By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - It's happened very fast for soprano Catherine Foster, who was a midwife before she became a singer and this week will be the first Englishwoman to sing Brunnhilde for Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, in the composer's 200th birthday year.
Foster, a native of the mid-England city of Nottingham who made a drastic career switch in the mid-1990s, plays the warrior goddess who lets the gods burn but saves humanity in a new production by radical Berlin theatre director Frank Castorf.
Given that she came to singing late and will now perform a star turn at the Bavarian opera house that Richard Wagner built, in his bicentenary birthday year no less, Foster has only one way to describe her career path.
"I've come straight down the autobahn to Brunnhilde, and not on many side roads," she told Reuters in a telephone interview from Bayreuth, where she is rehearsing.
Castorf's staging, combined with Wagner's scenario, has something for every taste: squabbles over oil and gold, lust, incest, treachery, love potions and, of course, a bonfire of the gods at the end. "For me it (the 'Ring' cycle) is a trip towards the gold of our time - crude oil," Castorf told German newspaper Die Welt in one of his rare public comments on the production.
Among the major roles, Canadian heldentenor Lance Ryan sings Siegfried, German bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch is Wotan, German-born Italian soprano Anja Kempe sings Sieglinde, and South African tenor Johan Botha is Siegmund. Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko makes his Bayreuth "Ring" debut conducting in the Festival Hall's famous sunken and covered orchestra pit.
All this at prices often above 200 euros ($260) per ticket, more in the after market, in a sweltering, 1,925-seat non-air-conditioned 19th-century opera house. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opera-loving husband, theoretical chemist Joachim Sauer, always attend what is seen as the German social event of the year, and the waiting list for tickets can be a decade long.
It is almost possible to imagine Wagner, who died in 1883 and is buried in an unmarked marble grave beside his Bayreuth mansion, smiling at the wry and improbable plot twists that have brought Foster to sing Brunnhilde at Festival Hall, the timber structure Wagner built on the "Green Hill" at the edge of Bayreuth.
Foster began appearing six years ago as Brunnhilde, a role British sopranos Gwyneth Jones from Wales and Anne Evans, born in London of Welsh descent, had sung at Bayreuth before her. The summons to Bayreuth came after soprano Angela Denoke withdrew.
She says fate put her on a career path she had foreseen in something she wrote at age 10, recently unearthed by her mother.
"My mum found a book about 18 months ago in the loft, and when I was 10 I had to write in the book 'What would you like to do when you get older?' And interestingly I wrote: 'Since I was three years old I have known that I would be a nurse and a singer, and that is what I will do.' And I drew a picture of a singer with a microphone and a picture of a nurse. That's it."
"How do you put that into words, knowing what my fate is going to be? That's why I am a very strong believer in fate."
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If it is not magic potions, it is usually fate that plays a decisive role in Wagner's operas. The composer revolutionized the stage and sonic world of late 19th-century Europe, and his works - and outsized personality - cast a huge shadow, for good and ill, into the 20th century and beyond.
Partly because of the powerful, emotional language of his music, and the Germanic, nationalistic themes of his works, but also because of his virulent anti-Semitism, Wagner was Adolf Hitler's favorite composer. Bayreuth was one of Hitler's regular stopping-off places, before and during the war.
Under the stewardship of Wagner's widow Cosima, who lived to age 92, and her children and their spouses, Bayreuth became the cultural nexus of the Third Reich. Jewish musicians, singers and directors who had played a vital role in Bayreuth productions before the war were at best banned or went into exile, at worst were sent to concentration camps where they perished.
When Bayreuth reopened in 1951, productions associated with Nazi times were scrapped, and new directors were enlisted to give the stagings a modern, European flavor. State and public bodies provided support, but criticism of productions and family feuding led to a foundation being created in 1973 to run it.
The de-Nazification was so complete, German Wagner specialist and author Joachim Kohler said, that Bayreuth is no more threatening than the shrine to pop singer Elvis Presley.
"Bayreuth is the Wagnerians' Graceland," Kohler said in a telephone interview. "It is like the place the pilgrims go to inhale the holy atmosphere of Wagnerism."
That is not a view shared by British music critic Norman Lebrecht, who says Wagner, in his writings and pronouncements, created cultural anti-Semitism in Germany before the term had been coined.
The continued involvement at Bayreuth of the Wagner family, represented by the composer's great grand-daughters Eva and Katharina, the festival's co-managers, assures that Bayreuth has never fully come clean, Lebrecht said.
"The problem with Wagner is that Bayreuth is a hereditary monarchy; it continues to hold on to his legacy," he said.
"It bears the stench of history - the man's appalling anti-Semitism, which effectively gave cultural legitimization to Nazi policies, and the continuing cover-up of the involvement of the Wagner family with the Hitler regime, or the post-war reality that Bayreuth was essentially a summer camp for ex-Nazis and their widows."
French musicologist Pierre-Rene Serna, author of a pamphlet whose title translated into English is roughly "Anti-Wagnerism Made Easy", thinks even the music is partly to blame.
"It is not innocent; it inspires fanaticism," he said.
But for soprano Kempe, singing the role of Sieglinde, who falls in love with her brother Siegmund and has a child by him who grows up to be the hero Siegfried, the music carries an entirely different message.
"I know this music very well, and I have done it many times, but when I come to certain points I get goosebumps," she said by phone from Bayreuth.
"There must be something very deep inside which captures the soul."
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(Additional reporting by Marzanne Van Den Berg in Berlin; Editing by Will Waterman)