to find just my own way. It took quite some time but it works. I invested hundreds of hours in listening records, developing my own singing exercises, studying a various range of opera roles (including Paul from DIE TOTE STADT) and I also invested a lot of time in my own personal development. By and by I made the experience that only total emotional and physical relaxation is the basis for a pleasant, various and also powerful voice. It’s a little step between tension and cramp but a big difference. I became convinced that if a person is able to let all emotions and feelings flow freely, the whole physical body gets in a condition of relaxation and flexible tension. And so this person is able to be an instrument with all musical possibilities and with no kind of borders or limitations. It sounds very easy and so it is, but there is no effortless way to put it into practice. You can find this way only in communication with your inner guidance, with your inner voice. During the years I often have noticed, that singers who have been singing mainly pure lyrical roles for several years and then want to go further to dramatic stuff, suddenly forget to sing. One reason may be that they are now confronted with bigger orchestras, heavier sounds and partly much longer roles. So they are getting nervous, cramped and with the transition from lyrical to dramatic roles they go over from singing to shouting. I have the impression that singers, who suffer from any kind of problems like this, are not able to just sing their roles, they are fighting against them. They define singing, especially opera singing, as a fight, and they don’t only fight against their roles, but also fight against the audience, the orchestra, their partners on stage and, most of all, against themselves.
In my opinion, there is also another reason, why lyrical and dramatic singing should not be separated in the way that is unfortunately common today. Fact is they belong together, because every real heavy, dramatic opera role contains lyrical, quiet parts and phrases, which the singers should bring to the audience in the right and consistent style. Otello for example has a wonderful tender love duet with Desdemona, full of erotic and musical intimacy. Siegfried has this scene which is called “Waldweben”, where vocal culture and lightness are necessary. On the other hand nearly every lyrical opera role has some parts of dramatic power, where the singers need a lot of vocal strength and presence, if they want to bring those dramatic emotional feelings to the audience or if they don’t want to be blown off the stage by the orchestra. For example the final scene from Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI, when the statue of the Commendatore enters the room, or Des Grieux’s emotional eruptions in the third and fourth act of Puccini’s MANON LESCAUT. There are thousands of examples, in the one and in the other way.
And now back to the role of Paul, which combines all possible lyrical and dramatic aspects in a most intensive manner: there is artistic intelligence, vocal culture and strength, as well as also a good physical condition necessary. Also you need a wide vocal range, absolute security in heights of tenor, a precise, clear, eloquent declamation and of course the ability to sing text on a very high vocal level. And all this has to be combined in a very human natural way, because Paul is a human being, a real man, a man made of flesh and blood. He is not an ancient God or hero out of a mythological drama and he is also no humanlike mythical creature out of any kind of legend. Paul is able to love deeply, tenderly and passionately, but he also suffers in the same way. Paul is also intelligent, learned and sophisticated, but he has an enormous problem with his feelings of guilt. Not just two souls are living in his body. In sum the role of Paul is…, yes, it is a vocal journey through naturalness, sophistication and ecstasy.
But it isn’t a journey without a competent guiding. Korngold demands very much from the singers, but he also helps them. The orchestration may be massive and monumental, but there are – for Paul – only very short parts or phrases where he has to sing over the in fff playing orchestra. Most of the time Paul can make a sort of musical dialogue between him and the orchestra. That means that almost every time when Paul has to sing a heavy dramatic phrase, the orchestra is going mainly into the background and then comes out with much more power and magnificence. If you are able to feel yourself completely in the singing way, this sort of musical dialog between you and the orchestra can be enormously animating. In the list of Korngold’s helpings for Paul there is another important point. Between his monologues and scenes there are often several moments, where the attention of the audience is guided to another person. These moments the singer can use for himself. Although he has to be present in acting on stage, he can take a so to say “inner-physical time-out” for body and vocal regeneration. For a singer who can real use all these helpings the heavy, dramatic and at first sight so difficult seeming role of Paul becomes considerably easier.
