12 February 2016
Opera aficionado and Wagnermaniac, Tony Cooper, relishes the opportunity to meet Bayreuth's new Brünnhilde
I'm sitting in the idyllic and inviting surroundings on Bayreuth's well-trodden Green Hill in the shadow of Richard Wagner's iconic Festspielhaus waiting for Bayreuth's new Brünnhilde to arrive, one of the major roles in Wagner's epic four-work cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, sung this year by Nottinghamshire lass, Catherine Foster.
A marathon operatic work like no other it takes place over four nights and is about 17 hours in length and loosely tells the story based on characters from Norse folklore and the epic German poem, Nibelungenlied, which chronicles the life of the dragon-slayer Siegfried at the court of the Burgundians, how he was murdered and of his wife Kriemhild's revenge.
I'm cloaked in some sort of Walter Mitty world, too, imagining her turning up mounted on her beloved stallion, Grane. The last Brünnhilde I encountered - Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin - actually turned up on a bike, her favoured form of transport, which she rode to and from work at Berlin's Staatsoper while performing in Barenboim's Ring cycle earlier this year. Catherine, however, arrived at the appointed hour but rather more sedately - on foot. She didn't have far to come either, just across the way from the Festspielhaus.
Inaugurated in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival launched with a gala performance of Das Rheingold in the company of such distinguished composers as Bruckner, Grieg and Tchaikovsky as well as Wagner's pianist/composer father-in-law, Franz Liszt. And the Festspielhaus - designed by Otto Brückwald to a precise specification by Wagner - is solely used for the purpose of presenting his Teutonic masterpieces.
Catherine and I gather round Arno Breker's bust of Wagner sculpted in 1986 and occupying a fitting position in the neatly-kept flower-decked gardens surrounding the Festspielhaus. The 'Old Man' - who this year is the centre of global attention as Bayreuth and the world celebrates the bicentenary of his birth - was all present and correct quietly beaming down at us.
Catherine, I soon discovered, didn't set out to become an opera singer but trained as a nurse and midwife and worked at Nottingham City Hospital. That is some career change.
One of the patients she attended had a husband who was heavily involved in amateur singing in and around Nottingham. They got chatting about singing and such like and Catherine's ambitions to become a professional singer. The conversation eventually led Catherine to the well-respected Mansfield-based singing teacher, Pamela Cook, who later encouraged her to enroll at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music.
Whilst at Birmingham, Catherine showed her mettle and became the first winner of the acclaimed Dame Eva Turner award in 1997.
'Winning this award proved a great boost to my career,' she proudly said, 'as it enabled me to continue my studies at the Royal Northern College of Music. It was here that I attracted the attention of opera aficionado, Sir Peter Moores, who went on to sponsor me at the prestigious training-ground for singers, the London Opera Studio.'
Catherine's first fully-professional engagement was with Opera Northern Ireland appearing as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute hitting those top notes with relish which this role demands.
Three years after her Irish début in 1998, Catherine moved to Germany to pursue and develop her singing career. Some of her early roles in her adopted country included Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlo at the Staatstheater Kassel and the scheming princess, Abigaille, in Verdi's Nabucco at Theater Bremen. 'They were productions I thoroughly enjoyed,' she enthused.
But an important milestone in Catherine's blossoming career was reached in 2006 when she made her début at one of Germany's biggest and most prestigious houses, Dresden's acclaimed Semperoper, singing the role of Die Kaiserin in Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten. Such was her success that she was invited to return to the scene of her triumph taking such important roles as Senta in Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer and Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio.
After making her mark in these roles, the young nurse-turned-opera singer from Nottingham was more than on her way. The Deutsche Oper Berlin and Staatsoper Hamburg beckoned as well as other important German houses such as in Cologne and Frankfurt, while Catherine found herself working with a host of challenging conductors such as Australian-born superstar Simone Young in Hamburg and Scottish-born maestro Sir Donald Runnicles in Berlin.
As for the demanding role of Brünnhilde Catherine has sung it all over the place - Helsinki, Budapest, Essen, Weimar, Riga, et al - but Bayreuth is undoubtedly the Big One and heralds Catherine's first appearance at this shrine to Wagner. It's an important milestone in her career. Shortly after Bayreuth, Catherine is off to set them alight in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Tokyo. And set them alight she will!
To sing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth is very special indeed particularly in the bicentennial production which has been directed by the renowned Berlin-based avant-garde theatre director, Frank Castorf, with the Russian-born conductor (and also Bayreuth newcomer), Kirill Petrenko, in the pit.
It's exciting times for Catherine and it plainly shows when you meet her. 'I was accepted for the role of Brünnhilde in May 2012,' she enthused, 'and I just couldn't believe it. For a long time it felt so unreal but in just a short space of time I had achieved what I thought was unachievable.
'I've worked on Brünnhilde since 2006 but over the past year I've really got to know her even more intimately starting with Walküre in Amsterdam. It was last April that I began rehearsals in earnest in Bayreuth. There was so much to do for me and all the other members of the cast that in a short space of time we all just got on with the job in hand. However you wish to call it we became a small community or family and we worked really well together.
'It has been such a wonderful experience to work in and around the theatre that Wagner built specifically for his music. It's truly an experience to remember with the acoustics, the theatre, the people who work here and the audience.
'One thing I've discovered over the past few years since singing Wagner is that although I may sing all over the world and not see my own home very much, I have met and continue to meet singers and audience members alike who also travel to sing and listen. It's very unique and I feel privileged to be a part of it and to be here in Bayreuth.'
Catherine becomes only the third British soprano (and the first English one) to have appeared at Bayreuth as Brünnhilde keeping good company with the likes of Welsh-born singers Gwyneth Jones and Anne Evans. Now that's what you call a select club!
Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath