Bass Sir John Tomlinson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Sir John Rowland Tomlinson, CBE
(born 22 September 1946) is an English bass. He was born in
Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, England, UK.
Tomlinson trained as a construction engineer before deciding on a
career in opera at age 21. He studied at what was then the Royal
Manchester College of Music (Royal Northern College of Music since
1973), and then with Otakar Kraus in London. He
regularly with the Royal Opera and English National Opera, and has
appeared with all the major British opera companies. He has sung at the
Bayreuth Festival in Germany every year from 1988 to 2006, as Wotan,
the Wanderer, King Marke, Titurel, Gurnemanz, Hagen and the Dutchman.
In 2008, he created the title role in Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Minotaur at the Royal Opera
House [shown in photo below].
Tomlinson was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
in 1997 for his services to music, and was knighted in the 2005 Queen's
Birthday Honours List.
In 2014 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
When any musician
— but especially a singer — gets to the later part of a
successful career, it is interesting to explore how that particular
artist arrived in such fine condition. Looking back, one can
explore or recollect, but in this instance we have an actual encounter
from mid-December of 1991, when he was forty-five.
John Tomlinson today — a quarter-century later, at his 70th
birthday — is resplendent in all that he is doing.
He was knighted in 2005, so even though this encounter was done prior
to that, I will refer to him on this webpage as Sir John.
We spoke of some of his notable characters, but his insights into
singing and what he says about the details of his career become the
gems within the glory.
Here is our conversation from 1991 . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Tell me
the secret of singing Mozart!
Sir John Tomlinson:
Oh gosh, what a question! I’ve just done those
recordings with Barenboim
of the three Da Ponte Operas, and I’ve had some criticism because I’m a
bass, and some people prefer a lighter voice doing those roles.
But I’ve always loved singing them and I’ve always loved acting
them. They’re great acting roles because they’re human.
Figaro, for instance, is absolutely, totally human, a many-sided role,
a natural role that is wonderful to play in the theater.
BD: But of
course that’s for the bass rather than the Count, which is a baritone.
Yes, but I just mention that because some people do prefer a baritone
BD: Will you
be singing the role of Don Giovanni?
Sir John: No,
I’m singing Leporello. On these recordings I’m doing Leporello,
Alfonso and Figaro, which are the roles that I played in the
theater. But I would like to play Don Giovanni at some
stage. I hope that will come along.
BD: [With a
sly nudge] You’re enough of a rogue?
[Laughs] I think I act enough being a rogue. But when it
comes to singing it, it’s very clean, it’s very precise, and it’s very
invigorating to sing. It’s tremendously satisfying to sing and
it’s very healthy to sing. So I use those arias for warming up
BD: Even when
you’re doing Wagner?
Even if I’m doing Wagner I quite often sing a Figaro aria to get going
because you can’t do it the other way round! You couldn’t sing
Wotan’s Farewell as a warm-up
for singing Figaro. It would put your voice in the wrong
place. But it seems to work preparing with Mozart and singing
BD: Is it
that much lighter, or does it just require the flexibility?
Sir John: It
requires flexibility and it’s more lively, and it’s lighter. All
I can say is that as a singer, my voice does feel in quite a different
position between Wotan and Figaro. The Wagner roles I do find are
special, vocally. They’re different. They demand such a
stamina and such strength. Every note demands core and power, and
there’s that absolutely relentless stamina required in a Wagner
role. I find it does set Wagner roles apart. They feel
different. The way you prepare for them is different, and the way
it feels when you’re singing them is different.
training for a mile instead of for a short sprint?
Yes, exactly. The whole feeling is different. If I’m doing
Wagner performances I warm up a lot longer. I get warmed up for a
couple of days before, and do all that sort of thing, whereas with
Figaro you could almost just go on and do it vocally. Not so with
Wotan. If you just went on and did it, you would be in
trouble. You really need to build up that stamina.
BD: So when
you’re doing a Ring, you’re
completely immersed in it throughout the rehearsals and the
Yes. If I can I will take a break. For instance, in
Bayreuth the rehearsals are quite intensive usually to start with, but
then when it comes nearer the performances, there are breaks because
the other operas have got to get on stage. You might do your
fresh rehearsals of the Ring
in the proper sequence, then there may be a week off while they’re
doing Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, and Meistersinger, so that you can have
two or three days of complete rest and then you can start singing
again. That’s rather good.
BD: So they look at
the Ring as an entity, rather
than as four individual pieces?
They do very much so, yes. The dress rehearsals take place as
exactly as the performances.
BD: And then
they start the first performance?
Yes, but woe betide you if you take a long rest before doing a Wagner
opera, without singing, without getting into training before the
performance. Even within two or three days it’s not toned up
physically. It is a muscle. Imagine if you ran a mile a
day, and then you stopped running a mile for two days, it would be
fairly hard work when you started running a mile again. It’s the
BD: So on
those days off, you’ve got to run at least half a mile?
Yes, exactly. You can stop running completely for two days, but
then you’ve got to run half a mile, and then three-quarters of a mile
just to get going again. This is what I find. A lot of
Wagner singers find it is a physical thing. You’ve got to be in
good vocal physical condition.
