OPERA / He'll take the low road: John Tomlinson is a big noise in the opera world. Here, he talks to Michael White about Wotan, Wagner and the boredom of most bass roles

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The Independent Culture
WHEN SINGERS wish to bad- mouth Glyndebourne they call it Glynditz; which is not so much a reference to administrative tyranny as to the fact that once you're stuck there for the summer season - in the middle of the South Downs, with champagne and sheep for company - it's hard to get away. But not everybody wants to get away, and some singers never do. They end up living in the next-door town of Lewes, where the streets echo with vocal exercises floating out of windows, and where - if you live in the picturesque enclave of Regency cottages called Southover - it helps to like Wagner. This is because Southover is where John Tomlinson lives, and Tomlinson is, in every sense, one of the biggest Wagner voices going. He sings other things too: last year he delivered the sea shanties at the last night of the Proms, next week he opens at the Coliseum in a new Der Rosenkavalier. But internationally he is famous for being, in his own words, 'the bloke who does Wotan at Bayreuth' - which is an operatic approximation to being the bloke who blesses people at the Vatican. The top job in the temple of the gods.

Tomlinson did his Bayreuth Wotan every year from 1988 to 1992 in the high-profile Ring cycle directed by Harry Kupfer and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Against established convention, he will be back there in the new Alfred Kirchner / James Levine production that opens later this year. And just to keep his hand in, he is also the Wotan in the current Berlin Staatsoper Ring as well as the Ring that begins to build at Covent Garden in October.

The remarkable thing about all this is that Tomlinson doesn't actually possess the kind of voice Wotans are supposed to have. Wotan is a bass-baritone role, which means that it needs weight, substance and (being Wagner) staying power, but also the ability to scale some fairly high-lying ground. But Tomlinson is not a bass- baritone. He is a pure bass: massive, strong and dark in colour, with a penetrating clarity that strikes the ear with greater impact than, perhaps, any other British opera voice. You don't miss it in a crowd. And its natural habitat is the other, blacker characters in the Wagnerian pedigree - like the Hagens and Hundings Tomlinson had been singing in less glamorous venues when Barenboim descended from on high in the mid-Eighties and issued the Bayreuth invitation. Tomlinson's acceptance, with a voice that was conventionally too low, was a risk. Failures aren't easily forgotten in the shrine of Wagner singing. But Tomlinson had for a long time been a risk-taking artist, climbing out of the straight bass repertory into things his voice wasn't 'supposed' to do. Why?

'Because being a bass can be boring. Or at least, a lot of the roles are: Sarastro in The Magic Flute and so on, where you've got wonderful music to sing but nothing to do except look wise. There was a time in my life when I could have gone to Covent Garden and got stuck in that sort of thing. But I'm not six foot four and lugubrious. Am I?'

Answer: no. In fact, Tomlinson is a stocky, genially straightforward Lancastrian whose Methodist chapel background has stood firm against the assaults of stardom and international operatic chic. When you ask him what he doesn't like about opera, he says 'the bullshit'. His life in Lewes is as ordinary as an endless travelling schedule allows. His house is comfortable but not smart. He could afford more but doesn't choose to. And he identifies the strongest feature of his personality as 'a sort of honesty - for good or ill - as a performer; and I'm not saying that to try and be modest. I think I carry it to a fault. But it's the way I was brought up. Anything that wasn't genuine, basic and honest was dismissed as 'la-di- da'. And I still feel like that.'

JOHN TOMLINSON was born in 1946 in Oswaldtwistle, a place untouched by opera 'which we thought was rather seedy'. But he sang: 'in chapel and at school. It was obvious at 15 that I had a special voice; people used to laugh when I sang hymns, because it was so big.' Then he went

to Manchester University, to read engineering and (his parents hoped) settle into a secure career. But at 21, in a small act of rebellion, he pinned a request to the notice board of the Royal Manchester College of Music asking for singing lessons. For the next five years he studied with the man who replied to the note, Patrick McGuigan; and in 1970 he moved south for a job in the Glyndebourne chorus where, like all the others, he discovered the charms of Lewes, and set up home there with his wife Moya, a nurse and counsellor.

The irony, though, of singers who set up home near Glyndebourne is that Glyndebourne tends to lose interest in them; and that's what happened to Tomlinson. After a few small roles on the Glyndebourne Tour there was no prospect of anything better being offered; and in truth he was having vocal problems. Big voices are all very well, but their size makes them harder to control. Tomlinson was singing impressively but loosely, and without much top.

Scientist that he was, he worked on it with systematic thoroughness; and one basic requirement was to sort out the psychology of his relationship with the instrument his life, now, depended on. 'I used to feel that standard singer's separation from it. It was the voice, rather than my voice; an alien thing I was working on rather than with. The ideal, I found, is to get your technique so perfect that the divide disappears and it feels completely, naturally a part of you.'

