By Way of Bayreuth
British soprano Catherine Foster has sung Brünnhilde as frequently as any soprano on the stage today. In May, she makes her U.S. debut as Wagner's valkyrie in Washington National Opera's first complete Ring cycles.
by Adam Wasserman.
Foster in rehearsal for Washington National Opera's Ring cycle
Photo by Scott Suchman
CATHERINE FOSTER MAY BE THE BEST BRÜNNHILDE you’ve never heard. Only in the second decade of her career, the Nottingham-born soprano has more than thirty-five Ring cycles under her belt, having taken Wagner’s heroine to stages from Tokyo and Helsinki, to Riga and Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus. Yet it's altogether shocking when one realizes that, amidst the current drought of genuine dramatic voices on American stages, Foster will make her United States opera debut in May when she brings her Brünnhilde to the stage of the Kennedy Center for two cycles in Washington National Opera’s first complete Ring.
Foster had actually never before been to America when she visited the OPERA NEWS offices in October to talk about taking on Brünnhilde in the nation’s capital. The soprano’s distinctly feminine timbre—the Queen of the Night was her first professional engagement in 1998—may seem to upend presumptions about the sonic demands of Wagner’s operas, but her instrument exhibits a thrilling cut and thrust that make roles like Elektra, Abigaille, Turandot and Isolde natural tentpoles in her repertoire. Whatever other characters she may inhabit, though, it was clear from the insight and depth with which Foster spoke about Brünnhilde that the valkyrie exists squarely at the center of the soprano's artistic endeavors.
OPERA NEWS: With thirty-five Ring cycles under your belt, you’ve probably sung Brünnhilde as much as any soprano in the world at the moment. Yet Washington National Opera’s Ring will mark your North American stage debut. I would imagine that you have some very specific ideas about the character, even though directors’ conception of the role likely change from show to show.
CATHERINE FOSTER: Oh, absolutely. What I find fascinating is that with every Ring cycle you do, you have a completely different perspective from that particular director, as well as the conductor. I do have certain ideas, and there are certain things, of course, that become ingrained. But I like to remain open, and what I’m really looking forward to with this one is that it’s the first time with a female director—Francesca Zambello. So I know there’s going to be completely different view. And she’s American, so there’s going to be differences in thinking—not only because it’s Francesca as a woman, but also because it’s from the point of view of the American continent.
ON: What are some of the things about the character of Brünnhilde that you feel are incontrovertible and shouldn’t change from production to production?
CF: One of the things that doesn’t change is that she has a metamorphosis. She’s one of the few characters within the Ring that actually moves on, changes, and becomes enlightened. Wotan doesn’t—either because he doesn't want to change, or that he can’t change because of who he is.
But Brünnhilde in Die Walküre—she is a young teenager who is full of hope for the world. This is the “Hojotoho!” She is full of joy, and begins to see the world through different eyes, ands starts to mature. She goes through the metamorphosis, and through Walküre itself, you see her begin to question, “Hang on a minute, you said A, B, and C should happen. I’ve done that, and now you’re saying after this conversation with Fricka that I’ve got to completely turn round and do the opposite.” The anger of Wotan, for me, is actually guilt over the fact that Brünnhilde has touched a nerve, because she speaks the truth. I think if you embarrass people, or you touch a nerve with them, that’s when they retaliate with extreme anger. It’s only in the third act, third scene, that he starts to calm down.
Then of course in Siegfried, when she wakes up, she wakes up as a virgin—for me that’s definite. However the work may be interpreted by directors, she says it—“Kein Gott nahte mir je!” “Nobody has ever come near me, man or god, and I’ve not been touched.” However anybody else wants to interpret the opera, Brünnhilde, in that moment, believes in her own innocence, and that’s why she experiences first love.
ON: Does your vocal approach to the different operas correlate with your ideas about how Brünnhilde changes as a character? Do you start the Siegfried Brünnhilde with more of a “virginal” tone?
Walküre is definitely approached from the side that she’s a young girl. So the colors there—it’s not full-blast, apart from when she’s angry. You hear the dark colors there when she gets angry. But the colors in Walküre are very much to do with confusion, to do with being a young girl and pleading—even right through to the third act, she’s running away, she’s begging her sisters to help.
Then with Siegfried, it’s lyrical. It’s as lyrical as you could possibly get. You have to get the light colors to convey the lyricism. Wagner himself wrote for three different vocal types. The Walküre was intended as a speaking-singing type of thing—he wanted this chit-chat and discussion. Of course, before he got to Siegfried, he’d written another opera, so it was completely different in his composing—it lies higher, and it’s a lot more lyrical.