BD: So you
really are an athlete!
That’s the way it feels, yes. That’s why Wagner is different than
BD: Is there
anything that comes close to Wagner
— Strauss, or even the
late Verdi? Do you have experience with that?
Yes, I do have experience, and I don’t think there is anything that is
comparable. Possibly some twentieth-century pieces, and I know
Strauss is twentieth-century, but I can’t immediately think of anything
in Arabella seems to be a
little bit on the length of one of the Wotans.
Yes, I’ve done Ochs. But Ochs is stylistically totally different
than most Wagner roles. It’s so light and fast moving.
BD: Do you go
down to the bottom C in the first act?
Sir John: I
usually manage that. I don’t really have a bottom C. I have
a good D, but the C I have to dredge up from subterranean
regions. But I usually get some sound out.
BD: Being a
bass, rather than doing the Hundings and Hagens and Fasolts, you’re now
doing the Wotans.
Sir John: I
have done the Hundings, Hagens, Fasolts. I began by doing them
ten years ago roughly at the English National Opera.
English with Goodall
That was in English some of the time with Goodall. I studied
Hagen at great length with Goodall in the ‘70s, and did performances of
Fasolt and King Mark in the early ‘80s. In fact, I’ve just done a
recording of Hagen with Bernard Haitink.
I’ve been doing Hagen and Hunding at Covent Garden, and I did them in
San Francisco in their Ring
in 1985. That was really the foundation of my work in
Wagner. Wotan came as something of a surprise actually.
BD: Who asked
you to do it?
Sir John: I
was asked to do it by Barenboim, Harry Kupfer, and Wolfgang
Wagner. They were putting on that new production in ’88 and they
wanted a bass Wotan.
Because I think Daniel wanted a bass color for the role. He
wanted a dramatic voice rather than a baritone voice that finds the top
easy, and has to dig down for the middle and bottom.
It’s fine! Of course a bass’s top is more dramatic, bigger, and,
it has to be said, more effortful than a baritone. That’s in the
nature of the voice. It’s a bigger, heavier instrument, but the
trump card, as it were, with the bass singing Wotan is that you always
have enough weight. You always have enough power, and you always
have enough projection because you have by nature a heavier
instrument. So the music staff are always telling you to be
quieter rather than be louder! There’s nothing more wonderful
than when you’re doing a Wagner role to be continually being told
you’re too loud. I mean, that’s great!
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Even over ninety-five guys in the pit trying to
Exactly. Of course in Bayreuth Wagner carefully designed it so
the voice does have an advantage, more so than in ordinary theaters.
BD: You don’t
get swamped by the sound coming at you?
Sir John: You
do actually. You hear a lot of orchestra on the stage, but the
thing is you know from your experience sitting in the audience that the
voices come over very well. So even though you’re hearing a lot
of orchestra, your conscious mind tells you that you know you’re coming
over loud and clear. You know that for a fact, so you don’t worry.
BD: Then do
you adjust differently when you’re singing at Covent Garden, or the
Coliseum, or at any other opera house?
Sir John: I
don’t know if you adjust differently, but the feeling is very
different. At Covent Garden, for instance, you don’t hear so much
orchestra when you’re on the stage, but you know from your experience
of being in the audience that the voices are harder to hear. So
you know you have a harder task at Covent Garden than you do at
Bayreuth from that point of view. I suppose what you tend to do
is just to turn the volume up generally a little bit. You can’t
be so controlled. You just have to project a little bit more, but
obviously not too much because if you try and project too much, your
voice gets smaller in fact. If you force or unnaturally try to
make a lot of noise, your voice isn’t working very efficiently, so
that’s not advisable.
BD: Do you
feel a different sympathy for Wotan having sung Hagen and Hunding?
Wotan is such a fantastic role compared with Hunding and Hagen.
Hagen of course is a good role, a wonderfully written role, but
compared with Wotan, it’s a cardboard cut-out. It’s a very
BD: He’s just
a simple villain?
Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. He has been programmed to
get the Ring, like those missiles they had in the Gulf War
— the ones that went
into Baghdad, and they knew exactly where they were going, and they
could turn corners almost. You could program them to take out the
third building on Main street, or they would just go and drop down the
chimney. When you’re playing Hagen, it’s a bit like that.
Alberich has programmed in the task.
BD: So Hagen has
no free will whatsoever?
Sir John: No,
not really, and he complains about that bitterly. He says, “You
created me like an automaton, and I am miserable. I have no
pleasure. I’m not a man, I’m a machine carrying out a mission.”
BD: Is he a
Sir John: I
think he is an automaton, really. He tries to have his
self-determination. He says to Alberich, “I’m
getting the ring for me, not for you. I’ll do it for
myself. I promised myself to get it.”
BD: Does he
know in his heart of hearts that that’s not true?
Sir John: I
think he knows that he is just a tool, really.
Hagen have a heart?