He was still investigating that when he started singing with ENO in the mid-Seventies: the start of six galley years that put Tomlinson through a rapid turnover of some 50 roles. At the same time he was investigating the contemporary avant-garde - in Alexander Goehr's Arden Must Die, which was Jonathan Miller's first ever opera staging - and the comparably ground-breaking world of period performance. Tomlinson is so typecast, now, as a heavy Wagner voice that audiences forget it, but he was formerly well-known as a Handelian, working regularly with the likes of Gardiner and Pinnock.

The critical input to his life at that time came from Reginald Goodall, the legendary Wagner conductor who coached a generation of British singers in the Wagner repertory. Goodall didn't actually steer Tomlinson towards Wotan - it was, after all, the wrong voice - but together they covered Hagen, Hunding, Fasolt and King Mark; and gradually the Wagner roles began to take centre place in Tomlinson's career which, as it progressed, became more focused.

'What changes is the rhythm of the turnover of roles. When I was younger, the parts were smaller - they took less time to prepare, and you could cram them together. But when you reach the likes of Wotan it's a massive commitment. Last autumn I sang Hans Sachs in the Covent Garden Meistersinger. I hadn't sung it before, so I had to learn the score; and that took 18 months of preparation. OK, I was singing other things at the same time, but it was intensive. Wherever I went I took that score with me.'

Hans Sachs, like Wotan, was another of Tomlinson's risks: another high bass-baritone job. And although it came off handsomely, the praise wasn't universal. Tomlinson is a forceful presence on stage, robust and vigorous; and in the Meistersinger some critics thought he threw his vocal weight around too much. 'They said I was too loud. But as a bass singing a bass-baritone role, I was at the top of my range where it's actually easier to sustain projection over four hours because, so long as you're in training, you can sing more economically up there. It's like a violin: the lower notes need more bow, more physical effort, while the higher ones come freer, easier. So it was inevitable that I'd have sounded bigger than, say, a baritone singing low in his range. The people who complained about me were in reality comparing me with what they remember of baritonal voices singing Sachs. I can't do much about that.'

Comparative judgements are the curse of opera singers, working as they do in a fairly small and repeating repertory that gets scrutinised by audiences steeped in tradition. And no tradition comes steeper than that of Wagner performance. One review of the Covent Garden Meistersinger devoted so much space to the writer's fond memories of Meistersingers past that its consideration of the one at hand read like an afterthought. Tomlinson is clearly irritated by that sort of thing. 'I don't feel hounded by tradition, but it annoys me when someone can't take my performance on its own terms. If you idolise the past so much then stay at home and listen to recordings.'

Another problem for a singer in a finite repertory is having to repeat the same role under different directors. Tomlinson has sung Wotan often enough to feel he knows something about the character; and although he isn't arrogant (or old-fashioned) enough to think he can carry the same performance around from staging to staging, he does retain basic convictions about the rights and wrongs of doing it. He is, for instance, worried about the costumes for the new Bayreuth Ring. And back in England, he has had a gentlemanly disagreement with Jonathan Miller, the director of the ENO Rosenkavalier, over the character of Baron Ochs. Tomlinson has sung Ochs twice before - at ENO and in Amsterdam - and come to the conclusion that 'he's refreshingly uncomplicated, in a vigorous way that makes the townees look precious. Jonathan thinks he's more

unsavoury than that; and my worry is how to be a truly unsavoury Ochs and still deliver the - I think - sweetness and elegance in his music.' Impasse.

But not disaster. Because everybody in the singing business knows that Tomlinson is the complete professional. If he has disagreements, they are thoughtful, reasonable. Oswaldtwistle engineers do not throw singers' tantrums. And as someone at ENO said the other day: 'The thing about John Tomlinson is that you'd never know he was a star; he doesn't wear it on his sleeve.' Which is how he comes, still, tobe singing at ENO for a fraction of the fees he gets elsewhere; and how he maintains a regular relationship with the commendable but far from glitzy Opera North in Leeds. He accepts that it's a schizophrenic existence, to sing at Bayreuth or the Vienna Staatsoper one week and in Leeds Grand Theatre the next: 'But they give you different things as a performer. In Vienna the singing can be really classy but the drama very limited, because there's not been much rehearsal. I've found myself on stage at Vienna singing duets with people I've never met before. At Leeds you may not get those vocal standards, but you do get something . . . well . . . more genuine.' A chapel Methodist speaks.

John Tomlinson opens in the ENO 'Rosenkavalier' on Wed, 071-836 0111. He also stars in the Royal Opera's revival of 'Gawain' from 14 April, 071-240 1200.

(Photographs omitted)