10 Questions for Rufus Müller

Tenor Rufus Müller

Rufus Müller was acclaimed by The New York Times following a performance in Carnegie Hall as “…easily the best tenor I have heard in a live Messiah.”  The British/German tenor is celebrated as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions,  and his unique dramatic interpretation of this rôle has confirmed his status as one of the world’s most sought-after performers. He gave the world premiere of Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed production of the St Matthew Passion in London, which he also recorded for United and broadcast on BBC TV;  he repeated the rôle in three revivals of the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York (“a sensational Evangelist”- New York Times.   Müller is also a leading recitalist, performing worldwide with pianist Maria João Pires.

In addition to Müller’s success in live opera and oratorio, his recordings include Bach’s St John Passion and Bach Cantatas with John Elliot Gardiner for DG Archiv, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia with Roger Norrington for EMI, Messiah with Tafelmusik and with Washington Cathedral Choir,  Haydn’s Creation with Edward Higginbottom and New College Oxford, Handel’s operas Ariodante with Nicholas McGegan and Rodrigo with Alan Curtis, songs by Franz Lachner with Christoph Hammer on Oehms Classics, and  Ned Rorem’s Evidence of Things Not Seen with the New York Festival of Song on New World Records.

The 2012/13 season includes recitals with fortepianist Christoph Hammer in Germany and  New York , Britten’s Serenade in Toronto, Hans Zender’s version of Winterreise in Montreal, Bach’s Passions  in Oxford, Stockholm, New York, San Francisco and Washington DC, Cantatas in Seattle, Messiah in Montreal and Washington,  Mendelssohn’s Paulus in Madrid, Haydn’s Creation in Norway, Satyavan in Holst’s opera Savitri with Little Opera Theater New York, a Britten recital with guitarist David Leisner in New York,  recitals and masterclasses in Japan,  and the title rôle in Monteverdi’s Orfeo in Germany with Andrew Parrott.

Müller was born in Kent and was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford. He studied in New York with Thomas LoMonaco. In 1985 he won first prize in the English Song Award in Brighton, and in 1999 was a prize winner in the Oratorio Society of New York Singing Competition. He is Assistant Professor of Music at Bard College, New York.

On the occasion of Müller’s participation in Tafelmusik’s upcoming A Handel Celebration on May 1-7, I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more concerning a historically informed approach to baroque repertoire.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

We are always surprised by our resemblances to our parents, and not always pleased by them!  But I recognise as I get older that people love us for all of it, and that we can learn from both what we think of as positive traits and negative.  My obvious, exterior traits are very much my English mother’s, a certain eccentricity , and an old-fashioned approach to the English language, for example.  Like her, her mother, and her grandmother, I “cannot hold my tongue in any language”.  I have her obvious flair for the dramatic, too.  But I get much from my German father, such as a certain fastidiousness,  which often leans into being over-critical.  But he was a great preacher, and professed a very human view of Christ, so that now, some years after his death, I recognize  him in my interpretations of the Evangelist rôles in the Bach “Passions”, and in “Messiah.  Physiognomically , I have my father’s mouth and  facial expressions, and my mother’s bones and family nose, as well as her father’s hair, or lack of it!

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

The best thing about being a singer is that I get to move  a large number of people, generally through a beautiful and universal medium.  The worst thing is the freuqent inability to remember that that is what it is about, and  to focus instead on the worry about what it sounds like!

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Wouldn’t it be obvious for a tenor to talk about listening and watching my hero tenors, such as Caruso and Wunderlich, who keep reminding me of my aspirations!  I confess I spend much more time with Joni Mitchell, the 1970s Elton John, Donny Hathaway, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan,  Stevie Wonder, and Motown in general.  My partner Max is a huge source of wonderful music of all kinds which moves me. I’ll relax very often to instrumental music, though, jazz, baroque, string quartets.  My favourite piano soloist is  Maria joão Pires,  with whom I have had the pleasure of performing many recitals around the world, including at least a dozen performances of Schubert’s “Winterreise”.  Being at a performance with her, whether as a spectator or participant, is to be transported completely to the bliss of the present moment.  The Real Thing.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I’d love to be passionate about, and really good at, accounting.  I’d never get behind with the taxes, and  I’d be a lot richer!

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I’m a beach bum. And I love to play tennis.  Boring of me, I know, but work is more than interesting enough, and I don’t get many breaks!


Five more concerning Müller’s participation in Tafelmusik’s upcoming A Handel Celebration on May 1-7

1-What are the challenges you face with baroque repertoire (in a “historically informed style”)?