It’s tremendously tragic when you play the character. You can’t
just say he’s a simple villain because it’s a pathetic, tragic
character to play. It’s a bit like playing Claggart in Billy Budd. Everybody who
sees it says he’s obviously evil incarnate. He’s a villain as
well, so when you play the part you have to get more inside it than, “I’m
a bad guy, I’m a horrible person.”
When you get to know it, you realize that there’s far more complexity
in it, and a lot of actors and singers would say that you feel a
tremendous sympathy with the character. When you play Hagen, you
feel tremendous sadness and sympathy for the man who is just like
Claggart, who has found himself, when he is inward looking, really a
decayed sad person.
BD: So Hagen
is not evil like Mephistopheles is evil?
Sir John: No,
it’s totally different. Mephistopheles takes this great delight
in his evil. He enjoys it every minute.
BD: And Hagen
is saddled with it?
Hagen is burdened with the task, yes. He is on an evil mission,
but it’s destroying him. It’s eating him up. Like Claggart,
it’s eating the character up. It’s suicidal. There’s a
suicidal feeling about the character, a self-destructive feeling.
BD: So it is
good that Wagner eventually kills Hagen?
When I play Claggart, it’s almost that he goes in there to be
killed. There’s that element in it, just like when Hagen rushes
for the ring at the end. He’s destroying himself.
BD: So he
doesn’t think he has one last shot to get the ring?
No. At the end of the opera, when he says, “Zurück vom Ring”,
I think he just goes headlong. He rushes into the foam with no
chance of getting it.
BD: He’s been
programmed, and that’s what he does?
Yes. He hopes and hopes, right until the body of Siegfried
actually recoils when he goes to take the ring. But then he
realizes that if he can’t take it off the dead body, there’s a
difference. You can’t get nearer than that when even a dead body
recoils from you. [Both laugh] I always play that very big
reaction to the body, because he’s absolutely terrified to think that
dead bodies can recoil. But it depends on the production what
actually the body does. In the old days it was the solemn raising
of the arm. These days it tends to be like a dead chicken
twitch. In a couple of productions I’ve done, the body just
twitches or rises suddenly as if there is some electrical charge in the
body. It just shorts for a second.
BD: So it’s a
reaction to rather than a definite purposefulness?
Sir John: You
don’t quite know what it is. It’s like the dead chicken thing
— you chop the head off
a chicken, and it’s still capable of running around a stable yard.
BD: Even though you’re
you haven’t retired Hagen from your repertoire?
Sir John: No,
I haven’t, although probably what will happen is that I will be singing
Wotan for the next perhaps ten years
— this is absolute guess
work — and
then I will retire from the Wotan and go back to the Fasolts, Hundings
and Hagens. I sort of envisage that. I’m forty-five now, so
perhaps when I’m fifty-five, I’ll say farewell, Leb Wohl, to Wotan and retreat a
little bit. As it is, I do feel I have to work at the top of my
powers to really sing the Wotan. There’s no modesty about
that. I do a bloody good job of it. [Quietly laughs]
wouldn’t keep getting hired to do it if you weren’t!
Sir John: I’m
very proud of my work, but it’s perhaps something that I’m doing in my
BD: Is Wotan
a satisfying role to sing?
Sir John: Oh,
incredibly, yes, wonderful. It’s one of the great roles like
BD: Does he
have free will, or is he like Hagen, programmed to his tasks?
Sir John: No,
he has very much free will, and that’s his problem in that he has as
much free will as we do in that we are given some circumstances, but
every minute of every day we have the power to choose. We can be
constructive or destructive, or we can be loving and considerate, or we
can be envious and greedy.
BD: What is
it that Wotan chooses?
Sir John: In
the Rheingold he makes many
mistakes, based on his desire to accumulate power, lasting, eternal
power in the form of Valhalla and the ring.
BD: So most
or all of his mistakes have happened before we meet him?
Yes, many of them. The mistake with the ring happens during Rheingold because he could have got
the ring as a payment for the Giants, but he wants to keep it for
himself. So that is yet another mistake. But building the
Castle is a mistake, as is simply dreaming of the Castle being
built. While he is asleep dreaming, Alberich is stealing the
gold. Perhaps if Wotan had been awake and more vigilant, perhaps
if he’d been a real responsible god, the story wouldn’t have happened
at all because Wotan would have kept his guard; he would have been the
guardian of the world in a proper respectable way, but he went to
sleep. He was dreaming of glory and wealth and power.
Sir John: For
himself, and forgetting his duties as a god. The whole thing is
that if you have that power of a god, there comes with it an equal
course, that’s true of everyone.
Yes, it’s true of everyone! That’s the wonderful thing about
Wotan because it’s like the conscious thinking part of every
person. When you play the character, you feel like it’s the
predicament that every man with abilities, with talents, with success
and responsibilities and duties and burdens finds himself in.
It’s a very human situation.
BD: Is Wotan
a god, or is Wotan human?
