sun 16/06/2024

Q&A Special: Bass Sir John Tomlinson, Part 1 | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Bass Sir John Tomlinson, Part 1

Q&A Special: Bass Sir John Tomlinson, Part 1

Servants and gods, priests and cobblers - all are grist to the mega-bass's mill

Sir John Tomlinson: A Wanderer by trade, singing anything from Mozart to

Next week Sir John Tomlinson (b 1946), renowned mega-bass and routine frequenter of the Covent Garden stage, appears in concert at the Windsor Festival. It is a picturesque halt on a career that sees him circling the world's greatest opera houses in the most epic roles in opera.

As is typical of this far from typical singer, the concert is huge in its range, encompassing Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, its lyrical portrayals ranging from servants to gods, from priests to cobblers, human conditions of every shade from ruthless to kind.

In the first of two interview features this weekend – and fresh from a Roman holiday - the legendary voice (and lungs) behind such roles as Wotan, King Philip and Sarastro talks to theartsdesk about performing sleaze in the Chapel Royal, the ecstatic misery of old men, and why the Ring cycle is just like real life.

ASH SMYTH: Sir John, tell us about the programme for the Windsor concert.

SIR JOHN TOMLINSON: Well, it’s a selection of arias from major works, all very familiar, by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and Wagner, along with the overtures to those operas. I’ll be doing arias sung by Sarastro, Banco [Banquo], Wotan, Hans Sachs, Don Basilio and Leporello. 

That’s an eclectic list: Don Giovanni’s list of conquests next to Wotan’s farewell.

Yes! When the programme was decided I had no idea that the concert was going to be in a chapel. This is one of three concerts, you see. We’re doing it in Leicester, and we’re also doing it to open the new theatre in Canterbury. It never occurred to me it would be in a chapel… I’m only just thinking about it as we speak! We’ll just have to do Leporello’s aria in an ecclesiastical kind of way.

The thousand-and-three women?

Ha. Yeah. I’m sure it’ll be fine… It’s a religious setting, but it’s not a religious event.

And it’s an entirely secular repertoire, isn’t it?

That’s right. I mean, “La Calunnia” from The Barber of Seville is also an aria about sleaze, basically. It’s all the stuff that’s happening in the newspapers, all this sordid stuff. [He gestures across the table at his paper.] Today it’s Osborne’s relationship with a dominatrix – and this is the Independent! I’m sure it’s a load of nonsense. It happened 20 years ago, and it’s completely irrelevant; but the papers, of course, make an incredible meal of these things: and that’s what the aria is about. Calumny, slander: the best way to destroy someone is to get a little rumour going… Some things never change, do they? And sleaze never changes.

So here’s Basilio explaining to Dr Bartolo how to destroy Count Almaviva, his rival in love. You start with these little rumours, and then it builds up into this torrent of sleaze, in which he’s completely drowned, and then you trample all over him and he gets hounded out of town.

Is this just Rossini enjoying the excuse to chuck in all the smutty references?

Yes. But also, of course, it’s a perfect vehicle for the “Rossini crescendo”. It starts off with these little whispers in the bushes and grows into this great tempest at the end.

What else?

Well, we have Sarastro’s aria, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” – that’s very straightforward. And then there’s Banco, from Verdi’s Macbeth, a wonderful flowing aria. That’s a scene that’s not in the Shakespeare play: the scene of the murder itself. There’s the murderers’ chorus, and there’s Banco, sensing his final moments. And the witches’ tunes from Act III. I love that opera.

And then we get stuck into the Wagner?

Yes, then we have Hans Sachs, from Meistersinger. He’s a shoemaker, in 1542 in Nuremberg – he actually existed, he was a poet and a composer, and his poetry still exists. A young musician has come along, and so Sachs is feeling his age: this new music he’s hearing is making his music sound tired and old. There’s a young woman involved, with whom Sachs is basically in love, and she loves him, too; but this young guy comes along and Sachs resolves to help the two young people get together, at his own cost. Because, y’know, it’s far better for the next generation to do things and for him to just abdicate than for him to press his claim to her. He’s accepting his own age, but he’s not giving up: he’s saying I’m going to make it work for those two.

Wotan’s a very creative, calculating, political figure, in a sense. And he’s incredibly emotional, too

Which just leaves Wotan.

Wotan’s farewell, a very famous scene. In a curious way, it’s similar, actually, to Hans Sachs. It’s Wotan saying farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde. He’s putting her on a mountaintop, surrounded by fire, so that she can only be discovered by a great hero, who happens to be Wotan’s grandson, Siegfried. It’s a very clever plot. Wotan’s a very creative, calculating, political figure, in a sense. And he’s incredibly emotional, too: he goes from the depths of depression to the heights of ecstasy, and this is a mixture of the two.

