MUSIC / The master singers

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SINGING Wagner is so difficult - vocally, dramatically, physically, emotionally - it's a marvel that anyone does it. Listen, for example, to tomorrow's performance of Die Meistersinger, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House on Radio 3. A 47-year-old bass from Lancashire will be on stage for over four hours, actually singing for two-and-a-quarter hours - roughly four times the duration of many great operatic roles.

John Tomlinson could have been a civil engineer, like his father; yet here he is, in 16th-century Nuremberg, as Hans Sachs, the poetic cobbler who dominates Wagner's vast romantic parable in which art that is new and daring defeats silly rules and bourgeois conventions.

'You've got to be prepared to suffer,' Tomlinson says. 'It's my idea of heaven to sing these big roles, even though it's a bit masochistic.' He knows his voice is in its prime, and that he is widely regarded as the finest Wagnerian bass in the world. 'But there's always some point in the evening where you feel absolutely awful, and you daren't think about the third act. These highs and lows are par for the course. Nobody's perfect, so you've got to accept that it's not going to be a joyride.'

Wagner seduced Tomlinson 30 years ago, in the chorus for Scottish Opera's Gotterdammerung. 'I thought I'd be a good Hagen because I had a big, ugly voice. So big and boomy that at school, when I sang the hymn, everybody turned round and laughed. It was like giving birth to a monster, though it was very restricted then - no top at all, a range of only an octave.'

As Tomlinson tells of his trawl through Wagner roles, from Hagen to Hunding, then Fasolt, King Marke, and the surprising catch of Wotan in the Ring cycles conducted in Bayreuth by Daniel Barenboim from 1988 to 1992, a single name emerges to take the credit - the late Reginald Goodall, who links all British singers now singing Wagner at the height of their powers, including Anne Evans, Brunnhilde to Tomlinson's Wotan, and now an international Isolde. Each one paints the same affectionate portrait of an unworldly old buffer whose conducting was so tremulous that the orchestra played quietly in case they had come in too soon. 'Reggie loved these operas,' Tomlinson says. 'That's where the energy to study them and pour so much of one's life into them comes from. But you've got to be in trim, vocally, singing a lot every day, working all the time on the top of the voice, or the middle, or vowels that might not be quite right.'

Bayreuth, presided over by the avuncular Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson, taught Tomlinson how to cope with the physical strain of a huge role. He flops completely the day after a performance, but the following day will sing for an hour or two, and steadily train up to singing the whole role through the day before the next performance. 'Some people think that if you rest and save yourself, you can just open your mouth and it will be absolutely magnificent, like Gangbusters] But it's a question of stamina. You'd sing brilliantly for Acts 1 and 2, but then your muscles would go to sleep and you've had it.'

Another Goodall protege, Gwynne Howell, is also in this Meistersinger. Howell actually sang Sachs with Goodall for English National Opera at the London Coliseum, but has never learnt the role in German and now seems content with Pogner, the redoubtable goldsmith father of the nubile soprano, Eva. 'Everyone used to think that to sing Wagner you had to stand there with your testicles hanging down by your knees, your muscles bulging, your eyes out on stalks,' he says. 'Reggie changed all that. I thought he was crazy, because he used to play the piano like Charlie Kunz . . . imagine Meistersinger going DUM DI DA, DI DING DI DING . . . and he simplified it to show you it was just music, so that if you kept your voice in the right place, you could sing it. I did a small role in Tristan when Birgit Nilsson last sang Isolde at Covent Garden, and was amazed because she didn't have a big voice. She was a large lady, physically strong, but she just stood there, didn't bellow, and her voice was so well postioned it was like an arrow.'

Why, I wonder, have British singers taken so readily to these big German roles, in operas drenched with Teutonic legend and pride? Well, just look at our own 19th-century operatic repertory - or lack of it. And also, for once, thank British Rail for hours spent on the Southern Region track: you can't sing, but you can bury yourself in a borrowed score to look at a new role.