I’ve had this discussion with many people because they have seen the
Bayreuth production, which is the main one that I’m been involved
in. I’ve done several performances in other productions, but the
one I’m sort of known for is the Bayreuth production, and in that,
Wotan is like a man. He’s very human, and the production is
criticized because Wotan is not sufficiently god-like. Now to me,
the thing about gods is that I believe in God. I believe that the
knowledge that we have of the world and our understanding in the world
is one per cent of the hundred per cent, and I believe that the other
ninety-nine per cent is mysterious and unknown and incomprehensible,
and in the realm of God. But one doesn’t know. People have
no idea what the truth is about God. You can’t understand
possibly what is there.
BD: So we’ve having
to make a hundred per cent of our decisions based solely on this one
per cent of information?
Yes, but then with intuition based on the ninety-nine per cent.
We don’t know what’s there, but we create images to explain what we
think is there. So we have gods, just as now I believe in God,
and might even think of God with a white beard on a throne above the
clouds. It might be an image that I have and I might have other
images for God. I don’t pretend that is what is actually
there. It’s an image that I have, and that image is man-made, but
the truth of what that image represents is something that we can’t
understand, and which we really believe is there. I
feel I’m getting into deep water here!
[Both laugh] All I’m saying is these images of gods are man-made,
so the character of Wotan is a man-made. Wotan actually existed
as a god going back two thousand years. Before he was booted out
by Christianity, he was a real image that people had, based on
figured there must a same kind of hierarchy on the earth but several
steps higher in the heavens?
Yes, like the Greek gods. In a Monteverdi opera, when Jupiter
comes down from Heaven he behaves just like you or I. He has all
the same faults and all the same selfishness and stupidities and
failings that we have!
think that a god would be perfect... or if there is just one God, you’d
think that God would be perfect.
Yes, but the images that man has made for gods have not been
perfect. Even Jehovah was far from perfect. He would just
issue boils. He would just send raging plagues of boils, for
instance, on Job because he was good man and he thought he’d test
him! That’s not a thing that any self-respecting person would
do! [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: So let us
turn this back around to Wagner again!
That’s right. All I’m saying is that to me a god is very
human. He is like an expression of the human condition, and I
feel very much that that’s what Wotan is. I don’t feel that I
should apologize for making Wotan human because to me it is a bit
boring. It’s boring to play a character really remotely distant
and blank, and say that’s because it’s god-like. Obviously it’s
possible to play the traditional Wotan remotely but with tremendous
grandeur, and tremendous insight, and tremendous power. I’m not
saying that’s not possible.
perhaps that spoke to a previous generation of audience. As the
audience-view changes, as we go through wars and evolve our own spirit
globally, then perhaps we evolve our spirits and our visions of what
Yes, I think that’s true. Whether it really has changed for good,
I don’t know with a character like Wotan. Whether the old Wotan
could still be a totally convincing character, I don’t know. I
might end up playing it like that myself one day.
BD: But I
would think Wagner himself would be the first one to cheer on evolution
of his characters.
Sir John: I
think so. But what that production in Bayreuth did
— even though some
people have complained about this over-human aspect of the gods
— is that it brought
out the vivid characters of the gods; the many-sided intricate, subtle,
fascinating characters that the gods have, and the relationships
BD: Were Wotan
and Fricka ever happy?
Yes, I think so. I think they were very happy at one time.
they be happy again?
Sir John: No!
[Laughs] It’s through!
Sir John: I
think it’s through, and there’s this nostalgia that they were happy,
and that there is still a love between them and their mutual
caring. But too much has happened to force them apart. I
think they’ve had it.
BD: Is it too
bad that they couldn’t divorce.
Being gods they couldn’t because Fricka stands for non-divorce.
Her very existence represents marriage, so it would be instant
death. It would be instant destruction. If she divorced, in
operatic mythological terms she would just disappear into thin
air. She wouldn’t exist anymore because she would not represent
it. That’s why Wotan, who represents order and rule and law,
cannot break the rule, cannot break the law, cannot break his
promises. That’s fundamental to the character, and that’s why he
ends up in all this trouble.
BD: At the
end of Rheingold, does he
really think that it will be Siegmund who will grab the ring, or does
he know that it will have to go another generation?
[Ponders a moment] That’s a very interesting question because
most people don’t even think at the end of Rheingold that Wotan’s got a
thought in his head. Well, some people do but...
BD: He picks
up the sword, and we know he’s going to plunge it into the tree in
Sir John: We
know Wotan at that moment where the music changes. We go from
that absolute total depression when Fasolt’s murdered and Wotan sees
the curse on the ring. He sees Fafner go off with the ring to
hold it as a threat to the world. As long as the ring’s hanging
about, the world’s not safe, and Wotan at that time is in his absolute
abject depression. But five minutes later, in a typical Wotan
fashion, he has these wonderful ideas of inspiration. He’s
talking about going to seek out Erda again, and that’s how
Brünnhilde is born. He’s thinking about converting Valhalla
into a place for heroes, to build up an army to fight Alberich, and he
also has the idea of the Wälsungs
and Siegmund. The sword theme then doesn’t particularly mean the
sword, it means the Wälsungs’
BD: In one of
the analyses I read, they called the little motif there ‘the purpose of
Yes, because the Sword and the Wälsungs
are very bound up. You don’t know quite which came first.
