Wagnerak Valhalla

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve dreamt of singing at Bayreuth.

To us Wagneraks (Wagner-anoraks) this place is, well, it’s Valhalla, the home of our vocal gods, where the spirits of our singing heroes and heroines, past and present, are forever celebrated.

If popular wisdom is to be believed, then heading to a place chock-full of your heroes might be construed as simply begging for disappointment. I admit that, in the few months leading up to this year’s festival, I frequently found myself hoping that I wouldn’t be let down by my first summer on the Green Hill.

I was heading out to sing Kurwenal in the new production of Tristan und Isolde. It was to be directed by the composer’s great-granddaughter Katharina, and conducted by Christian Thielemann, neither of whom I’d worked with previously, so I was understandably a little bit apprehensive about whether or not they’d consider me up-to-the-mark.

Balancing my apprehension was the fact that the role wasn’t new to me, nor was my Tristan, Stephen Gould. We’d sung the opera together the previous autumn at Covent Garden, and had a long history of singing in Götterdämmerung together in various places.

Knowing I had a bit of previous in the role, and a buddy in the the cast, was reassuring, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted – I knew I’d still have to prove myself like never before.

During the Covent Garden Tristan, I’d been advised by Bayreuth veterans Graham Clark and John Tomlinson that I should find some accommodation out of town, and drive my own car over to the festival, rather than fly. “It can get a bit crazy in the town during festival time,” Graham told me. “It helps to get out at the end of the day.” I took their advice and rented an apartment in a small village about 20 minutes away, and set out in my 10-year old, beat-up BMW.

Doing the 700-mile drive in a single hit takes about 12-13 hours from the UK, if you use the Eurotunnel, and, despite the fact I’d been on the road all day and was a bit tired when I got there, I still couldn’t resist heading into town and driving up the Grüne Hügel the moment I got there.

As you head up that long driveway, and you see the Festspielhaus at the top of the hill, it hits you just what a unique place this is. Many theatres around the world have great histories – stand on the stages of La Fenice, or La Scala, or Paris, or Vienna, or Covent Garden, or the Met, and you can’t help but think of the myriad of great operas which have premiered in those wonderful theatres, and the great singers who trod those very same boards before you.

Bayreuth is all that, and more.

As the only opera house in existence which was designed and built by a composer for the sole purpose of promoting his own works, Bayreuth, as you might well imagine, has a real sense of proprietorship, of dominion, about it. Wagner’s works may well be performed elsewhere, but, make no mistake, they belong here. That feeling comes at you wherever you go in Bayreuth and is exuded not just by the brickwork, paint, and plaster of the theatre, but by the people who inhabit the place as well. You sense it from technical staff, crew, chorus, orchestra, administration, everyone. It’s a sense of ownership, yes, but also a great sense of pride, of belonging to a very special group of people who feel privileged to be associated with Bayreuth.

Our stage manager on Tristan, Roger Haugland, will next year celebrate his 40th consecutive year at Bayreuth. A remarkable achievement by a remarkable man. Of all the new heroes I met at Bayreuth this year (too many to mention them all here), Roger was the one who, arguably, made the biggest impression upon me. There isn’t a singer, director, or conductor from the last 40 years that he doesn’t know, hasn’t worked with, or sunk a few beers with in the canteen, and his seemingly endless repertoire of wonderful anecdotes kept me constantly amused through our many weeks of rehearsal. I’m not alone in trying persuade him to write a memoir – who wouldn’t want to read one that begins, “I met Carlos Kleiber on my first day at Bayreuth…”?

Well, I met Roger on my first day at Bayreuth, a day that was to provide one of the biggest shocks I’d ever encountered in 20-odd years of warbling for a living – our very first rehearsal took place onstage on the already-completed, fully functional (and mostly already lit) set. Upon noticing my stunned expression, Roger, with a trademark twinkle in his eye, said, “We’ve been doing technical rehearsals for a couple of weeks. One of the luxuries of owning your own theatre, I guess. It all works. We just need to get it to work with you on it.”

