Max Raabe knew early on that he wanted to become a singer. Enamored first of Wagner and Beethoven, then of the music of the roaring '20s, he spent seven years at the Berlin University of the Arts studying to become an operatic baritone.
To help finance his studies, Raabe founded the "Palace Orchestra" with 11 other students in 1986. After a year of rehearsals, their first performance in the foyer of Berlin's Theaterball proved such a success that they had to repeat the program. Then, in 1992, Raabe's breakthrough lament, "No One Ever Calls, No One Has a Care for Me," became so popular that it led to solo and orchestral performances on stage, screen, and television.
Raabe first performed in the United States in 2004 when he and his piano player wowed 600 people at UCLA. After a performance by Raabe and the entire orchestra the following year in Zankel Hall, the two-CD live recording of their 2007 visit to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage further cemented their reputation.
Raabe recently chatted with Jason Victor Serinus by phone from Germany about his music and his anticipated return with the Palast Orchester to Carnegie Hall on March 4.
JVS: What specifically attracts you to the pop music of the 1920s and '30s from America and the Weimar Republic?
MR: There is a special humor in these songs, a very sarcastic and black humor that has double meaning. And yet the compositions are so elegant. It's nice to wear a tuxedo and to sing sarcastic things.
JVS: Why do you think this music is so popular now?
MR: I think people want this kind of elegance. You wouldn't ask me these questions if I had an orchestra that plays music by Haydn or Brahms or Schubert.
JVS: What does elegance signify for you?
MR: My mother always took care to behave in a correct way at the table, or to open the doors, or to help [someone] into a coat. On my mother's side, the older sons were always farmers, and the younger sons were always in the military or in very noble horse regiments of Kaiser Wilhelm. There was a culture of how to behave.
JVS: And you sing some very elegant, naughty songs in which people misbehave. But some of the American songs you do, such as "Cheek to Cheek" and "Singin' in the Rain," don't seem to be sarcastic songs with black humor.
MR: No. These are elegant, charming songs. I'm talking about the lyrics of Cole Porter, for example. They have a special humor. As we call it here in Germany, it's typical Jewish humor. That ends in 1933, of course. But this humor is why the music of the Weimar Republic is my favorite kind of pop music.
MR: But he said, "I am writing Jewish music."
JVS: I saw part of the PBS broadcast where you speak about wanting to do music by Jewish composers, and reference what happened during the Third Reich. What does it mean to you to sing so much music by people who were suppressed, killed, or forced to emigrate?
MR: I have to say that I sing these songs because they are so brilliant. I realized later that these songs were written by Jewish composers. That is important to know. But I sing the songs because of the quality of the music. I perform a lot of wonderful songs that were written by non-Jewish composers. But my favorites, I realized after awhile, are written by songwriters who are Jewish.
JVS: So you're not trying to make any kind of political statement by singing these songs?
MR: No. That is not my role. The reason for bringing songs on stage is that they are good: that is the only reason.
JVS: Did you find your style early on, or did it take a number of years?
MR: I found it very early. I learned a lot from listening to recordings of the way I was singing, and [adapted] to make it clearer and higher. It changed a lot, but the roots were there from the beginning.
JVS: Did you sing as much in falsetto back then?
MR: Now I do it more. This mixture of singing very low and very high is a new way to play with the instruments, like a cat on the roof.
JVS: Were you surprised by the reaction when you began performing in the United States?
MR: I'm not surprised, but I'm always thankful because we work a lot. We aren't lazy; we're always looking forward to finding new songs and new effects when we're onstage. To find an audience for music that is 80 years old is still a miracle to me. It's the greatest gift I can get, to bring this music to the stage: the music I love: and see that other people love it, too.
Max Raabe and Palast Orchester return to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage on Thursday, March 4 at 8 PM.
Click here for tickets.