BD: The Wälsungs then are supposed to
have their own free will, divorced completely from Wotan, and not be
part of his spirit. But they are part of his flesh really.
Yes. They’re doing what he cannot do, supposedly.
BD: So now we
come back to my question. Does he think it will be Siegmund who
will rescue the ring, or does he realize it will have to go another
Sir John: I
suppose he thinks it will be Siegmund. I don’t know... I’m not
sure. At the end of Rheingold
he has this great idea that he will create humans with free will who
will do what he, as a god, cannot do, but I’m not sure that it goes any
further than that.
BD: So he hasn’t
reasoned it all out yet?
No. He just has this great idea, which is a wonderful idea!
doesn’t quite work though...
Well, it works. Siegfried gets the ring. With
Brünnhilde they get it back to the Rhine, so it works. It
does work, but at the cost of everything. But that’s important
that it does work. Wotan is planning for that. The whole of
those plans is to get the ring to get it back into the Rhine, and he
BD: So if
Wotan did learn something, and if he had gotten the ring back himself,
he would not have kept it? He would have taken it and given it
back to the Rhine himself?
Sir John: I’m
sure he would, yes. Wotan learns tremendously throughout the
piece. To me, in Rheingold
he’s a real yuppie rogue. He is unscrupulous in the way he deals
with Alberich and the ring. It’s absolutely ruthless.
BD: He just
Just for his own greed, absolutely for his own power, his own greed,
his own ego. He forgets all his responsibilities to the
world. By the time you get to Siegfried,
you have a man of tremendous wisdom who is really planning his own
sacrifice to save the world almost. To me, he takes on
tremendously heroic stature and power as it goes along. I’m sure
if he’d come across the ring in Walküre
or Siegfried, he would have
immediately sent it back to the Rhine. If only it were as easy as
BD: It’s a
pity he can’t go back to Brünnhilde and see who has the ring.
Well he does in the form of Waltraute!
BD: At that
point, Siegfried has the ring when he comes out of the cave. But
Wotan sees the ring one last time when Siegfried has it in the third
act of Siegfried in that
Sir John: He
does see it again, yes.
BD: It’s a
pity he can’t take it at that point.
Sir John: Now
let me just think about this! [Pauses]
BD: It’s a
pity he couldn’t reason with Siegfried, and either con or charm him out
of the ring.
[Continues to think] Hmmm... I’ve never thought about
that! [Roars of laughter all around] But by that time the
plan has developed. You’ve the banishment of
Brünnhilde. Just like the wonderful idea he had at the end
of Rheingold, there’s the
wonderful ideas at the end of Walküre.
This is the brilliance of a great opera composer, isn’t it? You
end the evening with incredible inspiration.
looking ahead, too?
Yes. Wotan, with the ‘Leb Wohl’,
is more about the inspiration of the idea of Siegfried being born, and
discovering Brünnhilde. He will be the one who discovers
Brünnhilde, and together they can save the world. That’s why
the music of the ‘Leb Wohl’ is
so ecstatic at the beginning to me. It’s absolute ecstasy.
It’s not a sad farewell at that point because Brünnhilde has just
told him Siegfried’s in embryo. That’s what unleashes the
inspiration of the ‘Leb Wohl’.
He pretends not to be moved by it at the time. Just like we do as
fathers or parents or husbands, we’re very good actors, aren’t
we? We are told something, and we don’t give in. We pretend
we haven’t been impressed.
BD: We wait
for it to impress us completely?
Sir John: I
actually think he’s been profoundly impressed, yes. Then she goes
further and says, “You
could make a fire so that only this embryo could discover me, and then
there’s a chance we can accomplish everything that you’ve wanted to
So I think there’s tremendous inspiration in there. At the very
end he says, “Yes,
and I’ll go even one step more. He has to face my spear as
well. If he’s going to do my job for me, he has to break me as
well; he has to destroy me.”
That’s a tremendously reckless, self- destructive thing that he’s
BD: Is he
making another wager like when he lost the eye?
[Hesitates] I don’t see it like that. He’s seeing his own
death, and he’s going for it heroically. Of course in typical
Wotanesque fashion, he’s not absolutely rational and calm about it.
BD: Would he
be happy for himself to perish and not the rest of the world? Or
does he want the whole destruction?
That’s what happens, isn’t it? He does perish, and whether the
world is saved or not, we don’t know really.
BD: So how do
you see the last two minutes of Götterdämmerung
after the fire is out?
Everything that was is destroyed. Civilization is destroyed, as
BD: Then what
comes out of that?
Sir John: A
formed, or embryonic?
Sir John: I
think in an embryonic state. The whole thing starts again.
BD: For good
Sir John: For
the mixture of good and bad that is in the story.
BD: Are we
going to get another Alberich and Wotan in the next go-round?
Yes, we are. Whether
you call those good or not is another question.
BD: [In a
state of mock-panic] So we are condemned to repeat the whole damn
[Laughs] I think so, yes. Wotan is really man’s
consciousness. It’s what makes us different from horses. As
soon as we can learn, and as soon as we have the intelligence and the
knowledge and the choice...