Really the only real challenge I find  in some of this repertoire is not to starve or attenuate my sound  in the interests of staying “light”.  The style requires a much more subtle and demanding form of physical support, but it must be there.  I have never enjoyed an over-ethereal  sound in “Early” music, except as a special effect, and baroque music is as passionate and sexy as anything from later periods.  So the challenge consists of being all that, but still  maintaining a transparent texture.  With Tafelmusik I have never felt the need to hold back, thank goodness!  But when, after years of singing with the orchestra,  I  sang Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with them, there was some surprise that my romantic singing was so much louder and fuller than they were used to with the usual baroque repertoire!

2-What do you love about  the repertoire you’re playing?

Sophie Daneman, soprano (photograph: Sandra Lousada)

Händel is one of the ultimate “singers’” composers, like Verdi, for example.  His coloratura is generally singable (!), and he more often than not knows that singers have to breathe occasionally, something that Bach often seems to forget, much as I love him!   I love this programme for its contrasts, the alternation with choir, obbligato instruments, full orchestra, and the lovely duets with my old friend Sophie Daneman, the epitome of elegant and sexy.  And if I could name one orchestra in the world whom I consider family, it would be Tafelmusik, and its chorus,  and conductor Ivars Taurins.  Such long and, yes, intimate relationships with whole groups of musicians and the individuals in those groups – these are rare and precious.

3-Do you have a favourite moment in the program?

Yes, I do – the duet “As Steals the Morn”.  I first sang it with the Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark’s setting of “L’ Allegro” in the Edinburgh Festival a long time ago, and that sealed it as an all-time favourite.  It comes near the end of this programme, and I’m so glad about that.  It shimmers in the distance throughout the evening, and then we finally get the treat.

4-How do you feel about the relevance of music & the performing arts, particularly the music you play, as a modern citizen?

When I was living through the seeming endless double term of President Bush the Younger, it became very clear to me that audiences in the States in particular were becoming deprived of reliable truth, both in public discourse, and in the decisions taken on their behalf by their government.  I felt a kind of collective starvation on a deep, spiritual level, even in places like Carnegie Hall.  And when they got the Real Thing, even just one aria or song of complete honesty and integrity, of presence and deep feeling, there was a palpable sense of collective relief and emotion, a transformation.  That hunger has not gone away enough, despite the changes at the “top”.  Governments nearly always cut funding to the arts as soon as the economic going gets rough, deeming them a luxury, rather than the lifeblood we know them to be.  In our best moments as performers of music, we have the power to give new impulses to that lifeblood, and it nourishes both us and our listeners and viewers.  Love, despair, joy, grief – these outlive, and have relevance far beyond, any temporal powers, and our ability to interpret them and make them accessible to any number of people is our privilege, as well as our calling.

5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

All I do as a singer is of course my own personal statement.  But for many years at the start of my career, I knew how I felt and how I wanted to transform an audience, but didn’t have the technical means to achieve these things.  My voice, though always elegant, didn’t make enough sound to be heard in an opera house, and had other weaknesses which frustrated me.  In the end I found a wonderful teacher  in New York, Dr. Thomas LoMonaco, and had lessons with him for almost 20 years.  Tom, who died at the beginning of last year just short of his 90th birthday, having had a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was one of the old-school, Italian-based teachers, with a particular and personal flair for building up voices, and healing those that had gone off the rails.  Under his guidance, I learned to access much more of my voice, and after about a year I was ready for my first opera of many.  I continued to have lessons with Tom until 6 months before his death, and have just recently had my first lesson with his widow, Ilka LoMonaco – there’s nothing like going as close the source as possible!  We played recordings of Tom as a young man at his memorial service, and his strong, golden, musical and passionate voice reminded me of what I am still working to achieve.  The singer’s journey is never done.


Tenor Rufus Müller joins Tafelmusik for A Handel Celebration on May 1-7. Click image below for further information.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins (left foreground). Click for concert program & Taurins’ notes.



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4 Responses to 10 Questions for Rufus Müller

  1. Paul Knowles says:

    A lovely interview with my friend Rufus. His work is always stellar. I want to mention that his partner, Max, is a terrific writer – they’re a wonderful pair and partnership.

  2. Jo Aldridge says:

    How the years have flown by since you used to visit the church and sing in the choir when you visited your Grandmother at Poole. You and your brothers were always brilliant at singing. So good to see that you have made a career with your gift. I have some photos of you all on the sailing trip in 70s. Do you remember?

  3. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

  4. Pingback: Tafelmusik Messiah | barczablog

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