Very often DIE TOTE STADT is performed with several or numerous shortenings. Well, this is a principle question in different matters. In my opinion it is impossible to shorten this opera without interrupting or destroying the musical tension and the thrilling suspense of the story. Some scene or parts would become illogical and incomprehensible for the audience. Also for the singers the shortenings are a problem. Because these well-meant shortenings in fact disturb the singers in creating the right vocal tension, also in finding a consistent balance in their vocal harmony colors and of course in creating their characters on stage in a human believable manner. So, in my opinion, it is best to perform DIE TOTE STADT in full length and with two intermissions – after the first and the second act. Not only the singers need and shall have their break, but the audience too.
Is the role of Paul a so-called dream-role? I would say yes, because Paul is dreaming most of the time…, okay, without joking it is indeed. It stands in one row with all the other great and wonderful opera roles, that singers all around the world are dreaming of to sing. Concerning such roles, I use to so say:
“Don’t only dream of it, just sing it and you’ll be surprised about your real abilities.”
Well, when the curtain raises, Brigitta shows Frank, Paul’s friend, the room, where Paul keeps all his memories and, of course some relics of Marie, especially a braid of her hair. He’s living in these memories so intensively that he never realized, that Brigitta, the modest housekeeper is in still hopeless love with him. She doesn’t tell Frank directly, but the music brings it out (“…und wo Liebe, da dient eine arme Frau…”). Paul appears; he is in an over-euphoric, outraged mood. First he sends Brigitta away to bring a lot of roses and then he begins to tell his friend about the experience he had the day before. He had met a woman who exactly looked like and spoke like Marie. His dead wife will be back. This first monologue of Paul contains all those vocal demands, which were explained above. Long, tender phrases full of melancholy, alternate with ecstatic and joyful eruptions. Paul is sure that Marie will come back through this unknown woman. Without any hesitation he prepares everything to expect her; soon she will come. Frank is skeptical, but Paul doesn’t recognize his warnings. As Frank leaves, Paul gets more and more in irrational joy about the soon coming resurrection of his wife. He does it in wonderful and vocal very high phrases. Despite of this high vocal level the singer has to avoid any kind of falsetto or too thin-guided voice. Vocal emotion and physical strength are necessary.
Marietta enters the room and finds a confused but euphoric Paul. She doesn’t really know why she had been invited and also doesn’t know what to do with this a little bit grumpy but interesting man. Slowly Paul begins to talk and they come a little closer. Marietta is quite impressed about the house and all the things in the room, although she says that every thing is a little gloomy and dusty. From the moment Marietta enters the room, the singer of Paul can take one of those “inner-physical time-outs”. The following minutes belong to Marietta. Paul has only short phrases, so to say keywords for Marietta. After she has put on the old silk shawl and takes a look at herself in the mirror, Paul breaks out in an ecstatic shout (“Marie…!!”). Marietta is astonished, but Paul quickly calms the situation and gives her an old lute, which inspires Marietta to sing a song. Well, what now follows is one of the most wonderful opera scenes and melodies ever written (“Gluck, das mir verblieb…”). The song reminds Paul of his better and happier days in the past (“…Ich hfrt es oft, in jungen, in schfneren Tagen…”). This scene has an extraordinary high vocal line, but in a very lyrical and warm feeling way. It is of course for the singer a challenge to find the right sound and to avoid any kind of sentimentality. For a few moments it seems that time is standing still. But suddenly another song breaks in this atmosphere. Marietta’s friends, actors, dancers, and a director are on their way to the theatre for a rehearsal. They are singing and making some jokes down on the street. Paul is a bit shocked that Marietta is a dancer, a person from the world of theatre. In this point she has quite no similarity with Marie. But in the same moment Paul feels enormous erotic desire for this young pretty woman, who now tells him, how much she loves to dance. In her enthusiastic dance she gets caught up in a curtain and pulls it away. Behind the curtain is Marie’s picture. Marietta’s astonished question makes break down Paul’s desire immediately. Paralyzed with feelings of guilt he sends Marietta away. She combines quick and quite right. Although she feels her pride and of course her feelings have been hurt, she offers Paul the possibility to see her again in the theatre.
