‘If anybody had made a film of my year,’ says John Tomlinson, our latest musical knight, as he lolls on a sofa on the top floor of the Royal Opera House and enjoys a gentle chuckle, ‘I suppose it would have been called My Left Knee!’
It has been a memorable year for the world’s greatest Wagner bass, who returns to Covent Garden on Sunday to sing Wanderer (Wotan, by any other name) in Keith Warner’s new production of Siegfried. He received the knighthood in July, and last month saw the release by Warner Classics of a four-CD set featuring Tomlinson in various celebrated roles. After Wanderer, he sings the King Fisher in a Garden revival of Michael Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage before he switches houses in December to English National Opera and Britten’s Billy Budd, in which he plays the bullying master-at-arms, John Claggart.
But it has been a painful year, too. Walking round Derwentwater in April, after returning from a Balstrode in Peter Grimes at the Salzburg Easter Festival, he tumbled and tore the tendon off his left kneecap, ‘although nobody realised at first that it had been torn off completely’. He went under the surgeon’s knife in Brighton only after singing half a dozen performances of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with Opera North in June, and he is still using a stick. ‘The knitting process will take a year. If I was a footballer I would have been out for a year.’
So it is a reflective singer who is preparing for his latest immersion in the deep waters of Wagner. This summer was the first in 18 years that he has not sung at Bayreuth, where his Wotan is now an established part of the festival’s history — indeed it has entered Wagnerian lore — and in two decades of performance at the world’s leading houses he has sung the major bass roles in all ten of the composer’s mature works — a distinction that may be unique.
‘It’s been a wonderful privilege, singing Wotan,’ he says. ‘It is the greatest, most fully described role you can imagine and even now, after nearly 20 years of singing it, and more than 200 performances, the depths are endless. In rehearsals with Tony [Pappano, the ROH music director] I am still finding extra layers in the music, the text, the role.
‘I have always been a physical actor, a bit reckless at times, and the stage is a dangerous place at any time, so maybe this knee business has knocked some sense into me. In this Siegfried I am still performing Wanderer with passion, though I can’t run and I can’t jump, but my condition has enabled me to give the character a more philosophical approach. I am finding a more vulnerable, insecure Wanderer, who is vulnerable, after all, because he hasn’t got long to go. In Keith’s production he is on a pilgrimage. Even his costume is monk-like.’
Tomlinson’s own musical pilgrimage began in Lancashire, where he sang with the local Male Voice Choir in Accrington, although it was not until he had completed a degree in engineering at Manchester University that he realised his voice was strong enough to become a professional instrument. Then, in the early Eighties, when he was a principal at ENO, he began a thorough study of Wagner with Reggie (later Sir Reginald) Goodall in a small rehearsal room at Covent Garden.
‘It was a washroom just round the corner, not far from where we are sitting,’ he says. ‘Reggie liked it there. There was a piano, and nobody bothered him. To study with Reggie was nothing less than inspiring. He investigated the works in the way that Wagner had composed them, forever thinking about the orchestration, the text. That was my discovery of the repertoire.’
Now that he is identified so closely with Wagner, would he like to have sung more Italian opera? ‘I’ve done quite a lot, actually; more than people realise. But you can’t do everything, and I think I was cut out for Wagner, vocally, mentally, and as an actor. I feel that is what I was built for. I love the Italian repertoire, Verdi particularly, but I’m not sure it is a natural vehicle for me.’
It is commonly said that Tomlinson is a superb singing actor, which is true. What gives his best performances their unique character is the way his immense (and often frightening) physicality does not impair a rarer quality, inwardness. Perhaps it is best seen in the vast, largely static role of Gurnemanz in Parsifal, who can sometimes come across as a self-pitying bore. Tomlinson, who returns to Covent Garden to sing the role under Bernard Haitink in 2007, finds a humanity in this role that makes it one of the richest Wagner characterisations.
Before then he will sing Hagen in Götterd