The industrial community of his childhood brought music alive for the our greatest Wagnerian bass, writes Christopher Morley.
It was growing up in the heart of industrial Britain which steered one of the great Wagnerians of our time to a career in music.
Amongst the factories and textile mills of Lancashire, Sir John Tomlinson’s family of miners, shopkeepers and factory workers would gather around the piano for regular singing sessions as well as taking part in local choirs.
“I was brought up in the 50s, in a very industrial community, lots of factories, lots of textile-mills. All my family were miners and shopkeepers and textile-workers mainly, and factory-workers,” Sir John explains.
“And the great thing that happens in industrial areas is that they set up male voice choirs, brass bands, church choirs, and so on. I was brought up in a house where I was the youngest of five children, with a piano in the back room. All my brothers and sisters were singers, they all played the piano, my mother was a fine soprano, my uncle conducted the male voice choir, my aunt taught me piano, another aunt gave me some early singing lessons when I was 16 or so.
“I was surrounded by music-making, so music was a fact of life for me, and I was singing the whole time, as a boy soprano and then the voice broke and I had this very deep voice, and everyone was saying ‘what’s that noise?’.”
But despite this passion for music, Sir John’s career actually began with taking a degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester.
“Singing was a part of my life, but of course you got a ‘proper job’ in those days,” he explains. “When I was 21 I’d got my degree at Manchester, and I’d been thinking for a number of months, perhaps I should give the singing a go, because I did seem to have this rather exceptional voice.
“And so I went to the college of music in Manchester, studied there for four years, and I learned how to sing. There is a technique involved in singing, and it takes a long time to become a good singer.
“It was quite a hard decision to take at the time, quite risky, but it slowly paid off. The graph of my career started pretty slowly back in the 70s, but it’s just gone on and on and on, and I’ve done things that I never even dreamed I would ever do.”
Sir John now lives in Lewes, Sussex, a place he moved to after leaving college in order to sing in the Glyndebourne chorus for three or four years. “They were very good to me, giving me the opportunity of understudying small parts, and sort of got me started, really,” he says.
His career includes 18 years at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, a world-sung portfolio which takes in Wotan in the Ring cycle and Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, and so much else in all other kinds of repertoire.
In the contemporary field Sir John has been decapitated as the Green Knight in Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain, and he tells me a charming story about his links with that most renowned of contemporary English composers.
“Harrison Birtwistle and I were born in the same building! I come from Oswaldwistle in Lancashire, and he came from a place very near Accrington. We were both born in the nursing-home in Accrington – though he’s a bit older than I am... We’re both Lancashire men, and it’s been a wonderful time singing his music.”
But the roles that Sir John has undertaken cover a gamut of genres, not just the weighty Wagner or the novelty of the contemporary, but encompassing Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, Mussorgsky and countless others, whether tragic or comic, and even Gilbert and Sullivan for the lamented Kent Opera.
Does he have any particular preferences for any particular kind of roles?
“Well... singing and acting and theatre, and being onstage performing, it’s all part of the same art form, really. If you act well it helps you to sing well, and it gives expression to everything and you get immersed in a role; it gives meaning to the whole art-form of singing and acting.
“And so this variety of roles, each one helps the other. If you’re doing a malicious villain like Hagen or Claggart, compared with, say, Baron Ochs, the loveable rogue in Rosenkavalier, or Leporello, the rather mischievous servant of Don Giovanni, this wide variety, they are interdependent, each one helps the other. Comedy helps the tragedy, and the malice helps the mischief, and so on.
“So it’s all to do with becoming a stage artist and a singing actor. At the end of the day, a singer is at his best when he’s doing the roles which really suit his voice. You have a voice, you can do a lot with it, you can be very expressive with it, you can be very flexible with it, but there are limits to that. There are certain things in a way that you are born to do, because of the endowment you have with your voice. I have this bass voice: I’ve been able to take it quite high and do Wotan and the Flying Dutchman, Golaud in Pelleas et Melisande, and things like that with more of the baritonal range.
“But I suppose ultimately, my favourite, my best roles are the ones I’m most suited to. So you would probably say it’s the big, heavy, tragic Wagnerian repertoire that has suited me the best.
“But I’ve enjoyed it all, I’ve enjoyed that variety of roles enormously. Actually I did a concert last night in Canterbury with the Philharmonia, the opening of the new Marlowe Theatre, with a whole range of music. Whatever you’re doing, you’re communicating with the audience, whether it’s tragedy or comedy, and that is the skill, and that’s why we’re there.”
* Sir John Tomlinson sings the title role in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Friday, October 21 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.