Slowly Paul gets out of his stare. His erotic feelings and desires are as strong as his feelings of guilt. Torn by this inner conflict he passes out into a combination of collapsing and daydream-like vision. From now on the music and the action on stage change and get an explicit surreal touch and especially the singer of Paul is demanded to bring out this difference in the harmonic color of his voice. The picture of Marie has become alive and once more Paul is confronted with his desires and feelings of guilt. This surreal mysterious dialogue brings Paul once again to an emotional eruption, when Marie’s picture changes into the orgiastic dancing Marietta and Paul ecstatically rushes in her arms. This is the end of the first act.
The second act begins with an absolutely singing highlight for Paul: the monologue which follows the impressive church-bell-scene. Paul is still unconscious, but in the daydream-like vision several weeks have past. He waits restless in front of Marietta’s house. He waits, but he doesn’t really know for whom or for what. Paul’s problems have increased. Now he is not only suffering from feelings of guilt and sexual desire, now Paul is also shaken by jealousy against every man who may come close to Marietta. Paul hears the dark menacing sound of the church-bells, which remind him of the day when Marie was buried. He tries to confess, tries to find peace, but in vain, he stays rest- and helpless. In my opinion, Paul’s monologue is a very good example for this kind of musical dialogue between the singer and the orchestra that I described above. Especially at the end (“Nun trag’ ich Unrast des Begehrens…”) the orchestra has heavy and massive accords in fff, but in each and every bar the musical impulse derives from Paul. So he is, in a special way, leading the orchestra, which has just to follow him, and so never is able to cover him up.
In the next scene Brigitta appears as a novice and of course as the personification of reproach and accusation. She has left him because of his sinful relationship with Marietta, but she will pray for his soul. The next who appears on stage is Frank. He also has been captivated by Marietta and commands Paul to go away. She even has given him the key of her house. Paul, in rage, tears the key away from him, and after this quarrel Frank declares their friendship ended. Opera scenes like this aggressive and caustic dialogue between the two (former) friends can be a trap for the singers, precisely a trap for their vocal cords. Such short, sharp and aggressive to sing phrases may persuade the singers to forcing or shouting instead of singing. The only way to avoid this is a precise, clear declamation with extra sharp pronounced consonants. So the vocal cords stay relaxed and can hold their natural tension and also the audience will better understand the singer. In scenes like this it is necessary to bring the cramped and desperate feelings to the audience (!!the singer-actor!!), but it is never necessary that the singer cramps his body or his vocal cords. Well, in the special case of Paul there is now time for him to relax and regenerate. For about fifteen minutes he is allowed to leave the stage. In this time Marietta, or rather Fritz, the Pierrot with his famous song have their entrance. Now the whole attention of the audience is focused on them and that’s important, because of the dramaturgical balance. Paul should not be the midpoint during the whole opera.
The singer of Paul has to use this break because his following scenes are the hardest, heaviest and most dramatic of the whole tenor opera-literature. Paul breaks into the strange and surreal party of Marietta and her friends. He could no longer bear to see her been adored and kissed in an extremely erotic, sensual and voluptuous manner and less he can bear to see her playing a resurrected woman (“Halt ein, Du eine auferstand’ne Tote!!”). After her friends have gone, Marietta confronts Paul with his ridiculous behavior. She stays cool, even when Paul shows her the key of her house, the proof, that she has also a love affair with his friend Frank. In an aggressive as well as desperate admission he tells her, or better cries out, the whole truth. It has never been love or any feeling like this, but only sexual desire. When he was kissing and having sex with her, he had only thought of and felt for his dead wife Marie. For his eyes Marie was a saint, but Marietta is nearly nothing else than a prostitute. He doesn’t say this directly, but it comes out between his words. In his tremendous emotional eruption he is equally disgusting, pitiful and ridiculous. In exactly that way it seems to Marietta, because instead of turning around and leaving him, she stays, tries to talk to him and also tries to guide him back to life. She has feelings for Paul and she doesn’t want him to stay buried alive in this house full of darkness and gloomy memories. She succeeds and Paul embraces her with passion and wants to go to her place immediately. But Marietta stops him. Not here, not in her place, she wants to spend the night with him in his house, as a sign that his former wife from now on is really dead and has no longer any power over him. Paul agrees in wildest passion and rushes away with her.
