Sir John Tomlinson on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
In the first of two blogs, the great Wagnerian talks about taking on a new role in Meistersinger and what makes the opera extraordinary.
This month’s revival of Graham Vick’s acclaimed production sees Sir John Tomlinson shift roles from Hans Sachs, the selfless cobbler at the centre of the opera to the character of Pogner. During this run Wolfgang Koch will play Sachs, and Sir John speaks with approval of “the natural turning of the pages of the generations. Wolfgang is 20 years younger than me. It’s right that that should happen.”
Sir John sees both roles as key in the story: “Pogner gets the story off the ground by the grandiose act of giving his daughter as the prize for the singing contest on Midsummer’s Day. He spreads goodness and believes in art, in music and the cause of the Meistersingers. On the other hand, Sachs takes a back seat at the beginning – he comes to the fore later. He’s a classic Wagnerian character in that he relinquishes his love of the daughter because he sees that the daughter and Walther, the young knight, are in love. He gives up his own entitlement to her. There’s nothing he’d like more than to marry Eva and have 20 children with her but he sees her and Walther’s love and makes it work out for them, in spite of all the complexities”.
The role is a mammoth undertaking for any singer: “Sachs is on stage for four hours and sings for two and half of those. I think it’s the longest operatic role ever written but probably due to the role’s very personable and human nature, it doesn’t give the impression of overwhelming length.” As such, preparation is key. “It’s a bit like running a marathon,” Sir John says, “It’s a very physically demanding role as a lot of the power comes from the diaphragmatic muscles. They’re important in supporting the sound over a long period of time, which is why a lot of Wagnerians have got that chunky figure. Even a lot of singers who look slim are often very muscular.”
So what is it about Richard Wagner that has inspired Sir John to devote a sizeable part of his career to the composer’s work? “One of Wagner’s great philosophies was that of Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art. He wanted a continual dramatic flow and hence the combination of acting and singing. Orchestrally too there’s a lot of fantastic thematic material – leitmotifs. What’s great is that these themes develop along with the characters. The music tells these dramatic stories at deeper levels than often the characters are aware of. It’s very clever and extremely rich.
“For some people there are a lot of political overtones and baggage with Wagner’s work in particular Meistersinger – it was after all Hitler’s favourite piece, I don’t deal with that though, I deal with the piece itself. As a singer that’s what you’re focussed on: the words, the text, the notes, the relationship between the characters. For me, if you play the piece in 1542 I don’t regard the piece as being remotely fascist. There is a hint of nationalism but no more than many operas – Billy Budd for example. Rule Britannia contains a nationalist idea but when we all sing along on the last night of the Proms, we don’t take it very seriously,” then as if to leave no doubt, he says emphatically, “There’s nothing about Meistersinger that upsets me politically or ethically. It’s a wonderful piece because it’s a very sophisticated text. There’s great drama and the music is just glorious – it’s great theatre.”
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens on Monday 19 December and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on New Years Day at 2:45pm