I heard a low, smoky voice growling agreement over my shoulder, and turned to find myself face-to-face with Katharina, the festival director, our director, and of course, Wagner’s great-granddaughter.

This first meeting was slightly less embarrassing than that I had with her sister Eva in Salzburg in 2007, where, in my ignorance, I had failed (and continued to fail for the best part of a month) to realise that she, too, was Wagner’s great-granddaughter, thinking that Wagner must just be a common surname like Smith or Jones.

Other than their common heritage, both sisters also possess a warm, personal charm and a great sense of fun. Just as Eva put me at ease by laughing raucously when I eventually confessed my ignorance, Katharina instantly put me at my ease by immediately launching into a detailed explanation of the set’s technical capabilities, only breathlessly pausing to introduce herself mid-sentence some minutes later. We seemed to hit it off straight away, and she was to prove lots of fun, not to mention a very fine director, over the coming weeks. How she managed to produce a new opera at the same time as running the festival, I will never know, but her good humour and patience never failed. In meeting both her and Roger that first day, any apprehension I’d had quickly faded away.

It returned with interest some two weeks later when our conductor arrived.

Christian Thielemann marched into rehearsals one morning unannounced, and simply took over the room. It was to be a nervous couple of hours for me (punctuated with copious notes) before he came over to me and extended his hand.

“Herr Petterson,” he began with a gentle smile. Before I could greet him in return, he pressed on in German, “You must always watch me!” and immediately turned away to give someone else some notes.

Katharina chuckled, “Don’t worry. He always does that.”

That pretty much set the tone. Regular shouts of “Tempo! TEMPO!” and “Kuck mich an!” (“Look at me!”) would come flying my way (and pretty much everyone else’s way, too) on a regular basis. More than once I felt like a Arctic Husky being told to “Mush! Mush!”, and it wasn’t until the first orchestral rehearsal that I understood his obsession with having all eyes on him at all times.

The best analogy I can come up with is that he is akin to a master sound engineer working a live mixing desk. He conducts instinctively, and never telegraphs what is to come, focussing instead on what is happening in the moment, what he is hearing and feeling right now, and teasing and shaping that into line with what he is feeling within himself at that same moment. He needs people to watch closely because he frequently requires instant, minute adjustments to fit with his vision of the piece. That vision may change from show to show, even moment to moment, but it always has a “Spannung”, a tension, that binds everything together into a coherent whole. If you took your eyes off him and got out of sync even the slightest bit, it rocked the whole structure.

In work, he is simply a perfectionist, with all his energies singularly concentrated on the job at hand. Away from work, he is affable, polite, and amusing, very different from the picture of him that the press so enjoy painting. And I’m not just saying this because I covet his Porsche 911.

In fact, if there was one thing that stood out more than anything else from my first summer, it was just how frequently some members of the press get it completely wrong. The unsubstantiated rumours, wild speculation, and shameless invention in some quarters of the media were laid bare to anyone working in Bayreuth this summer.

There is a policy of never commenting on these things at Bayreuth, and I’m not about to go against that here. Suffice it to say that most rehearsal days would begin with everyone standing around and having a good old chuckle about whatever the latest press gossip happened to be.

It’s a shame that so many people in the media seem determined to denigrate and belittle Bayreuth. The reality for those who perform here is a world away from the nonsense that gets reported. Those naysayers in the press would certainly feel more positive about the place if they had someone like Roger showing them round and regaling them with anecdotes. The morning the pair of us spent rooting through the costume archive is certainly one I will never forget.

I had a great time this summer. The work was demanding – you’re being paid to work after all, not have a free jolly in Bavaria – but rewarding. The local beer is wonderful – old ENO pal John Daszak (who was debuting as Loge) and I certainly gave it plenty of dedicated research! Our Tristan shows seemed to go down very well with the public, and my first experience of the Bayreuth Festival was overwhelmingly positive.

You shouldn’t meet your heroes? Pah!

That might apply to many things, but never, in my experience, to Wagnerians. I can’t wait to go back next year. I get to sing Rheingold with Albert Dohmen.

How cool is that?