Without any doubt, Korngold has expected very much from both singers in that scene. The vocal line of Paul’s total eruption is extremely high and some phrases have the notice “shouted” in the piano score. But after this once again Paul can regenerate and then softly join in Marietta’s singing. By comparison with the previous eruption this duet contains wonderful melodies as well as wonderful orchestrations. That’s why it is a appreciated change for the singer of Paul and the whole dramaturgy. Apart from the monologue at the beginning of the second act and Marietta’s famous song, this duet is my most favorite part of the opera. It is an exciting experience to be seduced by Marietta and her sensual singing. All the singer has to do is to give himself into that atmosphere and sing…, just sing, till the erotic tension and sexual attraction between him and Marietta increases more and more to something that I call a vocal orgasm. In that way it would be no problem that some of Paul’s very high-leveled phrases are in pp. These are typical phrases, where singers have to take a look at, not to sing them in falsetto or going to whisper. It never sounds really good but it is usually a question of taste. The singer of Paul has to avoid this strictly.

Marietta has the firm intention, to banish the spell of Paul’s former wife forever. At the beginning of the third act she confronts herself with Marie, or rather Marie’s picture (“Dich sucht ich Bild…”). Marietta is of course an extraordinary strong person and she doesn’t feel any kind of shame about what she has done or is doing, with Paul or with anyone else. But it is important to say that her feelings for Paul are absolutely true. At this moment, after a night of wild passionate love with Paul she is quite sure for going further in this confrontation. But there is a little interruption: the children’s choir. It comes from outside and sounds light, clear and bright, like coming from another world. The children are preparing themselves for the upcoming religious procession. Marietta is moved by the children’s singing and turns away her attention from Marie’s picture. It is once more a proof for Korngold’s dramaturgical ingenuity, to set the children’s choir at this point. So he could not only better hold balance in the musical and dramaturgical sense, he also gave Marietta the possibility to profile herself better as a strong woman with a great and loving heart and deep feelings. A few seconds later Paul rushes in. Just once more he feels restless and guilty, therefore he has left Marietta early in the morning for running (restless) through the streets. Obviously there he has seen the preparation of the religious procession. Paul wants Marietta to leave the room immediately, but she stays, for different reasons. One of those is, that they have a better view to the procession from there, but Paul doesn’t want her to stand near the window (“Was fdllt Dir ein, wenn man Dich sdh!”). She is offended and throws herself on a couch, thinking about the pleasant evening with her friends and just remembering Pierrot’s song. Paul doesn’t really notice that but as Marietta jumps up for leaving him, he pushes her back to the couch.
It is now important for the singer of Paul, to keep in mind, in body and in voice, that from the beginning of the procession scene on, Paul’s daydream-like vision slowly turns to a horrible nightmare. This is a logical development, deriving from his endless feelings of guilt, desperation and so on. That means for the singer also a change in the vocal sound and the harmony colors. There are two reasons why this change is important. First: the singer might be boring to the audience, when he expresses feelings always in the same vocal style. Second: the powerful and massive orchestration of the following scene. If the singer isn’t able to make this change in his voice, or rather his performance, the orchestra will blow him off the stage. The next minutes bring out the ecstatic part of the role of Paul. He stands at the window, looking at the procession and is profoundly moved by the things he sees and hears. Religious fanaticism and ecstasy let him fall down on his knees, while the procession, partly visibly, appears in the background. Marietta is also impressed, but not about the procession, but about Paul’s religiosity. What an interesting man, she may think and tries to get closer to him. Paul refuses vehemently because of a further increase of the nightmare. The procession seems to enter the room, gets nearer to Paul and threatens him to death, so that Paul nearly collapses. Now Marietta gets a little angry about his religious fanaticism (“…Dein dumpfer Aberglaube.”). Paul rejects again and begins to praise his pure eternal love for Marie. He does it in an extremely high vocal level and with a lot of tenderness, partly in pp. If the singer wants to sing those phrases exactly the way Korngold has written them, he has to be quite in a real state of ecstasy, fanaticism and frenzy… Well, without joking this part of the scene is fantastic, has wonderful melodies and all other things a singer, or rather a singer-actor can be fond of. Also it is a so to say lyrical intermezzo, before the extremely dramatic final begins.
