In Conversation With Brindley Sherratt

 “A Wagner singer is a happy singer.” John Tomlinson 

Brindley Sherratt Sings Gurnemanz, Veteran Knight of the Grail, in Opera North’s upcoming production of Wagner’s Parsifal. Grand Theatre Leeds 1, 4, 7 and 10 June. He shared some of his time with Tom Tollett.

As the principal bass in an opera, for once you are playing a good guy.

“Being a continually good character does have its problems dramatically. I have learned by stages that it is best to play the baddie, if offered the choice. I can handle the boos at the curtain call. The role of a Wagnerian hero can entrap the unwary in a shimmering, soft-focussed rendition that does not develop very far. I would like to think that my Gurnemanz is about 75% human, rather than wholly mythical. Though old from the outset, it is clear he was conflicted in his younger days and, if worldly wisdom now bestows spiritual grandeur and serenity, he shows real anger and bewilderment at Klingsor, the villain of the piece. And he does become more aged, decrepit even, by Act III. In researching how German singers could colour the text, I have listened to Ludwig Weber, amongst others. Weber’s was a wondrously distinct voice. He took huge risks with tempo and dynamics. Trying to emulate him is, perhaps, futile, but I try to make mine as insightful and vivid a portrayal as his.”

And what of Opera North’s production? Post-war Parsifals, modelled on an intentional Bayreuth austerity, may involve as little on stage as a chair and a spear.

“Our director, Sam Brown, has the sensible approach so as not to over-emphasise the religious symbolism that has dogged the work over the years. There is still the gravity of ritual coupled to the seriousness of a sacred mission, but the human element involved, mankind’s beauty, frailty and ugliness, is explored with refreshing candour. The minimalism of its concert setting is exploited to create a successful means by which the action can be played out without distracting the audience with the tempting gimmickry of a full set. Yes, there is the grail and holy spear, and costume and lighting, but the production is more about themes of life and hope.”

You now have a successful international career. Has it been straightforward to get here?

“It has not been without incident. I grew up singing in that the family were in the Salvation Army, which got me not only into the junior choir, but also playing the cornet. I was performing twice during the week and three times on Sunday. Gradually, I transferred to playing the trumpet and played with the Stockport Youth Orchestra and Salford Symphony Orchestra. Through the inspiring tuition of my secondary school teacher – we did shows like The Wizard of Oz and Half A Sixpence – I eventually felt good enough to apply for a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London to play trumpet principally, but they do require you to offer a second instrument. They accepted me to do vocals, only because my singing was a good deal better than my piano playing. Weekly lessons brought me on, of course. After my first year there, my singing teacher encouraged me to enter the College’s internal opera competitions, so I could hear what the “real singers”, the vocal majoring students, sounded like. There were arias from Verdi and Mozart – from Simon Boccanegra and Figaro – if memory serves. I won one of these competitions and then another one. The College concluded that I had promise and should study further.

I remember Janet Baker saying to me, “If we give you the money to stay on, Brindley, you must promise to stop playing the trumpet.”

How much of specialising in singing involved learning languages?

“I not only found that relatively easy, I actually enjoyed it. I have always been fond of copying accents, so the whole process seemed a fun-filled extension of that. My early career involved singing at St. George’s Chapel. I lived at Windsor Castle for two years. Then I branched out and joined the BBC Singers, performing in oratorios. My wife and I had a family by then, with all the responsibilities, but she said to me, “You’re looking a bit bored with what you’re doing. Why not try opera?” I sang to an agent, who thought my voice had promise, though a bit rusty, so I got coaching to train me up for stage work. The BBC gave me six months off to get other work. Opera North did not seem interested, but I have forgiven them. Welsh National took me on and, eventually, after a suitable apprenticeship, I made my debut at the Royal Opera House. It was a production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, conducted by Colin Davis. Anna Nebtrenko was also making a first professional appearance, as was this Parsifal‘s Kundry, Katarina Karnéus. Needless to say, it put us all securely on the musical map.

My first performance for ON at the Grand Theatre was not a happy one. After the first two performances as the King in Don Carlos, I fell very ill with what was later discovered to be a reaction to the statin I had been prescribed. It even took away my voice. Since, I have done Rigoletto and sung Claggart in Billy Budd when they toured at the Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh.”

Wagner’s Gurnemanz is difficult, of course. I have calculated that I sing for a total of 1 hour and 40 minutes during the three Acts of Parsifal, a monumental undertaking. John Tomlinson, who’s a good friend, told me that I will need good legs, by which I think he means both that it is not only a long stand on stage, but my interpretation will grow with time. The vocal demands cover the extremes of dynamics; it’s multicoloured, multifaceted and richly rewarding.”

The Grand Theatre acoustic is on the dry side, making it an easier experience for the listener than the performer. We basses appreciate some reverberation from the building; a little resonance in the air. However, I don’t mind that, vocally, there is no place to hide here.

It’s a pleasure performing with a Company which put out such imaginative programming during the lockdowns of the pandemic. Opera North commands so much respect in the operatic world.”

All performances of Opera North’s Parsifal, both in Leeds and on tour, are expected to last about 5 hours and 11 minutes, timetabled as:

Act I – start 4pm, Interval 5.41pm,
Act II – start 6.21pm, Interval 7.31pm,
Act III – start 7.56pm to finish at 9.11pm.

Drinks and food can be ordered in advance.

Sung in German, with English titles.

The production is on tour to Manchester, Nottingham, Gateshead and London from 12 to 26 June.

Photograph by Bill Cooper. Brindley Sherratt as Baron Ochs in WNO Der Rosen Kavalier, and Lucia Cervoni as Octavian.

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