This article appears in the January 2015 edition of ‘Wagner News’, available to members of the Wagner Society – for details on how to join visit:
I don’t believe in heroes. Now, you might point out that this is potentially a major problem when starting out on the process of tackling Wagner’s body of work, so allow me to elaborate. For an artist, I think role models and inspirations are important, especially early on in one’s development, for example when choosing this as a career in the first place. And even the most seasoned singers can learn something new from everyone with whom they share a stage or rehearsal room. But hero-worship, in the sense of an uncritical devotion to one individual, forsaking all others? Not helpful, I would venture, for a career where establishing and developing one’s own individual, unique artistic personality is vital.
Having said that, if I had a singing hero, there’s no argument that it would be Sir John Tomlinson. I very rarely get star-struck – my father worked in television for thirty years, so when I was growing up I was used to meeting famous faces off the box, and it came to seem a very mundane thing. But when my wife introduced me to Sir John after a performance of Götterdämmerung in the most recent ROH Ring cycle, I believe my opening conversational gambit was stammered along the lines of, “Performance to meet you, your magnificent was delighted.”
How much more nerve-wracking it was a few months later to stand up in front of a panel chaired by Sir John at the Wagner Society Singing Competition finals, and deliver a chunk of the role with which he has been synonymous for the last three decades. And yet there was also a proportional feeling of security – the sense that, if it failed to come off, it would not be as a result of any lack of knowledge or expertise on the part of the panel; and of course the seal of approval, if it came, would be watertight.
The winners of the Competition get considerable input into how the award is spent – perhaps invested is a better word – on further training for their Wagnerian endeavours. The presence of Sir John on last year’s panel was providential from my point of view, because gaining his input had been at the top of my list of priorities from the moment it became clear that there was some merit in my exploring this repertoire. So I was delighted when over a coffee and slice of cake in Antwerp, where he was appearing in Calixto Bieto’s new production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk earlier this year, he agreed to spend some time guiding me through the swirls and eddies of Wotan’s journey through Das Rheingold.
We met at the Royal Opera House in August for two challenging, fascinating and stimulating afternoons, during which it was my privilege to mine the uniquely rich seams of Sir John’s knowledge of the role of Wotan, and of the Ring in general. I was pleased that these first opportunities to gain the benefit of his input came in private, since work behind closed doors is almost always more fruitful – all parties can speak their minds, and the singer can feel free to risk having a go at something new without fear of falling flat on his face in front of an audience. Consequently, much of what passed between us will remain there. Having said that, I will attempt to draw out a few strands from the wealth of information and insight which I hope might be of general interest.
Approaching Wotan is like approaching Everest for the first time – what strikes you is the scale of the thing. Not only the sheer amount of material and stage time, but the power and stature of the character. So the question uppermost in my mind for some time had been, how do you go about playing a god?
We tackled this question almost immediately, since it rears its head in the matter of Wotan’s sleeping state at the beginning of Scene 2 of Rheingold. How, I asked Sir John, did he envisage this state? His answer was characteristically forthright and to the point: Wotan is flesh and blood, and his sleep is identical in every way to human sleep. He has powers, and restrictions, rules, boundaries which are characteristic of his godly nature, but having taken those on board, in the moment of portraying him, his thoughts, feelings, cares and emotions are very much those of a human being.
So, to put it simply, he’s asleep.
Sir John elaborated that a major feature of Wotan’s character is that at any given moment he is single-minded, focused on one thing at a time to the exclusion of all others, and consequently his state of being is extreme in every direction – this as a result, or at least illustrated by, the sacrifice of his eye. So in terms of the portrayal of the character by the actor, this is where the scale comes in: every thought and action must be committed to in full, further than with any other character. But those thoughts and actions are at the same time recognisable as being those of a man of flesh and blood.
Core Resonance and Wagnerian Legato
There is, so the conventional wisdom goes, no such thing as the ideal Wotan voice – anyone coming to it will bring their own particular strengths and weaknesses. As a baritone, there are parts of the role that dip down into areas of the voice which most of my other repertoire leaves unexplored. Perhaps subconsciously dwelling on this, my first few phrases in Sir John’s company contained what he termed attempts to “bassify” the voice.
Sir John was very clear that this is not necessary, and indeed harmful to a key aspect of singing the role, which is to establish and maintain a core resonance to the singing, which is always in one place: forward, not too high and never too low. So at the top of the voice, the singer needs to think of the resonance as being lower than you might expect, and at the bottom, it needs to be kept higher – the desired result being that it is always in a consistent, centred place. This facilitates the authentic Wagnerian legato, where there is a consistent tone throughout the vocal line, while at the same time respecting every single aspect of the language – long and short vowels, clear and committed consonants.
As Sir John pointed out, this is why “there are no small roles in Wagner”; because even in a single phrase there is a plethora of aspects to consider, and every vowel, consonant, long note and short note must be take care of. It’s easier said than done!
What struck me about hearing Sir John’s voice at close quarters for the first time was the delicacy and precision of his ‘attacks’ – the initial onset of sound at the beginning of each phrase. From further back in an auditorium, it is the power and rich colour of his tone that grabs us, but it’s a valuable technical insight to observe the care with which he sets up and initiates that unmistakable voice each and every time.
Sowing the Seeds
While we are blessed with many skilled and knowledgeable Wagnerian conductors, directors, coaches and other experts who can guide our steps as novices in the repertoire, what someone with Sir John’s experience can uniquely offer is an insight into what it feels like to stand on stage and live and breathe this character over the course of a whole Ring cycle. The inexperienced singer might be to tempted to take a little lightly the challenge of Wotan in Das Rheingold – compared with the two operas that follow, the vocal line is in general less demanding, and the role itself, if laid end-to-end, perhaps only amounts to forty minutes of singing.
Sir John advises caution. “Wotan must be focused on every word everyone else says. He’s fighting for survival a lot of the time.” The extended concentration this requires – Wotan is on stage almost without interruption for the final two hours or so of the piece – along with the extremities of his emotional state, the heightened clarity of his every thought, mean that the role requires a huge amount of energy and commitment, and should not be underestimated. Sir John left me with the thought that Das Rheingold should be viewed as an investment for the singer playing Wotan – one which, if approached correctly, will pay dividends in the two operas which follow.
At the end of our two days we left Wotan just at the point of Erda’s entrance in Scene 4. My hope, further funding permitting, is to pick up where we left off with Sir John sometime in the New Year. In the meantime, I have been left with plenty to work on, and the most nourishing food for thought imaginable.