Marietta really loves Paul because she tries just once more to reach him with her love. Also this time Paul rejects and hurts her deeply, as he declares Marie to be a pure and kind of saint woman and forbids Marietta to compare with her. That’s enough, her love turns immediately in cynicism and bitterness. During her verbal revenge she suddenly finds the braid of Marie’s hair. That’s the point where she can hurt him most – and of course she does. She takes the braid, puts it around her neck, laughs about Paul’s relic-admiration and begins to dance provocatively. Marietta does the full range of provocation and Paul reacts with violence. He strangles Marietta with the braid of Marie’s hair. Suddenly the daydream-like vision or rather the nightmare ends (“Jetzt gleicht sie ihr ganz…, Marie!!”). During this scene, which comes close to a showdown (“Zum Kampf mir ihr und off’nen Augs…”), Paul is vocally rather in the background. He has only to react and give keywords. The scene belongs to the dancing and provoking Marietta. Here the singer of Paul is in a similar position as in the quarrel scene with Frank in the second act. The tones and phrases have to come sharp and precise, but never with shouting or anything like this. Later, at the real final scene of the opera, there are a lot of lyrical phrases to sing and a lot of vocal culture is necessary. And of course, this final scene belongs to Paul nearly alone.
By and by Paul now comes back to life. The orchestra accompanies this process in a wonderful way. First of all, Paul feels release and relief, but there is also a bit of a hangover and melancholy. Brigitta comes in and tells him that the young lady, who has left him just a few minutes ago, now has come back. Paul is glad to see Brigitta, but has no reaction as Marietta enters the room once again. Also in this moment, so to say in real life, her behavior makes clear that she has true feelings, in any case interest for Paul. Maybe she has forgotten her umbrella and her roses on purpose . Paul doesn’t react in any way and so Marietta leaves with a little hesitation. Now also Frank returns and he immediately knows or rather feels what has happened (“Das also war das Wunder…!”). Paul has understood and begins to learn. He gives his former wife Marie a certain, affected but also definite farewell (“…hier gibt es kein Auferstehen.”). He will try to find a new life, in another place and of course in another city. He will leave Br?gge, the city of death…
I have no problem to say, that Paul’s last scene or better-called monologue, nearly moves me to tears every time I hear or sing it. It has not only wonderful melodies but is full of feelings, heart-wisdom and positive views to future. There is a little melancholic touch, but not any kind of sadness or sentimentality. The journey has come to an end, but it is of course not the end, on which the attention is focused. The end of this journey means the beginning of a new life.
Wilhelm Pfeiffer
It is important for me to mention:
I am on my way to become a singer, but right now I have a different profession: I am consulter for Health and Harmony. I am guiding people on their personal way to health and give them support. I am working with Bach-flower-remedies, a sort of aura-energy-work and of course with music in various forms.
On things that indeed interest me, I always want to learn and expand my horizon. I have made the experience that it works best in contact and communication with people. I am interested in any kind of opinions regarding music, singing and suchlike. If you want to contact me, here is my address:
Assmayergasse 69
A-1120 Wien
Tel./Fax ++43-(0)1-817 21 36

[Editor’s note: Contact information from 2002 may no longer be accurate. ]