Saturday 16 September 2017

The first Englishwoman to sing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth: Catherine Foster on singing Wagner

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival 2017
(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Opera aficionado and Wagnermaniac, Tony Cooper, meets Nottingham-born Wagner singer, Catherine Ann Foster, the Bayreuth Festival’s Brünnhilde.

I’m sitting in the shadow of Bayreuth’s iconic Festspielhaus situated at the top of Siegfried Wagner Allee commonly known as the Gruener Huegel (Green Hill) overlooking the lovely Upper Franconian town of Bayreuth. Here I’m enjoying the company and catching up on the news of Nottingham-born Wagner singer, Catherine Ann Foster, Bayreuth Festival’s Brünnhilde, the heroine of Wagner’s epic four-work cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, comprising Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Catherine Foster (Photo Stephan Ernst)
Catherine Foster (Photo Stephan Ernst)
The story is loosely 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 his wife Kriemhild’s revenge.

The Ring, though, is a work not like any other to be found in the 19th-century operatic repertoire and the drama unfolds over 16/17 intensive and dramatic hours. It’s a long haul! But it was a long haul for Wagner, too. It took him the best part of 26 years to complete starting in 1848 but that included an interval of eight years when he took time off for a breather. In that time he knocked out Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Some breather, eh!

Catherine relishes the work and was with Frank Castorf’s production for the full five-year term starting in 2013 when it was staged to celebrate the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth (see Tony's review of this year's performances). Russian-born conductor (and another Bayreuth newcomer) Kirill Petrenko - who takes over the baton from Sir Simon Rattle as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra next year - was in the pit.

Catherine, it seems, was a girl born to sing. ‘I have always loved singing,’ she exclaimed. ‘My mother told me that as soon as I could talk I was singing to my heart’s content. My singing career actually started in my local village church where I graduated to be leading chorister by the time I was 15.'

‘I have a textbook my mother found in the loft from my primary school days and the title of one of my essays was ‘‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’’ And I wrote: ‘‘Since I was about three years old I’ve always known I shall be a nurse and a singer - and that’s what I shall be!’’ followed by a picture of me as a nurse and one as a singer.’

Therefore, from small acorns mighty oak trees grow! And for Catherine, they grew fast. From church choir to grand opera, Catherine’s voice matured and blossomed to a wonderfully-dramatic, rich-sounding, high-soprano voice. And that high-soprano voice is absolutely perfect for Wagner and very much needed when singing in the vast confines of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus which is used only for the sole purpose of staging Wagner’s Teutonic masterpieces. And none comes bigger and better than the Ring.

The Festspielhaus is, without doubt, a masterpiece of grand 19th-century theatre design and the architect, Otto Brückwald, worked to a precise specification by Wagner. It was inaugurated and launched in 1876 with a gala performance of Das Rheingold in the company of such distinguished composers as Bruckner, Grieg and Tchaikovsky as well as Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt.

So many famous singers have graced the Festspielhaus’ immortal stage, the most famous Wagner stage in the world. Now the lass from Nottinghamshire, Catherine Ann Foster, can add her name to the illustrious list.

There’s no doubt whatsoever, Catherine set the Green Hill alight over the past five years delivering a masterful and powerful performance as Brünnhilde. And she has carried the flame, passion and loyalty of this great and imposing Germanic mythological character all over the show appearing in Ring cycles at such well-appointed houses as the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin with Daniel Barenboim and the Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona with Josep Pons as well as at the Budapest Wagner Festival with Adam Fischer while not forgetting Pierre Audi’s breathtaking production in Amsterdam conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. Wotan would have surely been impressed!

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival
(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
However, before Catherine became a professional singer her working life was miles away from the stage. She worked as a midwife at Nottingham City Hospital. ‘What attracted me to singing again,’ she emphasised, ‘was due to the fact that one of my patients was heavily involved with the amateur singing circuit in Nottingham. In passing she gave me a handful of phone numbers of singing teachers and eventually I arrived at the doorstep of Pamela Cook, a well-respected Mansfield-based singing teacher and the founder of the award-winning Mansfield-based girls’ choir, Cantamus. She encouraged me to enrol at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. That move proved to be so valuable.’

Catherine’s new career started well and she made rapid progress to the professional stage. But she never thought (or wanted) to sing Wagner. Gulp! ‘I just felt that his operas were just too long but when the well-respected German conductor, George Alexander Albrecht, engaged me to sing the role of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser in Weimar, it got me hooked on Wagner.’ From that point in time, Catherine remained in contract with the Deutsches Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar (DNT) for ten years.

