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Opera’s big beast takes bull by horns

Sir John Tomlinson as The Minatour. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sir John Tomlinson is a national treasure. For more than 40 years his stentorian tones have thrilled audiences around the world in opera’s biggest roles. This year marks 35 years since he first trod the boards at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, a phenomenal milestone marked officially in January with a revival of Harrison Birtwistle’s 2005 opera The Minotaur, the title role created for Tomlinson.

When we meet in the office of ROH music director Antonio Pappano, Tomlinson is proud to point out his own picture on the wall of fame behind the comfortable sofa into which he shortly settles his imposing frame. “That’s me”, he says in his deceptively soft-spoken Lancashire burr. He has an animal-shaped wire cage over his head, sprouting two large horns – a rehearsal shot from The Minotaur.

We return to Birtwistle, but start with the composer with whom Tomlinson is most closely associated, Richard Wagner. It is a few days after the end of the ROH’s six-week run of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle – a colossal undertaking from which you would expect a man in his mid-60s to be still recovering. Instead, Tomlinson is buzzing from the success of a recital the previous night. “Twenty-one songs and two encores. I think the audience was as tired as I was at the end,” he jokes. It does seem to have taken a toll, but his jovial humour, sharp intelligence and steely determination are still much in evidence.

[pullquote]That’s why I ended up in Wagner – there’s so much fascination in the characters, so much acting potential[/pullquote]

Incredibly, this was his third ROH Ring production, each very different, he says. Gotz Friedrich’s 1980s take was “in the East German tradition, which I loved” – reminding Tomlinson of his first ever Ring, in Bayreuth, with “dictatorial” Harry Kupfer. Then, in the mid-90s, came the controversial Richard Jones production. Though it was lambasted by the press, Tomlinson found it “fantastic – incredibly vibrant, imaginative, off the wall. But it upset people. Perhaps they thought it trivialised it. It’s a terrible shame it didn’t come back”.

Keith Warner, whose Ring was revived as a cycle for the second time this year, is “a real man of the theatre”, his production “intricate and well thought through, with lots of visual thematic connections. Wonderful, but quite demanding of an audience.”

Tomlinson says his unexpected part in the 2007 run of Warner’s Ring is one of his proudest achievements. This was the time he jumped in at the 11th hour to take over the mammoth role of Wotan, king of the gods, when Bryn Terfel suddenly pulled out (a fact Tomlinson, generously, does not mention). It was “a big challenge”, but the performances were a critical success and he feels, with justification, that “I played a major part in that. I rescued the show.”

This time he relinquished the mighty god Wotan, reverting to the smaller but powerful Hunding, “an absolute gift of a part”, and returning as Hagen – an “immense role” whose “calculating, manipulating character” fits Tomlinson’s cerebral approach. Does he miss Wotan? “Yes, of course. But it’s very much Ring philosophy: things must move on. I’m 66; Wotan is a part ideally for a younger man. I’ve been singing it for 24 years and, although my voice is still in very good shape, in your 60s one lacks the vigour to sustain an eight-week rehearsal period and long series of performances. I’m good on the night, but the next day I’m completely knackered. Also, London wants another Wotan. The theatre never stands still, that’s the way it should be.”

Seemingly a very different kettle of fish, the title role in The Minotaur is steeped in Wagnerian angst and lyricism. Based on the Greek myth of a half-man, half-bull imprisoned in the labyrinth and fed sacrificial innocents, librettist David Harsent’s Minotaur is an emotionally tormented creature. “It’s all about the dichotomy between human and animal. Often the animal is the innocent part, with muscle and instincts; the human part can distort those things and is more often to blame for the rapes, murders and destruction the Minotaur reaps.” Tomlinson compares the text to his “benchmark English libretto”, EM Forster’s Billy Budd. “That’s great text to sing: pithy, economic, etched – you can almost chew the words. David is really in that tradition with The Minotaur.”

He has worked with Harsent and Birtwistle at the ROH before, on Gawain and the Green Knight in 1990. Tomlinson and Birtwistle, 12 years his senior, both hail from Accrington in Lancashire, so “we’re on the same wavelength.” Other than discussing the Minotaur’s roar – Birtwistle wants “Nooowaaargh!”, a terrifying cry which suddenly erupts from Tomlinson with cavernous resonance – there was “very little to say about the music. Birtwistle has latched onto my voice really well. The part felt like putting on a pair of shoes that were made for me”, he says. “It takes a lot of learning, but it’s beautifully written, wonderfully lyrical. And the subject suits my voice – I do quite a bit of agonising and self-analysis in my other roles, so I’m probably quite good at that by now.”

The Minotaur requires a degree of stagecraft few other top singers would be equal to. Singers have often been criticised for poor acting – is it a crucial part of the trade? Tomlinson’s response is to turn the question around. “Today, singers are complaining about lack of direction and about static, designer-led productions. There is a trend for the visuals to be very beautiful, often with computer-controlled technologies. It can look fantastic, but good acting is not always required. The height of singing-acting was 20 years ago. I loved it – like straight theatre, but even better because you have the emotional power of the music.”

This passion for the stage shaped his career. He cites “crucial but mind-numbing” roles such as Ramfis in Verdi’s Aida as “terribly limiting from an acting point of view. My personality always rebelled against them. That’s why I ended up in Wagner – there’s so much fascination in the characters, so much acting potential.”

He doesn’t have “any disappointment whatsoever” about his career – but admits to a slight regret that he has never played Richard Strauss’ lecherous Baron Ochs at the ROH, mainly because he has been associated for so long with the role at English National Opera. Unlike many singers, he says, he feels lucky enough to have worked consistently in both houses. He is “very proud” of his remarkable longevity, attributed simply to “singing everyday. Singing is a very healthy activity. Like a good car – a Merc or a Rolls – treated with care, the voice will last forever.” His no-nonsense advice for students, influenced by his family’s working-class roots, is methodical hard graft. “It’s a daily occupation.”

His age-defying voice remains on top form – but retirement “lurks in the background. I’m thinking all the time of slowing down, but…” He pauses, before reeling off a list of upcoming projects that would exhaust a singer half his age: recitals of Michelangelo poetry settings, a new work by Brett Dean with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, and Birtwistle’s Gawain in Salzburg (its first foreign production) are just a few. And, of course, The Minotaur in January.

“I’m hesitant about retiring because it’s so much part of my life. But I would hate to do one performance of Wotan where people said ‘he should have stopped three years ago’ because I respect the role too much. The roles are far bigger than any artist. We are temporary: we’re here for 20 years – or, in my case, 35 years – and then we leave the stage.”

Tomlinson’s Wotan may have hung up his staff but, thankfully, this most consummate of artists is unlikely to be stepping out of the limelight for a while yet.

The Minotaur runs at the Royal Opera House, London, from January 17-28

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