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!