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That was the year that was!  Sir John Tomlinson talks to Jim Pritchard (JPr)


Although I have met Sir John many times over nearly twenty years,  I interviewed him in depth only once before and that was in 1997. We were overdue catching-up and I first envisaged this account of our meeting as updating that earlier interview:  but Sir John spoke so interestingly about the productions he has been involved in this season that this became something entirely new. I am sure most people are aware that this great Lancastrian bass studied at university to be a civil engineer, then on completing his degree decided to become a professional singer and go to music college. At the Royal Northern College of Music he studied with Otakar Kraus. He was awarded a CBE in 1997 and knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2005. In February 2007 he was honoured with the ‘Special Award’ at the Laurence Olivier Award Ceremony. He can be currently seen as Baron Ochs in David McVicar’s production of Der Rosenkavalier at the London Coliseum.

I remarked to Sir John on what an incredibly busy and demanding time he had had recently.

This season has been totally unusual for me in that it has all been in London. Normally I am in Germany quite a bit or it might be Italy, France or somewhere else like The Met for a month here and there but it is very unusual for me to be in London the whole of the season, so it has been exceptional. It started with Hagen in Götterdämmerung at the Proms, then all the Wotans in the Ring at Covent Garden followed by Gurnemanz in Parsifal, The Minotaur and now Baron Ochs for English National Opera. I’m even doing a Mahler 8 with Gergiev in July and some Boris Godunov excerpts at this year’s Proms. So Londoners must be thinking I’m going crazy singing everything,  but in a normal year I would be doing just as much though it would not be so evident.

He was called the saviour of the Covent Garden Ring when he stepped in at a late stage to replace Bryn Terfel as Wotan, had this been a difficult decision for him?

I came in one morning and they told me they had no Wotan and so Tony Pappano and Elaine Padmore asked me how I thought I could help best in this situation. I was already singing the Hagens and one cycle of Wotans. My first reaction was that I did not want to give up my Hagens but I discussed it with my wife and churned things over as you do when trying to make a decision,  and suddenly it all became very clear to me. There had been a couple of other world-class Wotans available but one could not do the first cycle, another couldn’t do the last one, so there would have been terrible problems rehearsing three Wotans. It was obvious I would have to do all of them and they would have to find someone else for my Hagens. Ultimately it was my decision to do it this way but I actually believe it is what Tony wanted all along as soon as Bryn went.

I suppose it was great for me too - though I don’t like dwelling on this – because it could have been my last complete cycles. I’m not sure I’ll be doing any more although of course I will be doing Wotan in various forms for years to come. I’m 61 now and people planning cycles in 3 or 4 years time will not want me to begin their new production. The voice is still going strong but everything else does age, you don’t have quite so much energy and are not as resilient; and with Wotan that is a factor.

How was it working with Antonio Pappano and Keith Warner on these cycles?

I always enjoy immensely working with Tony because he is a real singer’s conductor as he understands the voice because of his history. Don’t forget his father was a singing teacher and Tony played for a lot of those lessons when he was young. Then he became a coach in opera houses in America and then in Europe and I first met him as assistant to Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth in 1987. He has this incredible wealth of experience and if I am uncertain about anything to do with singing technique, perhaps a particular note I’m not comfortable with, I can talk to him and he puts his finger on the answer and I appreciate that very much.

I have done a lot of work with Keith over the years and the Ring particularly is very close to his heart. His actual Wagnerian knowledge is in my opinion second to none. Perhaps unfortunately he might overestimate the understanding of Wagner that an audience may have. There was a lot of content in his production that not everyone will get;it was an extremely interwoven production. There were so many cross-references; the Rhinemaidens’ blue hair comes back at the end of Götterdämmerung and Erda’s hour-glass in Rheingold returns with the Wanderer in Siegfried Act III. I was so pleased for him that we brought it off. Each piece separately had been not been a great success not even the Götterdämmerung which I thought was great. It was wonderful when we put it all together and it is coming back to Covent Garden in 2012.

Sir John had just had the leading role in fellow Lancastrian Harrison Birtwistle’s recent new opera The Minotaur composed especially for him. Now those performances are over,  how was this experience in hindsight?

It was a great honour for Harry Birtwistle to compose a piece for me. The role was superb and so was the music he composed for me. There was a new quality of nostalgia, pity, sorrow and tragedy that I have not heard from his pen before. The Gawain we did together before was the same epic, mythic world but in The Minotaur we have different realms: it’s ever-changing and the character is a tragic figure and there was no real sorrow in Gawain. The whole essence of The Minotaur is his resentment, bitterness and questioning of ‘Why am I alive?’. There is this half-life he leads and the fascinating combination of man and beast where the ‘man’ element is often the most unseemly part because the ‘beast’ even with all his aggression is innocent where the ‘man’ is calculating, hypocritical, devious,  and yet has intelligence and so, in a word, can be evil. In fact these elements are philosophically very Wagnerian and it is very much the same world as the Ring.

I must say I thought Tony Pappano’s conducting was fantastic. I was a little uncertain when I first knew he was doing it because I’d never heard him conduct modern music and I did not know what it would be like, but he was completely on top of it. He was not clinical in the way a lot of modern conductors are when they  approach modern music, he was expansive and let the music speak. Harry also loved Tony’s approach to it and the way he put breath into it and made it live. Of course there are certain things that have to be precise, but there is this sweep and this primeval quality to it that has to be fed.

I was involved in talks about The Minotaur for a couple of years before the first performance and had a lot of input about the head I wore for instance. I thought David Harsent’s text was fantastic; it was so economical, pithy, beautifully simple and philosophical and he knew what I wanted from when we worked together on Gawain. With Harry,  the reason he wrote the role for me is that he knows me,  likes my singing and the way I am and there is not much more to say than it was perfect for me. It felt like putting on an old overcoat because I was completely at home. There was a wonderful use of my bass voice with those haunting monologues and then the dramatic stuff in the public scenes.

It was however very hard work and we did not hear the orchestra until 10 days before the first night. I learnt my melody with piano accompaniment and that is nothing like the orchestra and you just wait for the day when you are going to have that first orchestral rehearsal wondering what it is going to be like. Of course on the day you hear it, it is a completely different sound world. Then you have just 10 days to get that into your system alongside the stage rehearsals. Some of the music is never precise and in the last 10 minutes for example there are two tempi - the orchestra plays at one tempo and then some of the instruments accompany me with another tempo. It is never going to be the same twice and so you live on a bit of a knife-edge but it was all very thrilling. I think they want to bring it back to the opera house soon because it was sold-out and some tickets were exchanging hands for £250.

So that nearly brings us up-to-date because while you were performing at Covent Garden you began rehearsing for Baron Ochs at the London Coliseum. I understand it is the first time you have worked with David McVicar?

Well, we haven’t had enough time  because of some of it overlapping with The Minotaur for me and so I have been working incredibly hard. Instead of having 6 weeks we have had only a month to do this and it has been very intense. David is very fanatical about getting his productions absolutely spot-on in all aspects and is extremely well-prepared. In all aspects they are very clearly thought out and the story of each character is firmly etched in his mind, he knows exactly where he is going with each person while still  leaving, as always, some room for creativity on the singer’s part. The production comes from Scottish Opera and is an existing one to some extent. I think the production is real and very truthful. Rosenkavalier can sometimes have a fair bit of slapstick in it and if there is any laxity you can get away with quite a lot if you want to:  but not with David who is very precise and exacting. He therefore works to very high standards and I enjoy that. We have had a wonderful time and I have nothing but good to say about it. I think the end result is very strong, very true to life and it may be a bit more demanding on the audience who will not be able to indulge in escapism as much as they sometimes can with this opera.

How I wonder does Sir John keep a role like Baron Ochs which he has performed so many times over the years, fresh?

Like any other character it develops. I was first learning it in the late 1970s for when I was understudying Ochs at Glyndebourne. I did a lot of the learning preparation with David Syrus at Covent Garden and that is a long time ago. Since then I did an Amsterdam production with John Cox, a revival of the John Copley one at the London Coliseum with Keith Warner directing, then I did the Jonathan Miller’s new staging there that ran throughout the 1990s. Then there was a version in Dresden and then I have been doing Rosenkavalier in Munich too. It is one of the roles I do in both German and English and hopefully never mix the two.

