When Valery Gergiev brings his huge Mariinsky Theatre company from St Petersburg to Birmingham Hippodrome next week for a performance of Wagner’s vast Ring cycle, Wotan, leader of the gods, will be sung in Das Rheingold, the opening opera of the tetralogy, by our own Sir Willard White.
How is it that a son of Jamaica and Knight of the Realm is singing in a Russian production of the Ring in the middle of England, I ask the much-loved bass-baritone.
“This is something which fills me with wonder and amazement,” he replies. “I couldn’t have planned it.
“It’s partly connected to my jumping in at the last minute, literally, when a couple of years ago I was in St Petersburg to do Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I was preparing for a dress rehearsal and I received a phone call from Maestro Gergiev’s assistant, telling me that Maestro wanted me to step in for a concert performance of Das Rheingold because the Wotan at the time, Rene Pape, was indisposed. The short of a long story is that I did accept the invitation and in the end Maestro Gergiev was very pleased.
“He hasn’t forgotten and has invited me to do performances in Astana, Kazakhstan, and in Birmingham. I’m thrilled.”
Around 20 years ago I saw Sir Willard singing Wotan for Scottish Opera in Glasgow and he kindly entertained me in his flat the next morning for an interview. Has Wagner figured much in his repertoire since then?
“After our meeting all those years ago I have done a couple of productions of Die Walkure in Hamburg and San Francisco, then a production of the complete cycle of The Ring in Aix-en -Provence, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.”
Typical of Valery Gergiev’s working methods (which always seem to come up trumps) there has been little time for rehearsal with him, as Sir Willard agrees.
“I won’t have much rehearsal with Maestro Gergiev pre-Birmingham but we had a rehearsal a few days ago prior to the performance in Astana.”
Sir Willard’s repertoire is wide, ranging from baroque masterpieces to gritty examples from the 20th century, such as Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Earlier this year he sang Christus in Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Armonico Consort in Malvern’s Forum Theatre and returned to the venue at the beginning of this autumn for a crossover solo recital. I wonder if he has any particularly favourite repertoire?
“I love to sing the variety of works I am able to do and for me it is a gift from the universe.
“Favourites I avoid because I feel I would be creating a problem. A nonstop rendition of my favourites would become boring and were I not doing my favourites again I could be bored. Therefore I enjoy whatever I commit myself to for creating an interpretation. I never stop loving this amazing life.
“I am really looking forward to doing this performance of Das Rheingold in Birmingham with the Mariinsky Opera. My mother would give a big grin of appreciative amazement!”
Sir Willard White’s appearance in Das Rheingold will give local audiences the chance to identify with a performer they know well, perhaps remembering his adroit Leporello as a foil to Thomas Allen’s Don Giovanni when Simon Rattle conducted a memorable performance of Mozart’s great opera with the CBSO at Symphony Hall in the mid-1990s.
Other members of the Mariinsky team will perhaps be not so familiar, but as football-loving Valery Gergiev moves his squad around, every performer will be on their toes, keen for selection.
I witnessed the pragmatic success of this approach when I previewed the Mariinsky Ring in St Petersburg at the end of last winter, when major roles were differently cast for each of the four operas.
Birmingham Hippodrome will be at the centre of the operatic world next week. Such a wonderful, resourceful lyric theatre certainly deserves so to be.
* Birmingham Hippodrome hosts Das Rheingold on November 5 (7.30pm), Die Walkure on November 6 (5pm), Siegfried on November 8 (5pm) and Gotterdammerung on November 9 (5pm). Details on 0844 338 5000.