We talk to ENO favourite Sir John Tomlinson about his forthcoming appearance as Sergeant of Police in our first revival of Mike Leigh’s swashbuckling staging of The Pirates of Penzance.
We are delighted that you are singing in The Pirates of Penzance, what are you looking forward to most about returning to ENO?
I have such a long association with the company, since 1974, I think. I have sung almost 50 roles and many hundreds of performances at the Coliseum and on tour for ENO. Back in the 70s I was a member of the Ensemble – wonderful years! It’s great to get back to a Company where I have so many friends; I love the building and I love the audience. Der Rosenkavalier in 2012 was my last opera at ENO: Baron Ochs is indeed great fun but so is the Sergeant of Police, and I look forward to it. I didn’t actually see Pirates last time but it’s great to be in a Mike Leigh production – I have much admiration for him.
You are a world-class opera singer, best known for singing Wagner, Verdi and Strauss, though you have also sung Handel and Mozart and much Sullivan in your early career. Are you a Gilbert & Sullivan fan? And does your approach to a role differ depending on the repertoire?
I am a Gilbert & Sullivan fan and was brought up on it. I have many memories from my early childhood in Oswaldtwistle – my father singing the Bos’un in HMS Pinafore, my brother as Pish Tush and my sister Yum Yum in The Mikado. We’d often sing round the piano at home. That was where my life as a singer started. Now, a few decades later, my approach to all roles is the same – you prepare thoroughly with discipline; then once in the rehearsal room you get to know the character – think like them, walk in their shoes, slowly getting into the role. I haven’t sung many Gilbert & Sullivan parts: just the Sergeant, Pooh Bah in The Mikado, and Private Willis in Iolanthe with Anne Collins as the Fairy Queen here at ENO in 1971.
You previously sang the role of Sergeant of Police with Manchester University Gilbert & Sullivan Society in 1966. What will you bring to the role this time around?
That is amazingly 51 years ago! It’s the only performance I have ever done of the role – so it’s had time to mature! Exactly what I’ll bring to it – at this stage I don’t know. I have to work with the singers, director, conductor and we’ll see where it goes. It appears a straightforward character but there is often a degree of stylisation with Gilbert & Sullivan. Gilbert’s words are absolutely wonderful and witty, Sullivan’s music goes perfectly with them – his music was at its best in these comic operas, and they have certainly stood the test of time.
You have said that you like to give back when working with young singers. What advice might you give to fellow Pirates cast members and ENO Harewood Artists Soraya Mafi and David Webb?
There’ll be much to talk about – singing, performance, being on stage, text, singing beautifully, and the vocal technique, which are so important for sustaining a long career. If you sing beautifully your voice works naturally and won’t deteriorate. I do many masterclasses with young singers and regard it as a duty, as someone who has been in the business a long time, to give something back. Each singer is unique and you can never predict what each singer will bring. It will depend on their strengths and weaknesses. I encourage the strengths and then work on what needs developing. The advice comes from their needs and situation rather than me giving a list of dogmatic rules!
With a career spanning over forty years, do you have a favourite role? Are there any roles that you would still like to tackle?
Composers are writing new roles for me these days: most recently Thomas Adès in The Exterminating Angel (this season at the Met and Covent Garden); Brett Dean in Hamlet for Glyndebourne this summer; Henze wrote Opfergang for me a few years ago; Harrison Birtwistle the great Gawain and Minotaur, and now John Casken is writing Kokoshka for me. This is a stage of my career that I hadn’t expected. I love modern music – the adventure and the challenge of it; it’s invigorating and it keeps me young. As regards standard repertoire, I have done so many great roles – Hans Sachs, Baron Ochs, Boris Godunov, Bluebeard, John Claggart, Hagen… I am a bass and never expected to be doing bass baritone roles such as Wotan, which is certainly the greatest role I have ever sung. It’s something that Daniel Barenboim insisted I look at; it turned out to be a great success and I went on to do it for twenty years! I’ve done far, far more in my career than I ever expected to.
You have always been an amazing champion of ENO’s work – being an ENO Friend and Legacy Ambassador, as well as supporting our annual Gala this year – thank you! Can you tell us why ENO is so close to your heart?
ENO is our national company and it’s very special. It was Lilian Baylis’s idea that we sing in English – the language of our audience – and that can be extremely intimate and compelling. In Parsifal five years ago, the long narrations felt as though I was speaking personally with the audience. With international opera, singing in the original language is beautiful but not always as intimate. The best way to prepare a role in fact is to learn it in its original language, but then from an acting point of view, to perform it first in English. When it’s your own language and the language of the audience – it’s a very honest, genuine and convincing portrayal.