“What advice would you give a young singer starting out on a career?” the little boy asks the mighty Odin.
He ponders for a moment.
“Get out on the stage as often as possible and build experience.”
He probably didn’t know it at the time, but with these words, John Tomlinson described for me the arc that my career would follow.
Sir John is a legend.
To be honest, I could pretty much end there, having covered everything, I feel, that really needs to be said, but Twitter’s cab-driving opera-buff @Opera_Cabbie suggested to me that it might be interesting if I talked in a little bit more detail about my experiences of working with the great man.
When I joined the chorus of Opera North, I blew my whole first week’s wages on the CD set of the newly released Bayreuth Kupfer/Barenboim Ring cycle, with John in his most ubiquitous role, that of Wotan, or as we know him Odin, ruler of the Norse Gods. I fell in love with that recording – it’s still my favourite to this day – and it was all because of the extraordinary voice that was singing Wotan.
The first time I got to hear it live – actually, I should more properly say “experience”, as one does not simply “hear” such a voice, one “experiences” it – was on the 9th of June 1997, in Leeds Town Hall. Opera North chorus and orchestra were recording highlights of Boris Godunov in English for Chandos, with John singing the title role.
Like most people hearing him live for the first time, I was blown away. I’d never experienced anything like it. As he opened his mouth to draw breath for his first line, it was as if some sort of dark age mage was summoning colossal forces from the very centre of the earth. And as he sang his first line, “My soul is sad”, time simply stopped.
I was spellbound. I hadn’t realised it until that very moment, but, for me, this was opera performed as it should be – massive and visceral, yet, at the same time, deft and subtle, magnificent in scope, yet heartbreaking in detail. Opera as enchantment. Theatre as thaumaturgy.
I couldn’t help myself. As soon as they called the tea-break, I went and sought out his advice.
As a child of the seventies, the scene described above has naturally assumed a kind of Luke/Obi-wan significance for me, and whilst I have very little in common with Skywalker junior, John definitely has something of the Jedi-Master about him.
I’ve known him personally for 18 years now, but throughout my whole career, he has stood as a hero and inspiration to me, and, in more recent years, an invaluable mentor and guide.
It would be six years and, for me, 187 performances later before our paths would cross again, but in 2003, I found myself standing in an ENO rehearsal room being told to repeatedly poke him in the chest with a stick. John was playing Baron Ochs in Jonathan Miller’s Rosenkavalier, and I was the Police Commissar charged with questioning him. With every jab, I kept mumbling “Sorry..” under my breath, so disrespectful did it seem to me to be prodding an operatic legend with a swagger stick. John himself thought this was hilarious, and encouraged me to “really go for it.”
Chatting over a cup of tea, it turned out that he remembered that brash young chorister from Opera North, and was keen to learn what he’d been up to. I reminded him of what he’d said to me about building experience, and he was genuinely tickled that I’d tried to do just that.
It would be another six years before I’d have chance to work with him again, and the next time he would be the one wielding the stick. I couldn’t believe my luck when the Met asked me to sing Gunther in their final revival of Otto Schenk’s Götterdämmerung, but the icing on the cake was when I learned that John would be singing Hagen. Trust me, if you have to be brutally stabbed to death with a massive spear, there’s nobody you’d rather have wielding it.
We spent a great deal of time together in New York, chatting about singing, and Wagner in particular. I remember spending hour after hour in the Empire Szechuan restaurant on Columbus Avenue talking about Wotan and Sachs. John’s knowledge of this repertoire is second to none, and, you may be surprised to learn, it was he who suggested I should take a look at it. I remember laughing out loud and muttering something about how, with his booming bass register, he’d moved the goalposts of public expectation in these roles. He admitted that I, with my more baritonal range, would have to approach these roles very differently from him in a vocal sense, but he nonetheless felt that I should study and prepare them.
So, once more, I followed his advice. I delved into various bits of Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried, and started studying the big monologues from Meistersinger.
Two months after our conversation, whilst I was in Bregenz Festival singing Amonasro, I sang bits of Wotan in audition for Houston Grand Opera. Days later, I found myself singing Wotan’s Abschied at 9.30 in the morning on the stage at Bayreuth.
Five years later, I’m singing Hans Sachs at ENO. My next job is Walküre Wotan in Houston. Then again in Leipzig, before setting off to make my debut at Bayreuth in the new Tristan production.
None of this would be happening if John hadn’t encouraged me that evening in New York. I owe it all to him.
Since 2009, we’ve kept in regular contact, and whenever I need advice, guidance, and reassurance, I know I can give him a call. We’ve worked together again a few times as well. In 2011, at ENO, I did my first Parsifal with him, and only a few months ago, at Covent Garden, I did my first Tristan with him. At the time, I was re-translating and preparing Hans Sachs, and we had several of our trademark long chats over a beer or two in the Globe.
I really can’t thank John enough for all he has done for me down the years. The only way I can think to repay him for his kindness is to do my very best to bring justice to these roles and this repertoire, of which he still is, in my eyes at least, the eternal All-father.