Tomlinson actually turned Sachs down (he thought it too high) when Goodall suggested it; but after six successful years as Bayreuth's Wotan, and Gurnemanz in a Parsifal conducted by Barenboim in Berlin this summer, he reckoned the time had come. 'Some people think that Wotan damages the voice,' he says, as objectively as if it were a horse or a car. 'But I think it's brought mine on in huge strides. Singing this repertoire has helped the upper part enormously. It puts the centre of gravity higher. The voice becomes brighter, clearer, and higher placed; so the high notes become easier. Whereas if I were to sing Pimen, in Boris Godunov, a very bassy part where you have to produce depth, weight, and low undertones, high notes would be harder.'

He started learning Sachs 18 months ago. 'At first you think you'll never learn it. Like painting the Forth Bridge. But then you start singing it in the bath, and find you know half the 'Wahn' monologue. Driving to Bayreuth, I started to sing from the beginning, and found I knew two-thirds of the role from memory.'

Tomlinson is physically shorter than many celebrated Wagnerian basses; but he feels that being 5ft 11in rather than a lumbering 6ft 3in makes acting much easier: when angry, his Sachs, like his Wotan, strides fiercely around the stage. His voice is so large that he could dwarf other singers. 'I spend quite a lot of time thinking about not singing too loud - keeping the voice in the right position, and introducing other colours. During rehearsal, both Graham Vick (the director) and Bernard Haitink (the conductor) said, 'You're never going to have a problem with authority, strength, or conviction, so think about colours.' I want Sachs to be slightly eccentric, a bit of an odd-man-out. Crafty, intelligent, with pain underneath, but he always jollies himself out of it. A Lancastrian streak]'

It helps, perhaps, not to have seen conventional productions of these operas. Thomas Allen, making his debut as Beckmesser, certainly thinks so. He had never seen Meistersinger until this summer, in Munich, so he knew nothing of the tradition of elderly baritones putting on silly voices as the town clerk who also loves Eva. 'I think characterisation comes from within, from the text,' he says. 'Beckmesser is a civil servant, a natural No 2, a Nigel Hawthorne character, but sour, bitter.' As a source, Allen referred to photographs of town councillors in an old book about shipyards in Sunderland - lean, grey men with little collars, ties, spectacles, and hefty wives.

Tomlinson gets irritated by English critics who claim that his performance neglects legato line in favour of Sprechgesang. It's wrong, he says, to make Sachs too legato, too beautiful. 'When Sachs is in a philosophical, pensive mood, singing a quiet phrase, then one strives for a legato line; but Wagner often demands both sprech and legato, sometimes in the same sentence. You need the variety, and you need to articulate the words.' It infuriates him that singers who are applauded in Germany, singing the German language to German people, get carped at by the English for pronunciation and stress. 'In Germany they judge not just your pronunciation but your understanding of the text, and that includes the way you stress certain words.'

Yes, Tomlinson admits, singing Wagner is tough, but in fact the toughest thing he's endured so far was the lighting in the Bayreuth Ring. 'Very intense side-lighting,' he explains. 'It was blistering. You broke out in a sweat just standing on stage. There's also the danger that the emotion of these huge pieces, flooding grown men with tears, may spread from the audience to the stage. You get tearful in rehearsals, and looking at scores in trains, but in performance there's a professional coldness that prevents you from breaking down. At times in my life, when I've been singing very beautiful music, I have been worried about my ability to control my emotions. In Sachs, it's before the Quintet, and at the end of 'Wach auf' - fortunately there's enough music for me to recover before I sing. In the Ring, Wotan's Farewell is lethal, but by that stage of the evening it's such a physical challenge, you're so tired, thinking about every word, and the vocal line, and being with the conductor, you just don't have time.' His loss, our gain.

'Die Meistersinger', live from the Royal Opera House, tomorrow 3.55pm Radio 3

(Photograph omitted)