The first steps on my life’s musical journey were taken metaphorically by sitting on my mother’s knee aged four, and playing ‘By the Brook’ on the piano. Two years later my parents gave me a toy clarinet which so took my fancy that I was given a real C-clarinet.
Playing it was my passion, and it led me straight to Mozart and Brahms. It also remained my principal instrument until I was 21; at the same time playing opera on the piano had been taking up large amounts of time ever since hearing Toscanini’s recording of Verdi’s Otello for the first time when I was 13. I collected LPs and went to Covent Garden with my parents to see Rheingold, Falstaff and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Meeting Else Mayer-Lismann at the Royal College of Music in 1963 led to my joining her newly-formed Opera Workshop in which Anne Evans was a student, and where I could publicly put into practice my playing of such Gesture scenes as Die Walküre Act 1 Scene 1. There was also the opportunity to conduct ensembles from Die Zauberflöte, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro.My greatest thrill in playing the great operas was to evoke the great orchestral atmosphere; this I realised most vividly by playing through the whole of Parsifal on Good Friday every year for several years.
The Bayreuth experience began in 1961 when we went as a family (myself, my parents and my sister) to see the Ring Cycle conducted by Rudolf Kempe; and I was able to follow this up over the next three years through an exchange visit with a Bayreuth boy living within 10 minutes of the Festspielhaus! After meeting Kempe I was allowed to attend performances in the famous covered orchestra pit where he conducted The Ring, Boehm Tristan, Knappertsbusch Parsifal, and Schippers Meistersinger, with singers such as Varnay, Nilsson, Windgassen, Hopf, and Hotter on the stage.
I felt that this was my home! Visits to Munich and Salzburg during the 1960’s enriched and extended my opera experience, while I was continuing my studies at the RCM, Oxford University (Christ Church) and the London Opera Centre; and here I conducted my first opera, Lortzing’s The Opera Rehearsal!
When I was standing in the wings, Wolfgang Wagner came up to me quietly and said: "Herr Negus, your moonlight was the most beautiful thing of the evening"
My next landmark after the meeting with Else was the discovery of Reginald Goodall whose Meistersinger performances at Sadlers Wells and the Coliseum left such a deep impression upon me and many of my colleagues and contemporaries. He agreed to my attending his rehearsals.
During the Valkyre rehearsals in 1970, in which I was voluntarily assisting him, I went to Germany to audition as repetiteur and landed the job in Wuppertal. Here I became principal pianist playing a number of difficult modern operas as well as core classics such as Falstaff, Die Zauberflöte, and Tannhäuser; I also conducted Tieflandand a contemporary opera.
In the summers of 1972-3, Bayreuth beckoned! I was playing Tannhäuser rehearsals for Leinsdorf with Gwyneth Jones singing both Venus and Elisabeth and conducting horns off-stage. I also played some Ring rehearsals for Horst Stein with Catherina Ligendza and Sir Donald McIntyre who was then at the beginning of his Wotan journey. I have since learned that my future wife Carmen was also in Bayreuth queuing at stage door for an autograph from her hero Donald McIntyre.
Nevertheless it would be another three years before we met. Working in Bayreuth was a dream come true and led to my joining the music staff in Hamburg in 1973-4 where Stein had become Music Director. To conclude the Bayreuth story an anecdote comes to mind: at the end of Act 2 of Die Meistersinger, it was my job to go up to the flies and time the post-riot moon light. During the quintet in Act 3, when I was standing in the wings, Wolfgang Wagner came up to me quietly and said: ‘Herr Negus, your moonlight was the most beautiful thing of the evening’. Well….
My memory of Tristan und Isolde and Reginald Goodall is precious not only for the musical experience but for the fun and humour involved such as John Mitchinson’s courteous request “Mr. Goodall, with the greatest respect… could we have a beat?”I had been working with Sir Charles Mackerras during his years as MD at Welsh National Opera, and conducting Mozart operas as well as Gluck and Strauss, when in 1993 a new production of Tristan directed by Yannis Kokkos came to WNO conducted by Mackerras. It is visually beautiful and has been revived several times both at WNO and also at Scottish Opera, with my involvement, and also significantly for Longborough, with Carmen Jakobi my wife assisting in Cardiff as a WNO staff director.
