My five-month non-stop Wagner extravaganza is finally over, and, as I wait for the BA check-in desk to open, there’s a little time for reflection.
Back to back role debuts of Kurwenal, Hans Sachs, and Walküre Wotan were always going to be a tall order, and, now that we’ve finished our final show here in Houston, I can’t quite believe I’ve made it through in one piece. In my entire career I can’t quite remember ever feeling quite so relieved. Or tired.
Has it been a good journey? You betcha.
Would I do it again? Not on your nelly.
It’s been an incredible experience, and I’ve learned much about both myself and my singing.
First off, and something we often take for granted in this business, is the importance of good colleagues.
This musical odyssey is not one I could have survived alone, and I have been fortunate to have have had wonderful cast-mates every step of the way. When the going gets tough, good colleagues rally around you, and, be it professional guidance, or just sharing a quiet beer at the end of the day, they help you to keep things in perspective and deal with the more daunting aspects of these big roles.
To Nina, Stephen, Sarah, John, Clarkie, Ed, Neal, Yuri, Gwyn, Andrew, Nicky, Maddy, Rachel, Jim, Stouty, Jonny, Pete, Richard, Mike, Tim, Stephen, both Nicks, Quentin, Barto, Si, Ain, Karita, Chris, Catherine, Natalya, Meredith, Reneé, Kelly, Faith, Eve, Julie, Sue, and Richard I send all my love and gratitude. I couldn’t have done it without you wonderful people.
The second lesson I’ve learned is the importance of rest.
Here I must hold my hands up – I completely underestimated just what these few months would take out of me. It wasn’t so much the physical tiredness, which is considerable after singing a role like Sachs, but the mental exhaustion for which I really wasn’t prepared.
A free day after a Mastersingers show was all the rest my voice needed, but my brain was mush for a good 48 hours. Days I’d hoped to devote to memorising Wotan words just slipped away like sand through my weary fingers. I’d open the score, and nothing would make sense.
That’s not a mistake I intend to make again. If I’m to continue singing these big roles in the future, I know I will have to factor in greater-than-usual recovery time.
Thirdly, I have a fairer idea of just what I can accomplish if I really commit all my resources.
There’s no doubt that Hans Sachs presented the biggest challenge of these three roles, but that wasn’t just down to the singing. Owing to the late arrival of what then turned out to be an unsuitable translation, I was left with a stark choice. Withdraw from the project at short notice, or re-translate the role myself. Given that there was only a month to go, and I was in the midst of Tristan rehearsals at the Royal Opera, this seemed like a pretty straightforward choice, and, indeed, many of my colleagues felt that withdrawing in such circumstances was completely justified.
The great Sir John Tomlinson, however, advised me to persevere, saying that it could well be my finest hour if I pulled it off, and I am indebted once more to his sage advice. Though the rehearsal process was pretty relentless – if I wasn’t rehearsing I was translating – by the time the shows came round it was worth all the effort. Rarely have I enjoyed performances more than those. I have no doubt that the Stuben scene with my mate Gwyn singing Walther will remain a personal favourite for the rest of my career.
Finally, and most important of all, I’ve learned just how much I still have to learn about singing and performing.
Observing Nina Stemme and John Tomlinson up close in Tristan was a personal masterclass for me. Here are two singers who are giants of this repertoire. Witnessing how they negotiated their roles as both singers and actors, and what dramatic power they were able summon seemingly at will made a huge impression on me.
Mastersingers brought me the vocal delights of Gwyn Hughes Jones and Jim Creswell. Gwyn, debuting in Wagner rep, brought glorious bel canto singing to the role of Walther of a quality I seriously doubt has ever been heard in this role before. And Jim. What can I say? What a voice. What a truly epic voice.
In the pub one evening we attempted to rate our voices as engines – Gwyn was a highly-tuned straight-four motorcycle engine, I was a V8. But what was Jim? Gwyn and I agreed he could only be a Rolls-Royce Merlin. Kudos to you both, gents.
More vocal inspiration was awaiting me in Houston. Jamie Barton and Christine Goerke are two great American voices, and watching them strut their stuff through Godly halls and across fiery mountaintops was a privilege.
I also finally got to share the stage, albeit briefly, with Simon O’Neill. The Krazy Kiwi and I have been in many Ring cycles together over the years, but never in the same opera. It was wonderful watching one of the world’s great Siegmunds ply his trade, both on stage and sitting in on a masterclass he gave for some young students at a local university. Roll on Siegfried!
All these singers have served as an inspiration to me over the last few months, and thanks to them, I feel buoyed up with a freshly whetted appetite for singing knowledge. I can’t wait to get back out there again.
But first some rest. And some home time. And some sorely needed motorcycle miles.