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Standing up to Wagner

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Although famous for his conducting of the great German Romantic, Anthony Negus tells Alexander Chancellor that he’s refused to be his slave

That megalomaniac genius Richard Wagner, creator of the most ambitious operas ever conceived, worked successfully in his own lifetime to create a cult of himself. With the backing of his famous patron, the ‘mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria, he built himself a temple in the form of the festival theatre in the north Bavarian town of Bayreuth, which was specially designed to accommodate his operas’ extravagant theatrical demands; and to this day it remains such a draw for his fans from around the world that there’s a wait of something like ten years for a single ticket. Legend has it that if someone dies in the middle of a Bayreuth performance, the rest of the audience will wait until the interval before an ambulance is called.

The deification of Wagner and the worship of his idea of opera as a ‘total art work’, unifying music, drama and poetry into a single art form, took a heavy battering in the mid-20th century because of the adulation bestowed on him by Adolf Hitler, who admired him for his strong German nationalism and anti-Semitism among other qualities. But the cult survives nevertheless in Wagner societies throughout the world, whose members organise their travels around performances of The Ring cycle wherever they are being held. They are very knowledgeable and very critical of the way his operas are interpreted. But one interpreter who has been rising rapidly in the esteem of all Wagner lovers is the British conductor Anthony Negus.

Outside professional music circles, Negus was little known until he joined forces with Martin Graham, a self-made property developer, who in the 1990s turned a chicken barn on his Gloucestershire country estate into an opera house. It was thanks to Negus’s arrival there as music director in 2000 that the Longborough Opera Festival has slowly developed into a kind of modest English version of Bayreuth, a beacon of excellence in Wagner performance. The decisive moment came in 2013, Wagner’s bicentenary year, when Negus ended years of preparation by conducting, to great critical acclaim, the entire fifteen-hour Ring cycle, an astonishing undertaking for a small, privately owned opera house.

Negus, when I met him in London, where he was starting rehearsals for five performances of Tannhäuser in June, insisted that he was far from being an ‘exclusive’ Wagnerian. As a young man, he had been just as keen on Verdi, whom Wagner somewhat despised. ‘But Wagner has a way of taking you over,’ he said. He agreed that some Wagner enthusiasts were odd: ‘They can be disturbing sometimes.’

He also seemed pleased that the mythology surrounding the composer – partly of his own creation, but much expanded by his widow Cosima – had been in decline. It meant that you could now concentrate on the music, he said: ‘So many people get carried away with the baggage and don’t get inside the music.’ And when you do that, you find that Wagner was not the standalone figure that he liked to pretend he was, but one much influenced by other composers – especially by Beethoven but also even by the Jewish Mendelssohn, which he would never have cared to admit.

Negus, now seventy, was deeply involved in music from an early age. His parents were both music teachers at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, where he was educated and played the clarinet, and from where he won a music scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He played in the university orchestra, he did a bit of amateur conducting, attended a conducting course in Siena, got various jobs in Germany as a répétiteur – the person who trains the opera singers for performances – until settling down in that role in 1976 for the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, where he remained for many years. He now lives with his wife, an opera director, in Penarth, next door to Bryn Terfel, the celebrated Welsh bass-baritone.

But early on Negus had fallen under Wagner’s influence, having been taken by his parents to hear The Ring in Bayreuth as a teenager and on later occasions sneaking his way into the orchestra pit for other performances. ‘It was like home, it was wonderful,’ he said. Then in 1979 he began his collaboration with Reginald Goodall, the most famous English Wagner conductor of the time. He described this as ‘the richest thing’ of his life: ‘We went together on a journey of discovery into what was really happening inside Wagner’s music.’ Goodall taught everyone involved in a performance to listen to the music as a whole. Sometimes he conducted so slowly that the operas lasted longer than even Wagner had envisaged. Negus said he acted as Goodall’s ‘rhythmic conscience’ and sought to curb this tendency when it went too far. He also spoke much better German than the conductor.

Since Goodall’s death in 1990, Negus has finally come into his own. Had he been disappointed that it had taken him so long? ‘I used to have dreams,’ he said, ‘But you get down to the job. That’s the important thing. I had pursued my tasks with dedication and some recognition, but hadn’t taken off. But now for the first time I am in charge of the music, doing my own thing.’

Longborough Festival Opera is offering a complimentary glass of champagne to Oldie readers with each ticket booked for a performance of ‘Jenufa’.

Janacek’s most popular opera contains music of high drama and rare beauty, written over a period of ten years during the illness of his daughter Olga, and he poured out his love for

her through the central character, to be sung by Lee Bisset.

Performances are on 16th, 19th, 21st and 23rd July. To book call 01451 830292 quoting ‘Oldie’ or book online at using promo code ‘Oldie2016’ at the checkout.

This story was from June 2016 issue. Subscribe Now