Sir John: And
reason, yes, then we are Wotans taking off that the branch of knowledge
of the tree, and we are making decisions and we are forming rules, and
we are making civilization. We’re becoming civilized.
BD: So all we
can hope is that this time we’ll do it a little better?
Sir John: The
reason I love the character of Wotan so much is that he strives and
strives. I think that’s what we must do. The human spirit
strives to make it better all the time, but unfortunately we tend to
reap as much havoc as we do. I think The Ring is a wonderful myth.
Some people say that Wagner made a mess of the old legends, but I think
he brought them together in a wonderful way.
BD: Is this
why it works so well because no matter how much you think about or talk
about it, you never get to the bottom of it?
Yes. The Ring is
absolutely true to life. When we’re on our death beds we’ll be a
little like Wotan sitting up there on the throne. We won’t really
know what it was all about. It’s like Wotan with Erda in the
scene of Siegfried. He
asks her what it was all for. “Why
was I created? Why have I had to strive like crazy all these
years to try and cure something of which I was the cause?”
when we pass through the door of death, the answer to that question
Hopefully! [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: My own
myth about life and death is that after death we immediately
understand. We walk in and everything is there, and the
understanding is zapped into our consciousness... or whatever
consciousness we have then.
Well, we certainly don’t understand now, do we? [More laughter]
BD: Do you
sing differently in the concert hall and the opera house than when
you’re making a recording?
Gosh! When I’m making a recording I really try to bring as much
character in as I do in the opera house. When recordings are made
I notice that we tend to get more clinical and colder and more
precise. We just want to get the thing really perfect, and we
lose the character, the live nature, the spontaneous nature of the
theater. So when I make a recording, I just try and keep that at
all costs, even if it means that I might not even be as accurate as I
could be. Obviously, one is not deliberately inaccurate. I
just made a recording today of the Cantata
Profana of Bartók, and the character I play is a father,
pleading with his sons, who have been transformed into stags, to come
home because the mother is waiting for them. All the tables are
set for a family meal, but the stags are saying, “No,
we’re destined to roam the forest forever. We’ll never come home
So there’s a pleading feeling about everything that I sing, and I
really try to hold onto that even though when I went to listen, part of
me says, no, it should be more precise, it should be more
clinical. Part of my perfectionist tendencies want that, but I
fight that a bit and say, “No,
come on, be the character.”
That’s what it’s about, as well as accuracy. It’s also about
character, so I try to keep that, but it’s always a battle.
BD: Would it
be good if you could have both the character and the accuracy?
Sir John: That
sounds easy, doesn’t it?
mock bravado] Oh, sure, it should happen every time?
[Calmly] You think it should?
BD: I assume
that’s what you strive for.
Yes, you do strive, obviously, but it’s very complicated. You
strive to have a technique that is so good that you can do musically or
character-wise whatever you want, and still make a beautiful noise and
be on the right note and everything. Of course, that’s what
technique’s all about, but there is a conflict. All I know is
that it’s easy to sing the right notes if you’re cold and uninterested
in the part. If you’re into the part and you’re singing the right
notes as far as possible... Let’s take Wotan again. I sing
every note in the role, but there is a balance there. There are
sacrifices that you make. If something is that absolutely
clinically precise, it is often totally boring, but here we are really
getting into the mystery of musical interpretation. I’m not
suggesting to anybody to sing wrong notes. I’m saying that notes
should be sung beautifully and with a beautiful line and beautiful
voice and all that, of course. It’s a puzzle as to whether it can
be attained. You’re right, you should have both, but there’s a
BD: Are you
pleased with the way the recording came out today?
Sir John: I
think so. It’s always hard to tell. When you listen in the
room, it is still unformed. They have taken various tracks and
you’re not hearing the proper balance, usually, so what you have to do
is to listen to your contribution in a very critical way.
BD: And then
Yes, and trust. There’s a lot of trust involved. You
can’t expect to go in the room and hear it as you would hear the
finished record because there still is some balancing up to be
done. So your personal responsibility is to be sure that your own
contribution was to your satisfaction, and I think it was.
BD: How do
you divide your career between staged operas and concert works?
It’s even more complicated than that because you end up with recordings
as well. You have total new productions of operas, which involve
many weeks of rehearsal and which are tremendously satisfying to do,
but take up a lot of time. You have operas which are done with
very little rehearsals some times.
Yes, thrown on. Often it is a role that you know well, or perhaps
role which is very static, and it is comparatively easy to do that
sometimes. It is not to be recommended, but that happens in many
opera houses in the world. So I spend, I suppose, twenty per cent
of my time doing performances with very short rehearsal time.
Then there are concerts, which of course is different. Then there
are recordings, which take up quite a lot of time. Regrettably,
it is possible for me to go for several months without doing a new
production, without doing a fresh, absolutely freshly-rehearsed new
production, and I miss that very much. So I really try and avoid
that absence of new productions because that’s where you get your
inspiration with working with people for several weeks. That’s
where you really break new ground. Just going and singing a
hastily-rehearsed production gets the adrenaline going, and you might
do a very, very good performance, but you know it is just a
one-off. That does happen quite a lot, actually, but it’s not
constructive to your own art.
