Boris Gudunov

Ren Pape's got a brand new bag in the Met's Boris Godunov.

Ren Pape

Ren Pape Photograph: Mathias Bothor/DG

The lights at Rosa Mexicano are gradually getting darker, "as is my voice," says Ren Pape with a chuckle while he nurses a margarita. And at around 7:30pm, it's not surprising. Not only has the German bass given two other interviews today, but he's also just come off a seven-hour rehearsal of Mussorgsky's epic Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera. Pape may be vocally tired, but he still has enough energy to maintain his singular brand of smoldering charisma in a conversation that touched on the allure of Amy Winehouse, the plot of cult sci-fi classic Soylent Green and the concept of Jiffy Pop. Being a bass, after all, means plenty of opportunities to play bad boys (Pape's first solo CD for Deutsche Grammophon was even titled Gods, Kings & Demons) including Mussorgsky's Tsar Boris.

"He's a man who really suffered," says Pape of the Russian Macbeth (whose short-lived reign in blood is splattered with discontent and madness). "He didn't want to be the tsar; he was forced to be the tsar.... And this killing thing, it's in his hands completely, from the first tone until he dies." Like Shakespeare's moody thane, Boris is a role that can be simply played as a wretched murderer. However, the role is far more compelling when the character's complexities and moral ambiguities are explored for all they're worth. Stephen Wadsworth promises to do just that in this new production, the first new Boris at the Met since the Soviet era. Although it was originally set to be helmed by Peter Stein, the German director withdrew from the production after difficulties in obtaining his American visa. Nevertheless, the last-minute shake-up in artistic staff did not stir the production's star. "I didn't work with both [directors], so for me it's a completely new experience with Stephen. It's very fun," Pape says. He then quickly adds, "I mean 'fun' in a sense of good work. The piece is not funny at all. It has funny moments, but not for me."

At 46, Pape is just one year older than Godunov was when he assumed the throne, though some critics argue it's still too early an age to sing the hugely demanding role. His previous performances of Boris in Berlin and his hometown of Dresden speak to the contrary. Whereas many basses take the role as an opportunity to bellow, Pape does not sacrifice musicality for dramatics even in the most climactic arias such as "Oi! Duschno, duschno!" ("Oh! I need air, air!"). It helps to have conductor Valery Gergiev, who has been a driving force in exposing Americans to the operas of his homeland, in the pit for this performance.

"He's a genius as a conductor, and especially also in this field of Russian music, of course. He was born with it," Pape explains of the imperious maestro. "For me, we are very close to each other, so it's very easy to work with him. And it's always a pleasure.... To make music also has to give you a pleasure as well; it's not just thinking about technique or success. You also need to feel free and have pleasure."

In a very Russian opera with a very Russian conductor, Pape may seem like the fish out of vodka. Yet as the evening wears on (and both the lights and his voice grow darker still), you get the sneaking suspicion that the child of East Germany may have a Russian soul. It's also nearly impossible to avoid asking if he sees anything of his region's own history in Russia's equally totalitarian past, even if the reign of Boris Godunov was more than 400 years old. "In systems, you always have things that are similar. Of course, we live completely in another world," Pape says. However, noting that there is an element of Big Brother even in the U.S.'s Department of Homeland Security, he concedes that though leaders may change, certain elements of a governmental system remain the same. "It was always like this, and it will be always like this," he adds. "Otherwise we have this utopian socialist system, which also doesn't work." And he does have a point: Try writing an opera where everyone is happy.

Boris Godunov opens Mon 11. Pape also sings in the Met Mastersinger Series at Town Hall Oct 27.