The Valkyries: (l-r) Meeta Raval, Jennifer Johnston, Emma Carrington, Miriam Murphy, Katherine Broderick, Madeline Shaw, Antonia Sotgiu, Catherine Hopper. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.
One question I'm invariably asked when people learn that I sing Wagner is 'how do you become a Wagnerian?'. The music is on a scale like no other, and as someone remarked to me recently, Wotans and Brünnhildes don't grow on trees.
Certainly you need to be born with a voice that is powerful enough to be heard clearly no matter how big the orchestral forces involved, as Wagner allows the orchestra's dramatic role to be equal to that of the singers. You also have to have a secure vocal technique that allows you to produce that voice in a safe and comfortable way in that environment. However, there's no such thing as a Wagnerian sound - if you listen to all of the great Wagnerians of the past they all sound very different from one another (compare Birgit Nilsson to Kirsten Flagstad for instance).
It is also a widely held assumption and very much a cliché that in order to sing Wagner's music you need to be enormous physically, but from my experience that's not true at all. Wagnerians come in all shapes and sizes, and physical size doesn't correlate at all to vocal prowess. Looking around at the rest of the Opera North Die Walküre cast (and remembering the singers who were in the cast of Das Rheingold with me too), there is little physical similarity between us all. The only unifying physical feature is that we're all tough, and by that I mean we all have the capacity to sing for hours at a time and aren't likely to pass out whilst trying.
To sing Brünnhilde, for instance, you have to be able to sing for 3 hours without stopping or tiring, and be able to sing as well at the beginning of the evening as at the end, so stamina and general physical fitness are critical. The operas are extremely long (over 5 hours in length in the case of Die Meistersinger) and therefore the roles can take years to learn and master vocally, requiring real discipline, an extremely good memory, and sheer hard work.
An added difficulty can be mastering the language for non-German speakers. Whether someone sings Wagner can also be a matter of taste - there are also some singers for whom the narrative style and gargantuan scale of Wagner is unappealing, and who prefer to sing Verdi and Puccini for instance. So, the next time someone asks me what it takes to be a Wagnerian, I think my answer will be that either you can sing Wagner or you can't, or you may choose not to, but hard work, determination, stamina and genetics are the main ingredients in the mix!
Jennifer Johnston (Waltraute)
Die Walküre is on at Leeds Town Hall tomorrow, Wednesday 20th June, and then Wednesday 27th June at 5pm. It tours to The Sage Gateshead on Saturday 23rd June, The Birmingham Symphony Hall on Saturday 30th June and The Lowry, Salford, on Saturday 14th July.