I’m sitting in the shadow of Bayreuth’s iconic Festspielhaus catching up on the news of Nottingham-born Wagner singer, Catherine Ann Foster, Bayreuth Festival’s Brünnhilde, the heroine of Wagner’s epic four-work cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
She’s a singer riding a crest of a wave at the moment. This is her fourth consecutive year at Bayreuth but earlier in the year she made her mark while also making her American début at the Kennedy Center in Washington National Opera’s Ring cycle singing Brünnhilde directed by Francesca Zambello.
Catherine was born to sing, I found out: ‘I’ve always loved singing,’ she exclaimed. ‘My mother told me that as soon as I could talk I was singing to my heart’s content. My singing career actually started in my local village church where I graduated to be the leading chorister by the time I was 15.
From small acorns mighty oak trees grow! And for Catherine, they grew fast. From church choir to grand opera, Catherine’s voice matured and blossomed to a wonderfully-dramatic, rich-sounding, high-soprano voice. Absolutely perfect for Wagner, of course!
Catherine made her début at Bayreuth in 2013 in a new Ring production directed by the renowned Berlin-based, avant-garde theatre director, Frank Castorf, to celebrate the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth. Next year will be its final outing before a new cycle comes round in 2020.
Delivering a masterful and powerful performance as Brünnhilde, Catherine set the Green Hill alight. Later, she carried the flame, passion and loyalty of this great and imposing Germanic mythological character all over the show appearing in Ring cycles at such well-appointed houses as Staatsoper Berlin under Barenboim. But Bayreuth (the temple to Richard Wagner) is, of course, the ‘Big One’.
But long before Catherine became a professional singer she worked as a midwife at her local hospital in Nottingham. ‘I always had a passion to sing,’ she declared, ‘and in conversation with one of my patients, whose husband was on the amateur singing circuit in Nottingham, they put me in the right direction and gave me some useful phone numbers of singing teachers. Eventually, I arrived at the doorstep of Pamela Cook, a well-respected Mansfield-based singing teacher who encouraged me to enrol at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music.’
Catherine confessed to me that she never wanted to sing Wagner. Gulp! ‘I just felt that his operas were just too long but when the well-respected German conductor, George Alexander Albrecht, engaged me to sing the role of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser in Vienna, I suppose that was the time I got hooked. I had only sung Queen of the Night (Magic Flute) and Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) at the time, therefore Mozart to Wagner was the equivalent of diving in the deep end.’
While studying in Birmingham from 1995 to 1997, Catherine funded her music degree by travelling to Nottingham at weekends to work as a midwife. Her determination to make it as an opera-singer certainly paid off. She excelled in her studies showing her mettle by becoming the first winner of the acclaimed Dame Eva Turner award in 1997.
‘Winning the Turner award proved a major boost to my career,’ she proudly said, ‘as it enabled me to continue my studies at the Royal Northern College of Music. It was here that I attracted the attention of Sir Peter Moores who sponsored me at the London Opera Studio.’
Recalling her first fully-professional engagement, Catherine had this to say: ‘I remember it well,’ she smiled. ‘I was in Opera Northern Ireland’s 1998 production of The Magic Flute appearing as Queen of the Night.’
‘I was thrilled to bits, though, when I was accepted to sing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth in May 2012,’ she fondly recalls. ‘I just couldn’t believe it. For a long time it felt so unreal but in just a short space of time I had achieved what I thought was nigh impossible.
‘I’ve worked on Brünnhilde since 2006 and, I think, I’ve really got to know her well. She’s a woman of the world, highly-emotional but very self-confident who develops into an extremely strong person as the story of the Ring unfolds reaching its destiny in Götterdämmerung where Brünnhilde sees that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse is inextricably tied to the ring. To cleanse mankind Brünnhilde has first to cleanse the ring by burning not only the ring itself but the last living holder of it as possession of the ring demands a sacrifice. Alberich, however, lives on as he sacrificed his humanity therefore Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to ensure mankind can be reborn to start again. To this end, she orders the waters of the Rhine to sweep over the fire to wash away the vestiges of the curse. This is the beginning and end of the Gods and their beloved Valhalla. It’s a big and exciting scene.’
As for working at Bayreuth, she said: ‘It’s such a wonderful experience to work in and around the theatre that Wagner built specifically for his music. And one thing I’ve discovered over the past few years since singing Wagner is that although I may sing all over the world and not see my own home very much, I regularly meet singers and audience members alike who also travel to sing and listen to Wagner. It’s lovely! But to sing at Bayreuth is unique. I feel so privileged of being a part of this great festival.’
Catherine – whose powerful, rich and emotive voice is not only perfect for the works of Wagner but for such other heavyweights as Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Strauss, too – becomes only the third British soprano (but the first English one, may I add!) to have sung Brünnhilde at Bayreuth. She keeps good company with the likes of Welsh-born singers Gwyneth Jones and Anne Evans.
Now that’s what I call a select club! Catherine, the girl who was born to sing, please take a bow!