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Seen and Heard Interview

Never just the bridesmaid, often the (blushing) bride! Jim Pritchard meets Anthony Negus (JPr)


As (admittedly adjusted) clichéd phrases go, the one in this title is highly appropriate to the long career in music of the conductor – and long time member of the music staff at Welsh National Opera – Anthony Negus.

Another such phrase is ‘Hey guys! Let’s put on a show’ and if we 'marry' the two ideas together they describe Anthony’s current project at Longborough where the full version of Wagner’s Das Rheingold is staged for the first time on 23rd June. ‘Full’ is important here because for many years Longborough has been home to cycles of a cut-down Ring in the Jonathan Dove version originally used by the City of Birmingham Touring Opera in 1990.

The Longborough Festival began in 1991. Martin Graham, a property developer with a large house and grounds in the Cotswolds, decided to convert an old chicken barn into an opera house. Sounds simple enough but a rocky road of traffic, planning and VAT rows had to be travelled before the colonnaded Palladian building with some of the red plush seats from the old Royal Opera House, could be established.  It has been especially refurbished and enlarged for the 2007 season. The audience, many wearing black tie, picnic before and during the performances in the gardens and car park as they would do at Glyndebourne upon which Longborough evenings are modelled.

Anthony says that without Martin and his wife Lizzie ‘None of this would have happened’. He went on to explain how ‘Martin seems to have something guiding him on and he gives energy to everyone to leads us on. I am very fond of them both and I really clicked with Martin when I met him for the first time. It was while we were doing the shorter version of the Ring when I was feeling a little low for whatever reason. I arrived and he was playing the Furtwängler La Scala cycle with Kirsten Flagstad and I heard this and thought “Wow, yes of course, this is why we are doing it” so I said to Martin “You have really galvanised me by this!” It is certainly not personal ambition that is pushing them.’

Wagner and Anthony Negus is an interesting story, so how did it all begin? ‘Well, my parents took me to Bayreuth when I was 15. I was already showing interest in Wagner and they loved Wagner as well. So they decided to get tickets for the Ring and they did that in 1961. My sister came as well and it was the second year of the Wolfgang Wagner/Rudolf Kempe Ring. I went back the following three years because I had the good fortune to do an exchange visit with the son of a dentist who only lived seven minutes from the Festspielhaus. So then I gained access to the orchestra pit and felt so at home there, I really loved it.'

'In those days Bayreuth was balanced between the older school - because Knappertsbusch was still there until 1964 and I heard him conduct Parsifal - and there was Kempe who was always someone I followed. Every evening there was a different conductor; there was Böhm doing Tristan and then Kempe with the Ring. Kempe’s interpretation was more modern, more flowing, lighter in texture and what I loved most was his saving the big climax in the music until it was really there. Sometimes he almost went too far by suppressing some of the climaxes along the way but he had this wonderful sense of structure and it was quite in contrast to Solti at Covent Garden in the 1960s that tended to go much more for the moment.'

'In the ‘60s -1966 was the last time I was there and I saw Parsifal under Boulez and the Wieland Wagner Tristan when it had reached its full fruition with Nilsson, Windgassen and Böhm. Several years later I auditioned there and was engaged for the music staff for1972 to 1973.’

Anthony had a long time association and friendship with the legendary British Wagner conductor Sir Reginald Goodall and describes how this came about. ‘It was of course through hearing the famous The Mastersingers that Goodall conducted for Sadler’s Wells Opera as it was then in 1968. Like many of my contemporaries I was hearing a Klangwelt, a ‘sound world’ we had never heard before and that seemed to come from another era. When I heard it, I still had some doubts about the sheer expansion of some of it but it was such a new experience for me and I just knew after that I must get to know Goodall. Actually it was more than that … I felt we were destined and so I wrote to him and we actually met by chance at a 1969 Glyndebourne dress rehearsal of Pélleas er Mélisande (one of his favourite operas) so I asked if I could be a voluntary assistant and did that since I was free-lancing at the time.'

'I sat in on the rehearsals of The Mastersingers at the London Coliseum when they transferred it there and subsequently helped him with The Valkyrie which was the beginning of the famous Coliseum Ring Cycle. Then I got a job in Germany and missed the rest of that Ring unfortunately during my four years there. Taking over from him in 1983 for the Welsh National Opera performances of Parsifal was of course entirely unexpected. He had been working for months with the cast and conducted one play through with the orchestra in December 1982. At the start of 1983 I was told he was ill and would I mind taking the first sectionals; and it grew from there so I gradually took it all over. Although he did come back and conduct a couple of rehearsals, his withdrawal felt inevitable though it did not come until s week before the première and they asked me to take over.'

Does Anthony have any special memory of Goodall? ‘Well there are all sorts of funny and wonderful moments in rehearsal,  many of which are well known,  but mine is a more personal memory. It was just talking with him about life, death and the world on a walk with him in the Mumbles where his hotel was, when we recorded Tristan at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall. It is a picture of his face when he would kind of stop and stand back on his heels. It is the moment that just stays with me. I felt that having worked with him for so many weeks at a time, I was internally tuned in anyway by that stage so we had a kind of contact that was becoming quite telepathic and I treasure moments like that I had with him.’

