sat 13/07/2024

'Rest now, you God': remembering bass-baritone Norman Bailey (1933-2021) | reviews, news & interviews

'Rest now, you God': remembering bass-baritone Norman Bailey (1933-2021)

'Rest now, you God': remembering bass-baritone Norman Bailey (1933-2021)

Greatest of Wagnerians remembered by four fellow-singers and two conductors

Bailey as Wotan at English National OperaENO

Few singers really change your life. Norman Bailey did that for me [writes David Nice of theartsdesk].

The occasion wasn't my first experience of a Wagner opera, but it was the first time I'd been to a performance of his great human comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, during the early 1980s on one of Scottish Opera's visits from Glasgow to the vast barn of Edinburgh's Playhouse.

The central figure who slowly steps into the limelight is an operatic version of the real-life 16th century poet-philosopher and shoemaker Hans Sachs. Act Three changes from extrovert comedy and lyricism to introspective moodiness, and Sachs is the mouthpiece for reflections on human folly and a deeper understanding of humanity. I wept through most of the two-hour act, ultimately for joy, but always deeply involved with Bailey's most natural of characterisations, hand in glove with the richest bass-baritone I'd ever heard (still unsurpassed in my experience).

If Sachs is the human who Wagner aspired, but failed, to be, he seemed personified in the real Norman Bailey. I only met him once, when I visited the home he shared with his wife, Kristine Ciesinski, to interview the soprano. We shared a meal; he was exactly as I'd seen his Sachs, regretful but resigned over what he couldn't do after a stroke. Well, he lived on for another few decades, though sadly another meeting, coinciding as it did with the start of lockdown, was not to be. But in the meantime, while I'd been enthralled by other roles he sang at English National Opera – chiefly a sweaty, slightly harrassed Consul Sharpless in Madam Butterfly and everyone's favourite paternal figure in Hansel and Gretel – the big revelation was discovering just how colossal and overwhelming his Wotan was in the English National Opera Ring, preserved on LP and subsequently CD.

In many classes devoted to the Ring, I found myself returning so often to his interpretation as the most powerful illustration of scenes and situations, even though this was the only recording in English. The timbre was rather like Hans Hotter's, but warmer, and when needed, more powerful. A God indeed, as he is in Charles Mackerras' BBC studio recording of Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae (aka Jupiter's Last Love). His Lieder recordings are remarkable, too – possiby the greatest performance of Brahms's Four Serious Songs I know, and here is his selection of songs by Hugo Wolf.

We asked four singers - sopranos (and leading Brünnhildes) Susan Bullock and Anne Evans, tenor Graham Clark and bass John Tomlnson (another great Wotan), and two conductors, Anthony Negus and David Parry - to give us their thoughts.


Susan Bullock, soprano

It was with huge sadness that I learned of the death of the great Norman Bailey. I was fortunate enough to sing with him on several occasions at ENO: in Madam Butterfly, Hansel and Gretel and Eugene Onegin. On each occasion he was a warm and supportive colleague, always encouraging and kind. What a privilege it was to walk in on his arm as Tatyana when he sang Prince Gremin: I remember thinking “I am walking on stage with WOTAN!”

I can see him now in his crumpled cream suit as Sharpless, desperately trying to break the sad news to me as kindly as possible that Pinkerton wasn’t going to come back. He felt and meant every single word he sang with every fibre of his being and his diction was a lesson to us all.

We kept in touch over the years in the last e mail I had from him he talked very openly about his life following the death of his beloved Kris [Kristine Ciesinski, another great performer at English National Opera and elsewhere], and he also talked about his long career and how grateful he was for all the opportunities he had been given. 

A modest, noble and magisterial man, with the voice of a god, and someone with whom I was honoured to have shared a stage. 

Leb wohl.


Graham Clark, tenor

How very, very sad. Norman was a delightful colleague and incredibly helpful and sympathetic – the perfect Master for my apprentice David in Die Meistersinger. It was a huge honour to sing with him. His beautiful burnished tones and crystal-clear text will stay with me forever. Rest in peace, Norman.


Anne Evans, soprano

Norman Bailey as Wotan in ENO RingMy first encounter with Norman Bailey was when I sang Helmwige in the now legendary Ring cycle that Reginald Goodall conducted at the London Coliseum in the early 1970s. The Wotan was Norman and he frightened the life out of us Valkyries as he pursued us off the stage in Act Three, swinging his spear as we went (pictured right: Bailey's Wotan and Valkyries, with Rita Hunter's Brünnhilde in the foreground, in that production).

He seemed to me an awesome figure and it wasn't until I began to sing other roles with him – Marzelline and then Leonore in Fidelio, Tosca and Senta among them – that I quickly realised that I had got completely the wrong impression of him, because not only was he one of the finest singers of our time, but in real life he was kind, generous and humble. I never felt that rotters like Pizarro and Scarpia were quite his cup of tea: he was far too nice for them. His Hans Sachs was the greatest I have ever heard and always brought tears to my eyes, as did his Barak in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, the last opera in which we sang together. He breathed humanity.

The last time I saw Norman was in August a year ago. He had come over from America to receive from the London Wagner Society its Goodall memorial bowl in recognition of his services to the composer's works. There was to have been a dinner in his honour, but Covid put paid to it and instead I and the chairman and treasurer of the Society handed it over to him at Bishop's Stortford, where he was staying with his son Brian. Norman was in exuberant form. He flung open his arms and said "Covid or not, I've got to give you a big hug". Norman put the ENO on the international map and spearheaded a generation of ENO singers who were to sing all over the world. We have so much to thank him for.