BD: How do you
select which new roles you will learn?
[Hesitates a moment] It rather depends on what you are invited to
do — at
least that’s the way my career has gone.
BD: So the
Wotan was thrust upon you almost unbeknownst?
Sir John: I
was invited to do the Wotan. The people I mentioned before asked
me to look at the Wotan, and it was something that I thought I wouldn’t
do. But I looked at it very seriously. I learned an act and
I sang it quite a lot. I sang it with coaches and for various
people before making the decision, because that’s a very big decision.
BD: Can you
do this with every role that you’re asked to do?
No. Some are more straightforward. I’m learning Gurnemanz
at the moment. I’ve been asked again by Daniel Barenboim and
Harry Kupfer to do Gurnemanz in Berlin, at the Staatsoper next
autumn. So I’m in the process of learning that role.
done Titurel previously?
Yes, but of course I don’t have any doubts about Gurnemanz because I
can comfortably encompass it vocally, and there will be no problem with
stamina. There will also be no problem basically with the
character. Certain people are particularly well-suited for
certain roles, and I don’t know exactly how I’m going to be fitted into
that role. It might be absolutely incredibly brilliant, or it may
be good but that’s all. You can’t say until you’ve done some
performances, but I didn’t need to think much before saying yes to that
invitation because I knew that I could do it well.
BD: So then
it was just making sure you had the time cleared?
Yes, because these roles take so long to learn. If you learn them
well, you start with the text. I play the piano, so I play
harmonies and slowly get into the role without listening to
recordings. That’s the best for me. That’s definitely the
best way. I will listen to recordings later, when I know it.
BD: To see
what they do rather than to prompt you?
Yes, but even then only once. Even then I will only listen to a
recording once because the gremlins, or whatever you call them, the
little idiosyncrasies that other artists have can very easily get into
BD: You want
your own quirks?
Yes, and it’s always more satisfying when you’ve learned it totally by
yourself — obviously
BD: Then the
conductor can mold you?
Yes, exactly. With Barenboim we have a very good relationship,
and we will work a lot together. He is a conductor that works
hard with singers.
BD: Was it at
all difficult or interesting or surprising to do Wotan with him and
then do the Mozart operas with him?
Sir John: I don’t
think there were any surprises because he was tremendously
inspirational in both.
BD: In a different
Sir John: Oh,
in a totally different way! The Mozarts he had done a lot before
he came to the Ring. I
think the Ring he did for the
first time in 1988, the same year that I started my Wotans.
BD: But you
had been involved in Rings
before that, so were you more immersed in the style?
Sir John: I
don’t know. He has conducted other Wagner operas. But just
going back to what we said before about making decision, I’ve also been
asked to do Hans Sachs, so I’m at the early stages of preparing
that. I have these two big projects at the moment
— the Gurnemanz and the
Sachs — which
BD: Have you
Yes, I have [shown in photo at right].
Sachs, of course, was a bigger decision, but I learned sections of the
Sachs and I sang those quite a bit, and I made the decision that I
thought I could do it. They’re big decisions, and in a way the
truth is you don’t really know until after the opening night whether
you can do it... and when I say ‘do it’, I don’t mean getting away with
BD: Doing it
to your level?
Yes, doing it to your level. I remember I was delighted with the
Wotan when, at the end of Walküre
in the first performance, I was there for the Farewell and was in good
voice. I was physically tired, but totally on top of the
situation. I was delighted, but almost before that moment, you
wondered whether or not with the pressure of performance you actually
had it in you to do it physically. Some people can do these
things, other people can’t. There are some good singers who just
can’t do certain roles. They’re just not meant physically to do
them. They just haven’t got the strength, the physical stamina,
or whatever, required.
BD: Do you
also do some Italian roles, or are you basically into the Mozart/Wagner
Sir John: No,
I’ve always tried to have a really wide variety of roles, and that
worked for awhile. The first roles I did were in I think 1971 and
the ’72 Glyndebourne Touring Opera. So I’ve been around for
twenty years. It doesn’t feel like that, but it’s true, and in
that time I’ve done a wide variety of repertoire. I’ve loved
doing that. Now that I’m more known for the Wagner, it’s getting
more difficult to keep my repertoire as wide as it was before.
But I’m still trying to do that. I love singing Verdi and I love
singing Handel, for instance.
a helpful suggestion] If they offer you a Wotan, say you’ll do
the Wotan if you can do Philip II.
That is a sort of power that comes with noticing the roles not many
people can do. You can actually make terms. I haven’t done
very much of that yet, but I will.
BD: What other
recordings are coming along soon?
Well, I’ve just done the Hagen with Bernard Haitink.
BD: Will you
be recording Wotan?
Sir John: In
Bayreuth we’re doing a video recording of the whole Ring. Last year we did Rheingold and Götterdämmerung.