As an actor the character just gets richer. He wants to pay of his debts and continue indulging in wine, women and good food. Ochs’s redeeming feature is his exuberance, his joy of life and that is why audiences should enjoy him and find him – perhaps not attractive – but admirable in the sense that he lives life to the full. Of course he is completely egocentric, completely self-centred, bombastic, and totally inconsiderate. You can think of all these sorts of criticism but you cannot take away from him his life energy,  so I have always played him like that.

I remember very early on with Keith Warner and that old John Copley version, that he emphasised the youth and energy of the character. Of course I am now 20-30 years older but the energy still has to be there. In that and the John Cox production,  it was interesting for Ochs to be a younger quite attractive man whilst Jonathan Miller made him very aristocratic, very haughty and disdainful of the world around him. There was a bit of grumpiness about that character and a sinister lechery that did not make Ochs so admirable. So I now have all these different experiences and he is a wonderful character to play, I like him and just see his good side. There is a total contrast with him and the Wotans, Hagens, Claggarts, and Borises I sing who are these heavy dark characters; Ochs is the one big role I do who has this eternal optimism, he is never down and out and just keeps bobbing back to the surface.

Always I have tried to sing Ochs beautifully with clarity of words – all that parlando takes real art to sing. There are those wonderfully undulating melodies with those key changes every four bars. There is a lyricism about Ochs’s country accent that you lose in the English and that is a shame. Inherent in von Hofmannsthal’s text is a country dialect; it is not Viennese as it important to recognise Faninal as being Viennese. Ochs comes from the country and has a lilting accent and Strauss has woven the music around it and it is a joy in the German. Unfortunately you lose that in the English translation and it would be too much of a challenge to put a dialect in that,  so I have to use fairly straight English although I broaden it just a little;  there are some Northern vowel sounds and some colloquial expressions. It is a very good translation that has gradually been tweaked and improved during the years.

Finally we considered the decade and more since we spoke last and I wonder what Sir John thought of the state of opera as an art form in 2008.

There was a critic on Newsnight Review who spoke about the Branagh-directed Magic Flute film and said how it proved to him what a load of rubbish opera was and how it should be put in a dustbin because nobody wants it as it is a waste of time. That same critic when he reviewed The Minotaur mentioned it had been described as ‘demanding music’. He wanted to know why it had to be demanding -when  he went to Sondheim he didn’t have to work at understanding it so why should he have to for The Minotaur? When we last talked,  you would not have had such prevalent views on BBC2. There are quite a lot of art and theatre critics who never go and do regard opera as a decadent, exclusive thing for ‘toffs’, with fat sopranos singing and completely irrelevant.

In the 1980s,  opera was at the cutting-edge theatrically and artistically and it was recognised as such. You had the East German directors, Harry Kupfer, Götz Friedrich, Joachim Herz and the Felsenstein school. There is still important artistic work going on of course in opera houses but it is not appreciated as much as it was. Then we have to consider the sheer populism of Classic FM and ‘The Three Tenors’ and that millions more have a passing interest in classical music and will do the ironing listening to ‘Nessun Dorma.’ But too many have never stopped to think what  that aria  is about and why is he singing about nobody sleeping. Then if they did want to see opera there is the economic consideration. Covent Garden is doing wonderfully well but at £250 a ticket it is too exclusive. I know there are cheaper tickets but it usually people already in the know who get the cheaper ones.

A lot of it comes down to how we use taxpayers’ money. The English National Opera where I am now is not sufficiently funded to allow the number of performances there used to be. The money is not being given to them to give a rich diet of performances to the population at affordable prices. The ENO has come through difficult times and Edward Gardner arriving as music director is wonderful. The quality of this production is everything you would expect and you cannot complain about anything. Yet the company has been chipped away at, virtually nobody is on contract now and soloists all tend to be guests and the chorus is smaller and often more extras have to be hired in, so opera is put on now in a different way. The pity is the lack of performances because the opera going habit that people used to have is not strong anymore. Twenty years ago people had subscriptions so you would see the same faces in the same seats every Tuesday or for the new productions. It is too early to speculate what the trend for broadcasts to cinemas will have on the popularity of opera.

Our time at an end I wondered if Sir John had anything new he was looking forward to in future years.

I have interesting new projects in a couple of years' time I am really looking forward to  Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral for Keith Warner in Frankfurt and Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau in Munich.

© Jim Pritchard

Picture (Sir John Tomlinson's current official portrait) © Robert Workman

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