It intrigues me that every ten years there seem to have been big Wagnerian landmarks in my life
Thus we have been exploring this glorious work together for quite a long time; I have also worked with her on a number of other operas.It intrigues me that every ten years there seem to have been big Wagnerian landmarks in my life: 1973 assisting at Bayreuth, 1983 conducting the WNO Parsifal performances, 1993 my first performance of Tristan und Isolde in Southampton, 2003 sharing Parsifal performances for WNO with Vladimir Jurowski, and 2013 conducting the Longborough Ring Cycle three times.
To this I should add the small Ring Cycles in 2002/4, (also in Pittsburgh PA in a production by Jonathan Eaton for Opera Theater Pittsburgh), Parsifal in New Zealand with Sir Donald MacIntyre and Simon O’Neill, and particularly special for me personally, a performance of Die Meistersinger at Glyndebourne in 2011.
Of course I have been dwelling mainly on Wagner: there have been many other stimulating experiences during my years at WNO, which have included foreign trips – Figaro in Wiesbaden,Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris under Pierre Boulez, Japan (Falstaff and Salome in Tokyo), and a rather special one in 1999 to Beijing where a small group of us worked with the students at the Conservatoire (part of the building had been the final residence of the last Emperor of China!).
Contemporary music sharpens one’s musical responses: conducting James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice for a BBC broadcast at short notice certainly did!
We were all struck with how touchingly supportive the students were of each other, and how appreciative of our work with them.In order to understand Wagner better, it is important for me to perform Beethoven as well as Berg and Richard Strauss. Wozzeck has been a part of my life since first hearing it at school, playing it in Germany for rehearsals, and eventually conducting some performances for WNO. Contemporary music sharpens one’s musical responses: conducting James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice for a BBC broadcast at short notice (now on Chandos CD) certainly did!
It must have been my German experience that led to my being considered a German repertoire man when I joined Welsh National Opera in 1976; this has not, however, excluded the wide range of Italian, French, Czech, English, and Russian repertoire that I have covered. My conducting experience began with a row of masterpieces: Rodelinda, Fidelio, Parsifal, Rheingold, Magic Flute and, in the year of my marriage to Carmen Jakobi, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
The special atmosphere of that year 1985 was further enhanced by assisting Sylvain Cambreling on Tristan und Isolde in Brussels where Gwyneth Jones was singing Isolde. During these years I worked closely with Richard Armstrong the WNO Music Director on the Ring, and with Reginald Goodall on Tristan und Isolde, and The Valkyrie; in 1983, because of Goodall’s illness, I took over the orchestral rehearsals and all performances of Parsifal.
Of all the work that I shared with Goodall, it was playing for Tristan und Isolde with Linda Esther Gray and John Mitchinson that remains my most treasured musical memory; I could not believe that it was possible to play so quietly within an intense listening atmosphere, and his penetration of the harmony enriched my life in the same way that the Klemperer concert experiences had overwhelmed me. Goodall and I shared this veneration for Klemperer. 20 years on, this work came to fruition with a phone call from Alan Privett, Artistic Director of Longborough: thus began my Longborough adventure!
Back to Longborough in June 2000: I had just conducted a rehearsal in the theatre with piano of the Die Walküre Act One love duet and felt exhilarated; there followed a gathering for drinks on the terrace in the evening sun to celebrate the birthday that I share with Cordelia Graham. This memory belongs to the beginning of an amazing journey, launched by Alan Privett’s telephone call and leading to a lifelong friendship and artistic collaboration with him and his wife Jenny Miller, and with Martin and Lizzie Graham.
This has provided the mainstay for the exciting work of building an ensemble of singers, and moulding a fine group of players into a cohesive and responsive orchestra on our continuing Wagner journey.