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Famous singer fills arenas for days at a time, but Americans have never heard of her

Helene Fischer is the biggest name in a music genre that the Germans call “schlager” — often described there as folk music. But Americans would most likely consider it to be pop music.
Helene Fischer is the biggest name in a music genre that the Germans call “schlager” — often described there as folk music. But Americans would most likely consider it to be pop music. Universal Music

Helene Fischer is almost completely unknown in America. But in Germany, she is seemingly more popular than Volkswagens.

You want measures of that popularity? Her CD and download sales over a recording career that began in 2006 run to greater than 9 million. (If that seems less than dazzling, remember that Germany’s population is only about 82 million.) Her mega hit, “Atemlos Durch die Nacht” (“Breathless Through the Night”), holds the record for the most downloaded German pop song in history.

She is currently on a 70-concert tour, and is doing multiple shows at every stop, with most being sold out.

I caught up with the current Fischer tour for the first of five shows in the 12,000-seat Arena Leipzig on Oct. 10. I had seen the YouTube videos and the DVDs of previous live performances and been gob-smacked by the energy the singer can bring to a concert hall. But nothing could have prepared me for the visceral intensity of being in the same room with the Fischer phenomenon.

From Russia, with love

Fischer, 33, was born in Siberia, but her family moved to Germany when she was young, and she has blossomed into the quintessential Teutonic pop icon of her second homeland.

She has parlayed her good looks and tremendous vocal and dancing talents into a career in a genre of music the Germans call “schlager” — an extremely elastic term that they often describe as folk music (Fischer herself has likened schlager to our country music). But to Americans, it likely sounds nothing like those forms.

Instead, we would label it as Top 40, Euro pop, or just pop. Her catalog is filled with catchy numbers that are most often synthesizer driven, along with a slew of affecting ballads that cross over into many genres. She usually sings in German, but also sometimes in Russian.

Want another measure of her popularity? Consider the list of non-German artists with whom she has performed or recorded duets. They include Andrea Bocelli, Placido Domingo, Il Divo, Chris Botti, Tom Jones, Ricky Martin, Adam Lambert and Michael Bolton.

The aforementioned list does not include her duets with filmed performances by great singers of the past, including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Topping those is a duet from the 2016 installment of her annual television special — “Die Helene Fischer Show,” which airs Christmas night — with Elvis Presley, singing the relatively unknown “Just Pretend.”

As if that weren’t enough, she invited Priscilla Presley up to the stage for a chat before the number. That is the kind of clout she has in Germany.

It’s also an example of the general fearlessness of Fischer. She will test her abilities against a great opera singer or a legend of rock with seemingly equal sangfroid.

While Fischer is focused on her new, eponymous, double CD on this tour, previous shows have seen her doing works by composers ranging from Lady Gaga to Martin Luther. She also appears to get a kick out of country music, and is especially adept at negotiating her way around a show tune.

Incredible physicality

As the concert opens in Leipzig, Fischer makes an immediate impact by participating in the unexpected drumline intro to “Nur mit dir” (“Only With You”). Fischer, glitzed out in a sparkling blue leotard, hammers away in sync with a half-dozen of her supporting players (her concert features about a dozen dancers, a six-piece band and three backup singers).

Her fearlessness extends to the physicality of her concerts. In addition to extensive and demanding choreography, Fischer and company engage in a great deal of Cirque du Soleil-esque acrobatics (the show was designed by 45 Degrees, the design division of the Cirque du Soleil company).

On the pulsating, dance-club-ready “Herzbeben” (something like “Pounding Heart”), Fischer is pulled up out of a jungle gym-like sphere and onto a tether and pole that then rises better than 20 feet above the stage. There, she continues to sing and make gymnastic dance moves while dangling on the grip of a single dancer. Only a safety line stands between her and certain disaster.

Cultural icon

Beyond being just another pop star, Fischer occupies a place in German culture that does not have a parallel in this country. Perhaps the most stunning proof of her degree of fame came when the German national soccer team won the World Cup in 2014. When the team returned to Germany and was taken to Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate to celebrate with fans, the players were greeted not by Chancellor Angela Merkel or some other politician, but by Fischer, who hoisted high their newly won trophy.

She then led what seemed like all of Germany in a sing-along of her hit “Atemlos Durch die Nacht.”

New CD, new confidence

Riding high on such popularity, Fischer could have played it safe and gone through the motions with her new release. Instead, the 24-track CD has not a single clunker on it. Fischer sings with a new level of insight and confidence throughout, and she does so across a surprising range of genres, including country music.

Back in Leipzig, she and her band are line dancing at the front of her massive stage while performing the boot-scootin’ “Dein Blick” (“Your Gaze”) — a faithful remake of Hayden Panettiere’s “Telescope,” except in German. It is followed by the Billy Bob’s-ready “Mit dem Wind” (“With the Wind”). It is a strange sight to see.

Judging by the Leipzig crowd and those seen on her DVDs, Fischer’s core audience is women of all ages and middle-aged men. But while those were the dominant demographics in Leipzig, there also were more males under 40 than have been seen at past concerts, an indicator of her musical growth..

Unlike other female artists like Celine Dion, Fischer does not rely on “the big note” — that soaring finish used to make an impact. Instead, Fischer wins her races in the straightaways with exceptional phrasing.

She does go for spectacle when it comes to costumes. In the only song for which she stands still during the delivery in Leipzig, Fischer appears as a water fountain. Her white top is ordinary, but from the waist down, she is attired in a circular cascade of water in the shape of a dress. Incredible.

Why not America?

So if Fischer is knocking them dead across the German-speaking world, why is she completely unknown in America? She has performed with American artists, has a love of American musical theater, and has good command of the English language.

The answer, in short: It’s a mystery. A request for an interview with Fischer, or anyone in her camp, was ignored.

It may simply be that Fischer is too busy counting euros to be interested in dollars.

‘Atemlos Durch die Nacht’

Back in Leipzig, the crowd is not the least bit concerned about Fischer’s lack of support from the States. It is gearing up for Fischer’s big finale.

Few singers have been as closely and indelibly linked to a specific song as Fischer and “Atemlos Durch die Nacht” (Tony Bennett with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is among the few that might come close). Since she introduced the song on her album “Farbenspiel” (“Play of Colors”) in late 2013, it has been her signature number. A video of a performance of the song from the Swiss television show “Hello Again,” for example, has drawn more than 50 million views.

She typically performs the song twice: the first time through is for the audience to sing it. It is an astonishing thing to witness, because while the audience is joyously singing every verse, Fischer is just laying over a couple of lyrics and a few long notes as accents. So the audience and the subject of their adoration are, in effect, doing a duet.

Then Fischer takes it over and brings the thumping anthem home in spectacular fashion — from a swing hung from the rafters, with a rain of what looks like golden leaves.

Then, more than three hours after it began, the show ends. In the sudden quiet, illuminated by the house lights, several fans weep. A few others sit stunned, as if trying to comprehend what has just happened to them. But most patrons ease out with broad smiles and a slight glow brought about by the all the musical and kinetic energy they have just vicariously absorbed.

For my part, I am hoping that I someday see another concert I enjoy as much as I did this one. But it looks like I might have to go back to Germany to achieve that.