He’s ecstatic because his plans are working out, he’s created these free people, of whom Siegfried will be the ultimate one, people who are against himself. Wotan’s a god, and the gods represent rules and ethics and morals, structures, disciplines: how to organise society, basically, how the world is organised. He binds himself in with all these rules and then finds he cannot actually do anything. So he creates these completely free anarchists on earth, people who hate the gods, who are just natural creatures, who live totally naturally without any rules at all – and they are going to be able to do the thing which he cannot do, because of his contracts and agreements, which is to get the ring back to the Rhine, where it needs to be. And it so happens that Siegfried will be the only one who can penetrate this fire and get through to Brünnhilde, and together they will basically rescue the world from the ring.

So this is his fantastic plan, but at the same time Wotan will never see her again, because she’s no longer a god, she’s become mortal. He’s finished, he’s basically dead, because the young Siegfried is gonna finish him off. So, it’s to do with his own end, his dying, his farewell from his daughter. Wotan can never become a real human, and enjoy human life: he’s going to die up in Valhalla, in this castle, locked away and burned to death with all the other gods. So it’s this wonderful mixture of ecstasy and acceptance of death, really.

… That’s a lot to fit into one aria!

It is. But it should sound nice in the chapel! Coupling tremendous ecstasy with great sadness, that’s what Wagner was good at. It’s the most extraordinary music, and I often wonder why people don’t ask the question more: why is it so joyful when it’s a farewell?

It’s joyful?

It’s totally joyful – at the beginning, anyway. The plan is gonna work. The world will be saved! But then, as time goes on in the scene, “oh… there’s a slight snag here, I’m gonna die, and I’ll never see my beloved daughter again.”

In real life nothing is ever “Oh, I’m happy!” with a jaunty tune. Just never happens

That’s kind of intense, by operatic standards.

Well, this is why I love Wagner. I love the philosophy behind the Ring, and I love the mythology behind it, the complexity of it, which is like real life. In real life nothing is ever “Oh, I’m happy!” with a jaunty tune. Just never happens. In the height of happiness there’s always sadness, isn’t there, and in the depths of sadness there’s always a glimmer of hope. That’s what real life is for people: we’re not simple. Wotan’s complexity expresses the human condition.

Before her appearance at the Last Night of the Proms, Susan Bullock said that it was hard work getting in gear to perform an extract from Wagner. Do you find that?

Well, certainly there’s more preparation required – for Hans Sachs, say, than Leporello’s aria – because of that complexity. When I think of what Susan Bullock sang (I was in Italy, so I didn’t hear it), from the very end of Götterdämmerung, five minutes of that is talking to Wotan. She’s talking to her father, he’s up there in the castle, about to die, and she’s saying, “You did the best you could, I suppose, but it wasn’t good enough, was it? I’m here, in this situation which you have caused through all your self-aggrandisement…” and you’re at the end of the Ring, the end of 15 hours of music, about 10 hours of interaction with Wotan, and there’s a lot of baggage from all that which you’re bringing in.

The other arias are presumably less demanding in that respect.

With Leporello and Don Basilio, Sarastro and even Banco, it is simpler. Obviously while they’re playing the overture I’ll be getting into the characters and those styles; but the feelings are simpler. Sarastro is saying, “In this place where we worship, this temple, we forgive sinners. We are benevolent. We are generous here. We’re not into vendetta and recrimination.” Just that one message. Leporello’s got all his names in a book, all these women. And Banco’s saying, “I’ve got an awful feeling that this could be my last moment.” Nothing more profound than that. As soon as you get to Hans Sachs, yeah, it’s complicated. I hope I’ll be able to just talk a little bit to the audience before the Wagnerian things, hopefully just to get everybody’s minds on the right track, shift the tone a bit.

It’s interesting talking about it, actually. Mozart’s music, of course, is absolutely wonderful, and Wagner’s music is wonderful: you can’t say one’s better than the other. But with Wagner there are endless levels included within the music, with all the themes and leitmotifs and so on.

Are you involved in any other events at the festival?

No, I’m not. It was suggested I might come along to a literary event as well, but things are hotting up now. I’ve had a good break over the summer, it’s been nice having some time. I was at Bayreuth for 18 years, and I’m still getting used to the idea of having July and August free. I mean, I’ve done one or two concerts, but… now I’ve got quite a lot to do. There’s a pile of scores there [other end of the table, maybe six or seven] for all the things that are in the pipeline.

  • In part 2, Sir John discusses how he came to play Wotan and Hans Sachs, the difficulties of singing in Hungarian, why he doesn’t iron to Classicfm, and the importance of having your very own beard
The Barber of Seville aria is about sleaze, basically. It’s all the stuff that’s happening in the newspapers

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