Ever since he was a choirboy in Twickenham, Christopher Ventris wanted to be a professional singer, but he had to take his time. He enrolled for evening classes with an amateur opera group, got turned down by the Royal College of Music when he applied at 19, and only made it into a conservatoire at 22. He cut his dramatic teeth in the Glyndebourne chorus, and got a part in Janacek on a Glyndebourne tour: from that point on, he turned his back on all thoughts of emulating his hero Pavarotti, and dug ever deeper into the music of Central Europe.
"What holds me back from the Italian repertoire," he explains, "is that it demands heart-on-sleeve stuff, which I can put on, but don't feel comfortable with. The seriousness of the Janacek and Beethoven and Wagner roles I sing suits me far more. I can do outbursts of passion, but I'm naturally more reserved." This is too modest: the performances he's turned in as Stewa in Jenufa, Florestan in Fidelio, and as Britten's Peter Grimes have had such white-hot intensity that European opera houses compete for his presence.
Singing the title role in the Covent Garden Parsifal is the latest in his long line of Wagner successes, but getting into that game wasn't easy. "My introduction to Wagner had been through the BBC's televised Ring from Bayreuth in the Eighties one act a week, with Donald McIntire as Wotan. And to share the stage with him for my first Parsifal was a thrill. And once you start singing that repertoire, it opens doors."
Bayreuth invited him to audition in 1998, "just so they knew who I was they didn't offer me a part. But once they've clocked you, they follow your progress all round the world. In 2002 they invited me to audition again; and again nothing. But now I've been invited to do Parsifal in their new production in 2008." So this Covent Garden show is the final leg of a run-up which has taken him 17 years.
The Royal Opera production will be, he says, like a staged concert with costumes, about thoughts rather than physicality. "But it's very nice to sing in."
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