Not everyone who approaches a mammoth role like Hans Sachs has the luxury of knowing several famous exponents of the role upon whom they can rely for advice and support.
Normally you’re lucky if you know one person with the first hand experience necessary to help you avoid the pitfalls that such vocal marathons contain.
I’m in a very fortunate position. I know several.
Norman Bailey, Gwynne Howell, Sir John Tomlinson, Bryn Terfel, and Gerald Finley are all singers I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter during my career, and all of them have offered support, encouragement and advice as I undertook my cobbling odyssey.
It’s 18 years since I worked with Norman Bailey, but his good advice has stayed with me ever since. I was then a young chorus member at Opera North in Leeds. We were doing Eugene Onegin and Norman was playing Prince Gremin. I was playing Zaretsky, and, as we didn’t share a scene onstage, our paths might never have crossed. However, our company manager announced that Norman didn’t want to stay in the tour venues and wondered if someone who was already commuting was prepared to give him a lift. My hand shot up so quickly I nearly dislocated my shoulder.
Three nights a week for the next six weeks, I drove Norman back and forth to Leeds. The world really must be a small place, as it turned out he’d attended Hillhead Academy in Glasgow at the same time as my Mum and Uncle, and they all knew each other.
We talked about many things on our commute, the most important thing being why singers should stop worrying about the German “Fach” system of vocal categorisation. He told me that he could sing Sachs and feel so fresh afterwards that he could start all over again, yet Dutchman would send him to his bed in a darkened room for a couple of days, despite the received wisdom being that the same voice should be able to negotiate both roles comfortably.
I first met Gwynne Howell when I was a Jerwood Young Singer at ENO. We were both in Tim Albery’s production of War and Peace and I had a coaching session with him on “Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, at that time one of my audition pieces. After the first hour, such was my inexperience, we still hadn’t made it beyond the recitative.
Years later, Gwynne and I would play the opposing kings in Verdi’s Aida. We had another session, this time on Amonasro, and I remember him effortlessly demonstrating a phrase from the Triumph Scene which had repeatedly tied me in knots. Here was a semi-retired bass schooling a young bass-baritone in easy Italianate baritonal singing – I evidently still had much to learn. Gwynne has kindly followed my career ever since, and has always been ready with a helpful word whenever it has been needed.
Everybody who knows me, or has read this blog, or follows me on Twitter, already knows the huge esteem in which I hold Sir John Tomlinson. There is insufficient time and space here to record my many encounters with him so, following the suggestion of Twitter’s lovely @Opera_Cabbie, I plan to devote an entire future blog to my experiences working with the great man. It’s safe to say, though, that no other person has had as much influence upon my Wagner career as Sir John. So if you don’t like what I do, blame him.
When I attended the dress rehearsal of Meistersinger in Cardiff five years ago, little did I think that I would find myself years later stepping, quite literally, into the shoes of Bryn Terfel. Some opera singers can become quite possessive about roles and productions, but that never seems to be the case with Wagner singers. During rehearsals Bryn checked in with me several times to see how I was doing, and his kind encouragement could not have come at a better time. I was in the grip of “The Fear” and knowing that he’d been through the same thing helped me no end. When we did the Ring in New York I got to know him a little and he has never been anything but supportive and lovely. Unless the rugby’s on. Then, if you’re not Welsh, forget it. (They won when they met Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend, but I’m not bitter. Next time…)
Gerry Finley is not only one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, he’s a wonderful singer, too. As a junior principal at ENO, Gerry was one of the regular guest singers and I looked (and still look) up to him hugely. I never really got to know him then, and, were it not for the fact that his wife and my fiancée are good mates, I probably still wouldn’t.
With just a few days to go before the premiere, I desperately needed some advice on when and what to eat and drink during a show of Meistersinger, and Gerry came to my rescue with some invaluable dietary advice. It might sound daft, but when an opera takes 6 hours to perform, knowing when, where, and with what to refuel is vital. I, quite literally, would not have made it to the end without him.
I guess the point I’m making is that young singers should never be afraid to approach more experienced singers, as, in my experience, they are usually more than willing to offer a few words of wisdom that will help you to get your head around the job at hand. Sometimes, if you’re really fortunate, they will offer an observation that seems pretty innocuous at the time, but which will bear fruit many, many years later.
As a singer who has been lucky enough to receive great advice from many great singers down the years, let me tell you this – you’re never alone. There’s always someone who’s trodden the path before you, and you’re a fool if you don’t seek their counsel.
As an embryonic cobbler, I cannot thank Norman, Gwynne, John, Bryn and Gerry enough. A more supportive (and more experienced and august) team of Schumachers I cannot imagine. It is in great part thanks to their kindness and generosity that I have felt able to take on this fabulous role.
Thank you, Masters.