Proms: A Scot taking on one of Wagner’s great roles

Baritone Iain Paterson will sing Wotan at the Royal Albert Hall under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Picture: contributed
Baritone Iain Paterson will sing Wotan at the Royal Albert Hall under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Picture: contributed
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Up until now, Scots opera star Iain Paterson has only been singing the big-time Wagnerian role of Wotan in the comfort of his own home.

“What you do in the privacy of your own house doesn’t bother anyone,” he says, with less than two weeks to go before he sings it publicly for the first time with the Berlin Staatskapelle, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, in a Royal Albert Hall concert performance of Das Rheingold at the BBC Proms.

This year’s opera-strong Proms season includes a complete performance over four nights of Wagner’s Ring cycle, not just Rheingold, and Paterson isn’t underestimating the importance of the event. In truth he has been preparing himself to sing Wotan for some years now; not specifically for this occasion, but for next year’s new Ring production by Houston Opera.

The fact is there have been other Wagnerian priorities recently for the 40-year-old Drumchapel-born Glaswegian, who studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the RCS), sang in the chorus of Opera North, but whose career really took off when English National Opera made him a contract principal, giving him the hands-on opportunity to develop the important roles.

He never quite expected to go the Wagner route. “When I started as a bass baritone I imagined I’d do the usual Mozartian stuff – Figaro and Leporello. But never in a month of Sundays did I expect to be doing Fasolt or Günter, and to be doing it at the Met.” That was in 2009 for the New York Met’s final revival of Otto Schenk’s magisterial Ring production.

There was more Wagner in February when he debuted as Hans Sachs in a concert performance with the Halle Orchestra of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. And he was already signed up by the 2013 Proms to sing Amfortas in Parsifal (25 August), also with the Halle under Sir Mark Elder, when the Wotan call came.

That was directly down to his success as the giant Fasolt in Barenboim’s Ring Cycle at the Berlin Staatsoper, which also went to La Scala Milan in March. “Barenboim pulled me aside one day and said: ‘you’re doing the Proms, aren’t you? Would you sing Wotan?’ I told him I’d only learnt the first part, but he said he only needed me for Rheingold, and that he could get a Fasolt anywhere.”

The answer was an instant yes, and a realisation that the words of advice spoken to Paterson several years ago by one of his Wagnerian heroes, veteran bass John Tomlinson, had been wise ones.

“I was singing alongside John as Amfortas, when he said to me one day that he heard shades of Wotan in my voice. So I started looking at it.”

Paterson has been working steadily on it since then, but only really concentrating on it in the past six months, when it became clear to him just how manageable a role it would be for him.

“It’s one of these roles you only grow into once you start singing it,” he says.

“The first thing, at a basic level, is the number of notes. If you take all that Wotan sings over three nights, it’s not in total much more than what Hans Sachs does in one evening of Meistersingers. Over the course, it’s actually well-paced, although the difficulty with Rheingold is that you are on for a couple of hours, playing off other characters, but never really getting going on your own.

“The second thing is the massive orchestra, which can easily overwhelm you when you’re already giving it all you’ve got,” he adds.

The opportunity to be part of such a top-calibre Rheingold (others in this star-studded Proms cast includes Ekatarine Gubanova as Fricka and Stephan Rügamer as Loge, with the fantastic Nina Stemme embracing Brünnhilde in the subsequent operas) is the highest compliment for a Scot who has risen quickly through the operatic ranks to become one of the hottest properties around.

And to be doing it with Barenboim adds a certain poignancy.

“I blew my first ever week’s wages at Opera North on the recording of Barenboim’s Ring. It’s the one I grew up with.”

Das Rheingold will be performed on 22 July at 7pm at the Royal Albert Hall, London and on BBC Radio 3

Scots at The Proms

26 July Iain Paterson sings Wotan in the Berlin Staatskapelle’s Das Rhinegold

2 August The RSNO premiere’s Naresh Sohal’s The Cosmic Dance

3 August The BBC SSO perform James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto.

4 August The BBC SSO and Deutsche Oper Berlin chorus perform Wagner’s Tannhäuser under Donald Runnicles.

11 August Soprano Lisa Milne stars in the annual Proms performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

19 August the SCO and BBC SSO give early and late performances

25 August Iain Paterson sings more Wagner, in the Halle Orchestra’s Parsifal

All Proms concerts are broadcast live on Radio 3 www.bbc.co.uk/proms