Anthony told me how he first came to work at Longborough: ‘I was rung up at the end of 1999 by Alan Privett the director of the shortened Ring and now the director for the full version of Das Rheingold to say they needed a conductor for the new production of Siegfried and the revival of The Valkyrie. The original conductor Alistair Dawes had withdrawn and so I thought it would be a good opportunity to do my own thing. I had some worries about that version but looking back over 5 cycles for Longborough and 2 for Pittsburgh in 2006 I am extremely grateful for the experience and feel we managed to invest something really Wagnerian into it. I also think I managed to improve certain things in Jonathan Dove’s version as it had been prepared in rather a hurried way.'

'I, of course, went back as much as I could to Wagner’s original score and generally rehashed a few moments - for instance in Valkyrie Act I there was a passage that had been transposed to another key because of the cut before it.  However I managed to write three bars of transition music that got everything back to the right key. What is important about that is if the singer singing Sieglinde – it was her passage – goes on to do the full version then it is much better that what she is singing is actually Wagner.'

'Now we are building on this past but it is a new concept and Alan is very anxious to point that out. We are doing the real work with an orchestra of nearly 60 players and no cuts. The pit doors have been altered so there is a bit more space and the theatre has been enlarged and the roof raised. We have a wonderful Norwegian designer for the scenery and costumes, Kjell Torrset,  and we have gone beyond Longborough and Pittsburg for our cast.’

With a singer of his in the cast,  the great Wagnerian bass-baritone Sir Donald McIntyre was at the rehearsals in Ealing where I talked to Anthony and he even sang a couple of parts for singers who were not there at the time. Anthony has an association with Sir Donald - dating from that 1983 Parsifal to recent performances last year of that opera in New Zealand  - but he also came into the Longborough Ring once and I asked how that had come about: ‘Brian Bannatyne-Scott did three cycles in 2002 and for various reasons withdrew and we needed another Wotan and my wife, Carmen, urged me to ask Donald because I was thinking “I don’t think he would agree to do this”. She said to try him and I was surprised when he took to the idea and said “Oh yes I’d like to do that (and) it’s not a bad idea that it is not such a full version”. Having Donald in the cast is an inspiring experience for everyone. He brought a special caché to those performances and to the others in the cast by leading by his example.'

'Conducting Parsifal in New Zealand with Donald as Gurnemanz, Simon O’Neill as Parsifal, Margaret Medlyn as Kundry and Paul Whelan as Amfortas was one of the more exciting things I have done because I was being invited to conduct a great orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with this wonderful cast. It is due to the loyalty of Donald who believed in me that I got the job. He said we must have Anthony Negus conduct and since I am not a famous name they said they did not know me,  but Donald insisted “He’s the man for the job!” It was a great experience and with modesty I can say that it came off well.'

As we reached the end of our time together I wanted to know what Anthony’s aims are in a Wagner performance: ‘Well it is for the dramatic truth of it all. I try and grasp what is implied behind the text. The correct text declamation in the right tempo and with the right expression. The understanding of above all when a motif appears for the first time and considering the scale of its significance, balancing out that with recognising that when the moment comes that it really is special. It seems to me a real Wagnerian experience means you come into the moment,  so in Das Rheingold for example when the Rhinemaidens see the sun and we get that magical awakening of the sleeping gold, it bursts out with the trumpet motif in C major, with cymbals and triangle and into “Rheingold!” This must be given expression of pure utter joy because it is the only time in the entire Ring that you get this pure utter joy. It is complete unadulterated joy yet later out of that motif comes the most sinister of ones in Götterdämmerung.'

'The more one understands how one thing leads to another … that’s very important I think. It was one of Reggie Goodall’s favourite expressions “one after the other” and that means you have got to allow it to unfold. It is a sense of pacing, it is not whether it is fast or slow but you have got to know where it is all going, so it is my job as a conductor to carry most understanding of the piece as a musical whole because everyone else has a certain part in it. The conductor has got to have the overall picture and the more concentrated I am in the moment then the more, I am totally convinced, this will transmit to an intelligent audience. Stand outside it, let it unfold …but don’t interfere with it.’

Anthony looked back at other specially fulfilling evenings for him on the podium and mentioned a Khovanshchina  this April where he conducted the last performance in Birmingham for WNO, a Katya Kabanova in Llandudno in 2004, other Parsifals in Birmingham in 2003, as well as one or two of his Mozart evenings. I enquired whether he had any unfulfilled ambitions and he replied: ‘My greatest longing is to be involved in a production of Die Meistersinger, obviously I would like to conduct it but more importantly would like to do it in depth because that is something I have not done yet.’ With Bryn Terfel announced to be doing his first Hans Sachs in a future WNO season in Cardiff perhaps his chance is not too far away?

Meanwhile this most genial, unassuming and highly intelligent musician who deserves to be much more widely known than he is,  can to be found at Longborough and he concluded by adding: ‘I’m naturally concentrating now on establishing as authentic a Das Rheingold as we can do it and I am concerned that every aspect should be true. Of course I must say we will not have 18 anvils … but we will have anvils. Of course we are not going to have the backing and expansion to fall back on as in a larger house but it is very exciting to be involved with it. This year is a fundamental one to see how it all works and how realistic it is to do Das Rheingold and then the other Ring operas in such small surroundings, but I am hopeful and believe strongly in it.’


Jim Pritchard


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