‘I well remember Herr Albrecht desperately looking for a soprano with a youngish dramatic voice and, luckily, that was me. At the time I had only sung Mozart: Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute) and Donna Anna (Don Giovanni). Therefore, from Mozart to Wagner was a big contrast, a big step, in fact, the equivalent, I guess, of diving in at the deep end.’ But to get to where Catherine is today she had to work hard and whilst studying in Birmingham (from 1995 to 1997) she funded her music degree by travelling to Nottingham at weekends to work as a midwife. She had grit and determination to make it as an opera-singer and that stance has certainly paid off. She excelled in her studies showing her mettle by becoming the first winner of the acclaimed Dame Eva Turner award in 1997. Turner, by the way, was an English dramatic soprano with an international reputation.

‘Winning the Turner award proved a major 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 young singers, the London Opera Studio.’

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) - Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)

Catherine fondly recalls her first fully-professional engagement. ‘I remember it well,’ she smiled. ‘I was in Northern Ireland Opera’s 1998 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute appearing as Queen of the Night. I love the challenges that this glorious role demands especially in the big hearty number, ‘‘The Vengeance of Hell Boils in my Heart’’.’ Some of her early roles, however, were sung in Germany (a country where she now lives) and include Elisabeth, daughter of Henry II of France, in Verdi’s Don Carlos at the Staatstheater Kassel and the scheming princess, Abigaille, in Verdi’s Nabucco at Theater Bremen. ‘They were productions I thoroughly enjoyed,’ she exclaimed.

But an important milestone in Catherine’s 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 The Empress (Die Kaiserin) in Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow). Such was her success that she was invited to return to the scene of her triumph - and return she did relishing such immortal roles as Senta in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

After such glorious adventures in such glorious houses, the young nurse-turned-opera-singer from Nottingham was more than on her way: Staatsoper Hamburg beckoned - where she worked with the Australian-born conductor, Simone Young - as well as other prestigious German houses such as Cologne and Frankfurt.

But when Catherine received a call from Bayreuth it proved thrilling to the extreme. ‘I was actually accepted to sing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth in May 2012,’ she fondly recalls. ‘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 nigh impossible.

‘I’ve worked on the role of Brünnhilde since 2006 and, I think, I’ve really got to know her well. She’s a woman of the world, highly-emotional but very self-confident who develops into an extremely strong person as the story of the Ring unfolds reaching its destiny in Götterdämmerung where she sees that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse is inextricably tied to the ring.

‘To cleanse mankind she has first to cleanse the ring by burning not only the ring itself but the last living holder of it as possession of the ring demands a sacrifice. But one has to remember that Alberich lives on as he sacrificed his humanity therefore Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to ensure mankind can be reborn to start again. In this respect, she dramatically orders the waters of the Rhine to sweep over the fire to wash away the vestiges of the curse. This is, of course, the beginning and end of the Gods and their beloved Valhalla. It’s a big and exciting scene not just for the likes of me but for the audience as well. Every performance, of course, is different and extremely challenging but totally rewarding.’

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Allison Oakes (Gutrune), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)  Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Allison Oakes (Gutrune), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner, though, has now become so important to Catherine. ‘His music, I feel, brings people together from across the world,’ she said emphatically, ‘especially with productions of The Ring. It’s a joyous and uplifting work, whether you love it or hate it. But what I love about the work is that audiences and performers do the journey together in an adult fashion without anger.’

As for working at Bayreuth, this is what she had to say: ‘It has been such a wonderful experience to work in and around the theatre that Wagner built specifically for his music. It has proved an unforgettable experience for me. But 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 to Wagner. But to sing at Bayreuth is a unique experience and I have felt privileged to have sung the role of Brünnhilde in Castorf’s amazing production for the whole of its duration.’

And for next year’s festival, Catherine will return to Bayreuth to sing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in the production which formed part of Castorf’s Ring cycle. The legendary opera star, Plácido Domingo, will be in the pit conducting for the first time his first full-length Wagner opera. It will receive just three performances.

Catherine - whose powerful, rich and emotive voice is not only perfect for the works of Wagner but also for such other opera heavyweights such as Richard Strauss and Giuseppe Verdi - becomes only the third British soprano (but the first English singer, may I add) to have sung Brünnhilde at Bayreuth. She keeps good company with the likes of Welsh-born singers, Dame Anne Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones.

Now that’s what you call a select club. Catherine, the Grande Dame of the Ring and the girl from Nottingham who was born to sing, please take a bow!

Catherine Foster with Georg Zeppenfeld on the forecourt of the Festspielhaus clutching their metal-coated inscribed beer tankards presented to them after five years' service - a Bayreuth tradition.
Catherine Foster with Georg Zeppenfeld on the forecourt of the Festspielhaus
clutching their metal-coated inscribed beer tankards presented to them after 5 years' service - a Bayreuth tradition.

Singing Wagner - read Robert's conversation with Dame Ann Evans and Claire Rutter

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