STEPHAN GLEIßNER comes from a German family with a long tradition of blacksmithing, a tradition which Stephan has continued while living in Galway during the last 15 years. However he is also a classically trained singer, possessing a deep bass vocal.
Stephan is about to return to Germany but as a farewell to Galway he will perform Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, accompanied by pianist Elena Gekker, in St Mary’s College, St Mary’s Road, on Wednesday February 3 at 8pm.
Stephan Gleißner (pronounced Glieszner ) was born in Weiden in eastern Bavaria, close to the Czech border. He grew up in a family that had a long tradition of being blacksmiths and good singers.
“All my uncles on my mother’s side had good voices and were in local choirs,” Stephan tells me during our Monday afternoon interview, “so I suppose I get it from them. I didn’t sing that much as a child, except in the church choir.”
It was not until his first experience of operas, that the then teenage Stephan really took an interest in singing as a possible career.
“I became fascinated by opera,” he says. “The singers, the really good ones, sounded so free, their voices were this incredible explosion of sound and that really fascinated me. When I told my parents I wanted to become an opera singer they were surprised ‘Why do you want to do that? What if it doesn’t work out?’ they said.”
However Stephan won the argument and in 1985 began his studies in the conservatory of music in Nuremberg, even studying under the acclaimed German operatic bass singer Kurt Moll. Upon completing his studies he worked with a theatre in Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, in southwest Germany.
Stephan was part of the choir and played small roles in the theatre before being asked to sing at the prestigious Bayreuth Wagner Festival. Despite this, Stephan found he needed a new challenge in his life.
“After a few years of singing I wasn’t completely happy in this theatre milieu,” he says. “It’s very sociable but there is a lot of mindless chatter. I wanted a new perspective on things.”
Upon a recommendation from an English friend, Stephan came to Ireland during the legendary hot summer of 1995, and like so many before him, what started as just a holiday, ended up in his staying here. “1995 was the hottest summer in Ireland in 100 years and people were telling me ‘It’s not like this all the time!’” he laughs.
Ireland proved just to be what Stephan was looking for and in Galway he discovered a new approach to singing which he found inspirational - traditional Irish sean nós.
“Sean nós is such a completely different approach to singing from the classical tradition,” says Stephan. “The classical tradition is ordered and structured but in sean nós you are completely free. You can hold the note as long as you want and put a little ornament on it.
“It’s completely different to the Celtic singing in Wales which is much more connected to the European tradition. Sean nós is more like shamanic singing and reminds me of music from India and Africa.”
Galway also allowed Stephan to explore his other great passion, blacksmithery.
“On my mother’s side there were blacksmiths going back hundreds of years,” says Stephan. “My granduncle was the last one. The Second World War ended blacksmithing in Germany and after the war he went on to sell machinery.
“As a child I was always doing artistic things like wood carving, painting, and stone cutting. When anyone though would ask me ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would always say ‘A blacksmith’. It always seemed clear to me but people thought it was impossible and that it was just to do with shoeing horses. However there has been a big revival of blacksmithing in Germany, the US, and the Czech Republic.”
Over the last 15 years Stephan has worked as the city’s only blacksmith, making both utility items such as blades and a variety of tools as well as ornamental goods such as candleholders and specially designed gates. While busy working in his forge, his old passion of singing would return, especially the songs from Winterreise.
Winterreise is a 24 song cycle, featuring poems by the German poet, soldier, and librarian Wilhelm Müller, which Schubert set to music in the 1820s. For Stephan, the songs of Schubert are those to which he feels the greatest affinity.
“These songs are ones I sing a lot just to myself when around the house or working in my forge,” he says. “Every singer has a natural inspiration, the one they connect with, and Schubert is my composer. You have to allow the music into yourself and for me Schubert comes naturally.”
Stephan will be returning to his native Bavaria in the spring where he plans to continue blacksmithing and singing and develop new projects and interests. As a result he is performing the Winterreise songs in St Mary’s as a “farewell to the city” and its people.
“I think it will be a good way to leave,” says Stephan. “It’ been an interesting time. People ask me how has it been for you and I tell them it’s not over just yet.”
Tickets to Stephan’s performance of Winterreise are €10 and are available at the door on the night.