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No doubt about it, Andreas Scholl is a little out of the ordinary. If Morecambe and Wise managed to make heavy-handed comedy out of Andr?Previn by pretending he was a bus conductor, imagine how they'd have fared with a German singer with a very high voice whose name is synonymous with orthopaedic sandals. Writers have clearly struggled to pull into focus this tall young man with a rare talent: "Baroque and roll boy"; "High and mighty"; "The Clark Kent of countertenors"?/font>
The voice is unique, certainly, and the suggestion of superhuman powers isn't entirely refuted by the Scholl you meet - even wearing Timberland boots and jeans. "I'm a religious person," he says. "I know lots of people like the sound of my voice. My voice is a gift from God. I've got this gift and I praise God by singing. It's a very simple thing, a wonderful profession to have."
But there's no trace of a super-ego to go with it. Scholl, it seems, just wants to get on with his job. He is careful, philosophical, concerned about the state of music and politics. He also has an impressive knowledge of Formula 1 racing, admits to wasting many hours on a Sony Playstation, and has made two pop records. "They both flopped," he says.
But the awards and accolades suggest that here is a musician who can do no wrong when it comes to recordings of Baroque music. His Vivaldi Stabat Mater (featured on last month's cover disc) won a Gramophone Award in 1996, and he picked up another gong for his part in Caldara's oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo the following year. He has recently made two more recordings, Bach's popular B minor Mass, and a disc of Bach Cantatas for alto voice, probably his proudest achievement on record so far. "Such hard work to record that," he says. "It's very complex music and still it has to sound effortless. I love Bach. He's my favourite composer."
Anyone who has seen him sing either on television or at any of his 50 or 60 live appearances last year, will have been smitten by a powerful stage presence. Scholl openly admits that he has to work less hard than other singers. He is also in the category of those 'classical' artists - Maxim Vengerov and Kennedy included - who seem to have an impromptu fan club permanently on tap. But it's something he seems quite bashful about. "Recording and performing are completely different," is his only comment. "The emphasis will always be on the concerts, the traditional, live way to produce music."
Scholl's stagecraft will be tested to the full this summer (1998) when he makes his Glyndebourne debut in Handel's opera Rodelinda singing the role of Bertarido. Apart from a small part in Mozart's Magic Flute in Basel, this will be the first time he has trodden the boards. "It's eight arias, I think, and a duetto," he says. "It's an immense amount of music." In learning it he's been helped by an Italian colleague who plays the harpsichord and orchestral parts and sings the parts of the other singers. "Apart from the last two recits I have memorised everything," Scholl says. "I will focus on being properly prepared for the musical side so I can really concentrate on the acting part." Will there be a lot of acting involved? "I dunno, I think so. The role is a king. There's a kind of prison scene. I have to kill somebody on stage, so it seems to be quite dramatic!"
Bertarido is a castrato role. The sound Handel intended can only be guessed at with the help of the one surviving castrato on record who sang in the Sistine Chapel. Scholl imagines the sound as "one of purity, crystal-like, a boy soprano with the power of a male tenor or baritone." But he is not out merely to imitate a sound which he has never heard. There's no need. Recent musicology suggests that when the star castrato had done a few performances in a new opera production, his place would be taken by a countertenor. "After Senesino or Farinelli left, it was a falsettist, a male alto or soprano who replaced them," Scholl says. "So there's reason to have countertenors nowadays, not just as a substitute for castrati."
Born in Wiesbaden in 1967, Andreas Scholl started singing in Kiedricher Chorbuben, a type of choral training for children that dates back nearly seven centuries, but he was in his late teens when he decided he wanted to be a professional singer. It was a vocal trainer from the Music Academy in Darmstadt who noticed a subtle change in his voice. He was still singing soprano parts at 17, but his voice had in fact 'broken' to become a fully fledged countertenor. He auditioned and then went to study in Basel. "Of course I was always singing," he says. "Looking back I thought, yeah, this is exactly the way things had to happen. I waited and it just clicked."
Compulsory National Service the following year could have been disastrous for his career, but Scholl doesn't appear to have suffered any ill effects. "I learned lots of things," he says. "For one year I stayed in a room with six other men. Everything was public. I remember this one guy who arrived three months after me. And he said, 'Just in case there are misunderstandings? and he showed me a police document. He had been arrested twice for GBH. But he was a great guy. He just lost it twice. I learned that there are positive qualities in people who we would reject if they walked into the room right now."
Scholl has had other experiences not traditionally seen as compulsory for Baroque singers. He was a pop musician even before he started singing countertenor. He began tinkering with a friend's synthesiser and then bought his own. Now he has a studio in Basel in which he's invested a lot of money. "It would be sad not to try at least to do something with all the material that I collected through the years," he says. What sort of music does he write? "Lots of ballads with pianos. Maybe Phil Collins-like, with those synthesiser pads and analogue drums. Also some more trance-like songs where I use my voice. I love soul and funk music. Lots of variety." Scholl has a deep baritone voice which he uses for some of his own songs, but he says he wouldn't dare use it in front of a classical audience.
He can sing baritone, but that doesn't mean that his countertenor voice has been artificially cultivated. He explains: "Every countertenor will confirm that it's his natural voice. Apart from that it needs some technical training, but I don't exercise, scales. Once in a while I have singing lessons with my teacher, to check everything's okay. No bad habits coming back."
A couple of weeks before I met him, Scholl had abandoned his Sony Playstation in what seemed like a symbolic gesture. "I spent so many hours playing games like Tomb Raider 2," he explains. "I went to the second-to-last level without the book! Can you imagine how many hours it needs to do that? I eventually realised how many hours I was spending in front of the screen."
However, despite his interest in such pursuits, he is genuinely concerned about the erosion of serious culture. As he points out, politicians are only elected for four years, which means they don't get an immediate return on any money they plough into the arts or education. "If you start teaching children at five years old, once they're 20 they start to study, start to work and you will have a healthy spirit working in a responsible position and not a moron who does nothing but play video games, you see? The education system needs a fundamental rethink. You have to do more than just tackle the symptoms."
In the choir of the village where he grew up, the conductor now has great difficulty getting boys to attend at all because their parents want to sleep longer on Sundays. "Sometimes," Scholl says, "I'm concerned who will listen to a Bach B minor Mass in a concert in 50 years time. Who will really be interested?"
Well, Andreas Scholl for one. And if the piece has lasted 250 years already, maybe it's a bit premature to predict its extinction. It is to masterpieces of Baroque music like these, ancestral home of the countertenor voice, that Scholl owes his allegiance. "There is a religious aspect to Bach," he says. "There is no way you can neglect this quality in the music. All those composers had their visions - the idea that music is there to praise God. In Latin, 'movere et docere', to move and to teach people: that's the meaning of music."