Anthony Negus, conductor, music director of Longborough Opera

The sad news of Norman Bailey's death has brought back some precious memories of my younger days: the Sadler's Wells Mastersingers in 1968 conducted by Reginald Goodall, which made such a profound impression on so many of us, and in which Norman Bailey was the noble Hans Sachs. Because he was a member of the Nuremberg Opera ensemble, he also knew Sachs in German: this led to a famously memorable evening at Covent Garden the same year, when he was able to step in at extremely short notice to sing the role under Georg Solti. I was present, and remember it as a profoundly thrilling performance in which Bailey sang better than any Sachs I had heard.

After I met Goodall at a Glyndebourne dress rehearsal of Pelléas et Mélisande, I obtained permission to attend the rehearsals in the London Coliseum for the Mastersingers revival, graduating to a voluntary musical assistant (no pay) for The Valkyrie in the 1969-70 season. I remember how kind and grateful Norman was when receiving the notes that I passed on to him; he once confided to me that it was too slow! This is interesting, as I believe it points to how a Reginald Goodall performance worked, with the tension between the forward flow of Bailey's Wotan and Goodall's broad phrasing in the orchestra: a kind of tug o' war that was expressive and gripping. There was a nobility in Norman's singing line which encompassed legato and good diction. It was a privilege for me to act as a point of contact between Goodall and Bailey.

In 1971 I was present for a few days' rehearsals at Bayreuth, having played a repetiteur audition to Horst Stein (I joined the staff the following year); I remember sitting in on a Parsifal Act One rehearsal on the rehearsal stage, with Wolfgang Wagner directing and Bailey as Amfortas. The difference between Wagner in the Coliseum and at Bayreuth seemed like a big gap; Norman helped to bridge this gap, and was as gracious and friendly as ever.

I didn't meet him for another 25 years, when I assisted Paul Daniel at Opera North in 1996 on Cherubini's Medea with Josephine Barstow. I was delighted to find Norman in the cast, and to be working with him this time as a fully fledged professional.

Norman had a very special quality of nobility allied to a glorious voice, sensitivity and artistic intelligence. His Bahai faith gave him a wholeness in which all his qualities as a human being were contained; the memory of him brings strength and will always remain precious.

Listen to Norman Bailey singing Sachs' Act 2 monologue from Die Meistersinger with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic


David Parry, conductor

Norman Bailey played a major part in my introduction to Wagner, as he did for many people of my generation. I attended both The Mastersingers and the Ring at English National Opera, the latter in Andrew Porter’s crystal-clear translation, which German friends later told me elucidated some passages that, in Wagner’s original, had mystified them. Norman Bailey was the supremely human, sympathetic hero among a cast of true Wagnerians, particularly Alberto Remedios, as both Walther and Siegfried, and Rita Hunter as Brünnhilde, all of them coached by the conductor Reginald Goodall to inhabit the lines, musical and verbal, from within. Hearing just now on the radio Bailey sing Wotan’s Farewell, in German and conducted by Otto Klemperer – even slower than Goodall – I was reminded of his wonderful understanding of and love for the music, completely integrated in thought and feeling. And the burnished beauty of his voice. He never felt the need to force: the generous sound poured out of him, and he could ride the most climactic moments with apparent ease. A joy to listen to.

I only worked with him once, when he graced the recording of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais which I conducted for Opera Rara, in the conveniently named small rôle of “un incognito”. He was very definitely cast against type: an evil, scheming English spy who has inveigled himself into Calais during the siege. Nonetheless, he found a way to make the character work for him, and it was wonderful to have his all-embracing, generous spirit fill the room. I remember him with real affection and enormous respect. He was a great singer, and a great human being.

Listen to Norman Bailey singing Wotan's Farewell with Otto Klemperer conducting he Philharmonia Orchestra 


John Tomlinson, bass

I'm glad I phoned Norman a few months ago, when we had a long chat about the early years of Sadler's Wells/ENO at the Coliseum, as well as more recent events happy and tragic. It had been planned for me to present the Reginald Goodall Award to him last year at the Wagner Society, but we were frustrated by the onset of Covid. We had not been in contact for perhaps three decades (I'm sorry to say) until recently, although he had always been an inspiration to me from our time together at the Coli in the Seventies.

I vividly remember being up in the amphitheatre for his compelling Wotan performances, then later sharing the stage with him as Fasolt to his Wotan and Pogner to his Sachs. His Hans Sachs was as natural, human and convincing as his Wotan was magnificent and indefatigable. As was often commented - it's as if he was Sachs: his singing and acting was so seemingly effortlessly incorporated into his character that it was as if he wasn't acting or singing. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. In common with most performers, I personally feel a great debt to many people from whom I've learnt so much: teachers, colleagues, coaches, conductors, directors, Companies (the list goes on), but certain individuals stand out, and Norman for me was a beacon showing the wonderfully high level the skill of singing-acting can achieve. On top of all that he was a great colleague who had the admiration of all who worked with him, and I am one of many who will always remember him with deep affection and gratitude.

Norman for me was a beacon showing the wonderfully high level the skill of singing-acting can achieve

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Wonderful tributes, thank you. Bailey is the greatest Sachs and Wotan I have heard (apologies to Sir John). Nowadays I cannot listen to Wotan’s farewell without imagining Bailey singing and Goodall conducting - thankfully preserved in the marvellous live recording from the Coliseum in 1971.

Do listen to the Klemperer recording if you haven't - it's even slower but if possible even more magnificent and moving. Bailey's phenomenal breath control meant he could manage what Goodall and Klemperer asked of him.

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