Wotan actually makes an appearance in Götterdämmerung,
so I was actually there. This coming year is a hard year for
me. We did Walküre
and Siegfried video
recordings. I think probably those are strictly video recordings,
but I’m not sure. It’s a very vigorous production and there’s
quite a bit of noise, and I’m not sure whether that will be acceptable
just on a sound recording. Of course, it’s very important doing
the video recordings. I’ve been invited, actually, but I don’t
think I’m involved in any [purely audio] recording of the Ring, apart from that as
Wotan. The last one of the Mozarts will be coming out
— the Don Giovanni in which I sing
Leporello, and I’m still doing some Handel. I did a recording two
or three months ago of Acis and
Galatea with Trevor Pinnock, and I have a CD of Stravinsky that
I did with Esa-Pekka Salonen. I’ve also done some Stravinsky with
Boulez so I do have quite a wide range. I enjoy twentieth-century
music too, but of course you can’t do everything. The problem is you’re
BD: Would you
do everything if you could?
Yes, I would! [Both laugh] If I could comfortably, I think
I would try and encompass the whole range
— not through any
greed, but just because it’s great to sing Wagner one month, have a
week off, and then do some Handel or something. Of course you
can’t do them alternate nights or anything stupid like that, but it’s
tremendously refreshing in both directions
— to go from Wagner to
Mozart, and then Mozart back to Wagner. It’s wonderful.
Variety is the spice of the career, really. It really makes the
BD: Do you
like the life of a wandering minstrel?
Well, it has personal problems. That’s the one drawback in this
career. I’m happily married, and I have three children, so it’s
not easy, and it’s not fair in many ways on my wife. I feel as if
I have put quite a burden on her over the years. I haven’t been
fair, really, and that’s the truth of it. But that’s the one big
problem of our business. You can’t keep singing in the same opera
house week in week out for ever because your own art would get
stale. People would get fed up of you, and it depends on moving
around. It’s part of the overall needs of the artist.
audiences different from city to city, and country to country?
Yes, they are, very much so. They vary in a city even on the days
of the week. Friday night audiences are a particular sort, and
Sunday afternoon is another sort, and they certainly vary from country
BD: Do you
take this into account in your performance?
Sir John: It
creeps in. The sort of audience you know you are going to get
does tend to affect the way you prepare, I’m afraid. I don’t know
if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Sir John: I’m
just trying to give some examples of that. A very basic example
is if you know that the audience are going to understand everything
you’re singing about. If it’s in their language
— say, Bayreuth in
German — you
know eighty per cent of the audience are going to understand every
word. That affects the way you act on stage. Perhaps it
shouldn’t, but if you know the audience are going to understand, you
are not so demonstrative in your actions.
BD: You can
be a bit more subtle?
Yes. It’s bit different now with supertitles. That
introduces yet another complexity. In the old days when it was
either a foreign language or English, it very much affected the way you
played a part. For instance, if you were playing Leporello, you
could be very still. Just the way you delivered the words would
bring the house down. In Italian, of course, you didn’t bring the
house down at all unless you were getting up to some of their other
tricks or pranks as it were. So the original language tends to
make it a bit more hammy if you’re performing to people who don’t
understand. Now with supertitles, I’m not sure quite where we
take laughter as being the most obvious response. It’s
getting even more complicated because a line will be coming up, the
audience will see it and laugh! Then you will deliver the line,
and if you’re good at it you’ll get another laugh. On the other
hand, it can work against you. Sometimes, if the audience
responds to the line, you still have the embarrassing task of going
through with the line. Sometimes it’s taken away the punch line,
as it were. It’s taken away the crucial moment.
all the trials and tribulations, is singing fun?
[Hesitates a moment] Acting is fun. Singing is a
[Thinks another moment] I suppose it’s serious, but I don’t know
if it’s too serious. One thing is that’s what we’re up there to
do, and we’ve got to be very good at it or else we shouldn’t be up
there. So there’s a continual tremendous responsibility to sing
well. You work perpetually to give good vocal performances, so
that I do regard that as almost a responsibility. When it comes
to the interpretation and the acting
— getting into the
character and giving a performance
can be great fun, even with a serious character. It can be
pleasurable, but very satisfying and very rewarding.
BD: Have you
done song recitals too?
Sir John: No,
I don’t. I would like to but it’s one thing that I never seem to
have time to do. I haven’t yet got into it. To put in the
initial work, to build up initial programs, it’s simply quite a big
investment. If you’re learning Gurnemanz and Hans Sachs, you
don’t have time also to learn Winterreise.
But I would love to do that at some stage.
BD: Thank you
for coming to Chicago. I appreciate it, and thank you for letting
me interrupt the last part of your day!
[Laughs] Oh, it’s a pleasure.
Below are a few more of the
made by Sir John Tomlinson.
Besides those shown on this webpage, he recorded some small roles early
in his career, including four with Dame Joan
Sutherland and Richard Bonynge,
(Hamlet, Le Roi de Lahore, La Sonnambula, and La Traviata), as well as
Tosca (with Freni &
Pavarotti) and Manon Lescaut
(with Freni & Domingo).
For more photos and a complete list of his recordings, visit his official website.
© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 16,
1991. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1999.
This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.