Foster, in rehearsal with WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello and mezzo Jamie Barton
Photo by Scott Suchman
ON: You’ve been at Bayreuth for the past three seasons, and sang Brünnhilde in Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Ring when it first premiered in 2013. How have you found the working environment there?
CF: It’s incredibly intense work. We started rehearsals on April 19, and we were working on just the Ring in rehearsals, and the whole of the cycle was finished by the August 28. So rehearsals—dramatically, musically—were absolutely intense. Because, of course, it’s the throne of Wagner and everything goes into getting everything completely as to how Wagner wrote it—to actually stand on Wagner’s stage, that he’d actually designed specifically for his music; to go really deeply into the meaning; to work with all these people—it becomes the most amazing experience. It will be with me for the rest of my life.
ON: Audiences and critics have not been enthusiastic about Castorf's Ring. It was met with raucous booing when it first premiered. You sang Brünnhilde at the premiere and have been there for each of the subsequent revivals. Has your approach to the character of Brünnhilde changed as Castorf’s Ring has become more of a known property?
CF: Well, it’s a work in progress. That’s what Bayreuth is—they change casts sometimes. Next year, there are twenty-six cast changes, and I’m the only main protagonist to remain. So that’s going to be fascinating in itself, because there’s going to be new people to work with. We had a couple of cast changes this year. We had Stefan Vinke come to do Siegfried, and Stephen Milling came to do Hagen. That, for me, brought a lot of a different dimensions, because of course they were different people, different statures. They viewed their roles differently.
Of course, the idea of what Frank Castorf wants is there. He’s a very visual person. Many people have asked me about what Frank wants the audience to think. Frank just wants you to think, whether you think positively or negatively. If you are walking out of the theater, talking about his regie, he’s done the right thing, as far as he’s concerned—whether you love it or hate it. And this Ring definitely makes you love or hate it. The Giants’ palace is a kebab house, which has upset a lot of people. But I look at it, and I think, “Yeah, I can buy this.” Brünnhilde walks out and she sees these people just dancing around, and the destruction, and the state of the world in decay and how terrible it all is, and she thinks, “Why? Why do people not respect? Why do they not value what they have … because it’s so easily taken away.” There’s a moment when Brünnhilde comes down the stairs, in her gold lamé dress, and, for me, she’s thinking “everything has to be destroyed so that we can start again, and people learn the values of what they already have.”
ON: You began your professional career as a nurse, and then as a midwife. How and when did you transition into opera?
CF: I’ve always loved singing. Since I was three years old, I’ve always known ‘I will be a nurse and a singer, and that’s what I will be.’ I've always been a bit of a fatalist. I’ve always believed I would be a singer. After I finished doing my nursing and midwifery, I found a very good signing teacher, Pamela Cook, who had an M.B. for teaching, and she had a very famous choir, the Cantamus Girls Choir in Mansfield. She taught me at the Birmingham Conservatoire and I continued to study with her until she died. Sadly, she was buried on the day of my Siegfried dress rehearsal in Bayreuth. She had a stroke, and I couldn’t get to her, because of course, with the Ring there is no time or anything. So that was very sad. She is the one who’s given me my career, and I was with her for 20 years.
But what she did not know about technique you could write on a postage stamp. She taught me that there is no big secret to learning a singing technique. It is making conscious, really, what is unconscious. If you listen to babies cry, they have an incredible volume—the sound carries in the way they breathe. So you have to sort of find out how they do that, because it’s totally unconscious. Then you make it unconscious again. A lot of the time singers get in the way of our own technique. So your technique is not there for when you’re well, it’s there for when you’re not well, and you have to be able to get around all these problems. But it’s really a balance between the voice and how much air you let out.
ON: Is there a Ring production that stands out in your mind? A moment when the the operas really clicked for you?
CF: They’ve all clicked, and they’ve all had something special about them. But one of the most amazing ones I ever did was the Amsterdam Ring, directed by Pierre Audi. It was magical. We were there and were together for thirteen months—it was done over that period of time. Rheingold was done first, then Walküre came. It was an intense rehearsal period with six weeks’ rehearsal for each piece. I was released from the Siegfried because I was doing Bayreuth. So I didn’t do the actual rehearsal period there. But I did the Walküre, Götterdämmerung, and then I did the Ring cycles in February of the following year. There was something about the way he did the personeregie between the characters. The words became so intense because there was nothing else on the stage. There was lighting, there were costumes, but there were no props. There was a table in Walküre for our scene, but it was all done with how we looked at each other, where we looked, how we stood, and the meaning of the words there. Not ever production works with just the words—but this one did.