Bass  Sir  John  Tomlinson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



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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 sings 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].

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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.

Sir John:    Yes, but I just mention that because some people do prefer a baritone for Figaro. 

BD:    Will you be singing the role of Don Giovanni?

Sir John:    No, I’m singing Leporello.  On these recordings I’m doing Leporello, Don 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.


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See my Interview with Graham Clark


BD:    [With a sly nudge]  You’re enough of a rogue?

Sir John:    [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 often.

BD:    Even when you’re doing Wagner?

Sir John:    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 Wagner.

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.

BD:    Like training for a mile instead of for a short sprint?

Sir John:    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 performances?

Sir John:    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.

tomlinsonBD:    So they look at the Ring as an entity, rather than as four individual pieces?

Sir John:    They do very much so, yes.  The dress rehearsals take place as exactly as the performances.

BD:    And then they start the first performance?

Sir John:    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 same feeling.

BD:    So on those days off, you’ve got to run at least half a mile?

Sir John:    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!

Sir John:    That’s the way it feels, yes.  That’s why Wagner is different than other roles.

BD:    Is there anything that comes close to Wagner
Strauss, or even the late Verdi?  Do you have experience with that?

Sir John:    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 comparable.

BD:    Mandryka in Arabella seems to be a little bit on the length of one of the Wotans.

Sir John:    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.

BD:    In English with Goodall conducting?

Sir John:    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.


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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.

BD:    Why?

Sir John:    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.

BD:    How’s your top?

Sir John:    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 cover you?

Sir John:    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?


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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?

Sir John:    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 one-directional character.

BD:    He’s just a simple villain?

Sir John:    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.

tomlinsonBD:    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 pawn?

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. 

BD:    Does Hagen have a heart?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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.

tomlinsonBD:    Even though you’re doing Wotan, 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]

BD:    You 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 peak years.

BD:    Is Wotan a satisfying role to sing?

Sir John:    Oh, incredibly, yes, wonderful.  It’s one of the great roles like Boris Godunov.

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?

Sir John:    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.

BD:    For himself?

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 responsibility.

BD:    Of course, that’s true of everyone.

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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.

tomlinsonBD:    So we’ve having to make a hundred per cent of our decisions based solely on this one per cent of information?

Sir John:    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 themselves.

BD:    They figured there must a same kind of hierarchy on the earth but several steps higher in the heavens?

Sir John:    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!

BD:    You’d think that a god would be perfect... or if there is just one God, you’d think that God would be perfect.

Sir John:    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!

Sir John:    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.

BD:    But 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 gods are.

Sir John:    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 godsis that it brought out the vivid characters of the gods; the many-sided intricate, subtle, fascinating characters that the gods have, and the relationships between them.

tomlinsonBD:    Were Wotan and Fricka ever happy?

Sir John:    Yes, I think so.  I think they were very happy at one time.

BD:    Could they be happy again?

Sir John:    No!

BD:    [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.

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    [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 Hunding’s hut.

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’ spirit.

BD:    In one of the analyses I read, they called the little motif there ‘the purpose of the sword.’

Sir John:    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.

Sir John:    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 generation?

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.

tomlinsonBD:    So he hasn’t reasoned it all out yet?

Sir John:    No.  He just has this great idea, which is a wonderful idea!

BD:    Which doesn’t quite work though...

Sir John:    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 does succeed.

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 swipes it!

Sir John:    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 that!

BD:    It’s a pity he can’t go back to Brünnhilde and see who has the ring.

Sir John:    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 confrontation scene.

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.

Sir John:    [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.

BD:    And looking ahead, too?

Sir John:    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 accomplish!  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 saying.

BD:    Is he making another wager like when he lost the eye?

tomlinsonSir John:    [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?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    Everything that was is destroyed.  Civilization is destroyed, as it were.

BD:    Then what comes out of that?

Sir John:    A new civilization!

BD:    Fully formed, or embryonic?

Sir John:    I think in an embryonic state.  The whole thing starts again.

BD:    For good or bad?

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?

Sir John:    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 thing again???

Sir John:    [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...

BD:    And reason?

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?

Sir John:    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?

BD:    Maybe when we pass through the door of death, the answer to that question becomes apparent.

Sir John:    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.

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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 again.  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.


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See my Interviews with John Aler, Pierre Boulez, and Margaret Hillis


BD:    Would it be good if you could have both the character and the accuracy?

tomlinsonSir John:    That sounds easy, doesn’t it?

BD:    [With mock bravado]  Oh, sure, it should happen every time?  [Laughs]

Sir John:    [Calmly]  You think it should? 

BD:    I assume that’s what you strive for.

Sir John:    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 mystery there.

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 trust?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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.

BD:    Just thrown on?

Sir John:    Yes, thrown on.  Often it is a role that you know well, or perhaps a 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.

tomlinsonBD:    How do you select which new roles you will learn?

Sir John:    [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?

Sir John:    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.

BD:    Having done Titurel previously?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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?

Sir John:    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 your system.

BD:    You want your own quirks?

Sir John:    Yes, and it’s always more satisfying when you’ve learned it totally by yourself
obviously with coaches.

BD:    Then the conductor can mold you?

Sir John:    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?

tomlinsonSir John:    I don’t think there were any surprises because he was tremendously inspirational in both. 

BD:    In a different way?

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 Sachswhich take months.

BD:    Have you done Pogner?

Sir John:    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 it.

BD:    Doing it to your level?

Sir John:    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 fach?

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.

BD:    [Offering a helpful suggestion]  If they offer you a Wotan, say you’ll do the Wotan if you can do Philip II.

Sir John:    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. 

tomlinsonBD:    What other recordings are coming along soon?

Sir John:    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 human.

BD:    Would you do everything if you could?

Sir John:    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 directionsto 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 career enjoyable.

BD:    Do you like the life of a wandering minstrel?

Sir John:    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.

BD:    Are audiences different from city to city, and country to country? 

Sir John:    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 to 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.

BD:    It
’s just a 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 Germanyou 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?

Sir John:    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 are. 
Let’s 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.


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BD:    Despite all the trials and tribulations, is singing fun?

Sir John:    [Hesitates a moment]  Acting is fun.   Singing is a serious business.

BD:    Too serious?

Sir John:    [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 performancethat 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!

Sir John:    [Laughs]  Oh, it’s a pleasure.



Below are a few more of the recordings 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.


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See my Interviews with Sir Thomas Allen, and Robin Leggate



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See my Interview with Anthony Rolfe Johnson



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© 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 website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as 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 like 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.