Anthony Negus leads Wagner's heros in the English countryside. First Hans Sachs at Glyndebourne now Siegfried at Longborough

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 16 July 2011 | 3:14:00 am

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Anthony Negus: with Siegfried at last
Anthony Negus is looking forward to conducting Wagner's Siegfried at Longborough Festival Opera

Nicholas Wroe

Anthony Negus at Longborough
Anthony Negus ... 'We really are creating something remarkable with this Wagner pilgrimage.

While there is rarely a shortage of Wagner's operas being staged in the UK, the increased pace of productions emerging from national, regional and festival opera companies in recent years represents a discernible uptick in activity. Two of the most significant productions of this summer have been Glyndebourne's Meistersinger – streamed to wide acclaim on the Guardian website a couple of weeks ago – and the continuation of the Longborough festival Ring cycle which, next week, will follow up its triumphant 2010 Die Walküre with Siegfried. The two productions have a common link in the conductor Anthony Negus, who has emerged as a slightly unlikely figure to be at the heart of this Wagnerian intensity.

Negus has been on the music staff of Welsh National Opera for more than 35 years and has worked on many dozens of productions in Wales and around the world. But most often his role has been in assisting the lead conductor in preparing the production; he has conducted relatively few performances himself. But a closer look at this apparently modest CV reveals that not only has Negus worked closely with a long list of eminent names – Mackerras, Boulez, Reginald Goodall and, more recently, Vladimir Jurowski – he has also enjoyed a lifelong engagement with Wagner's music. It is therefore fitting that that, as he celebrates his 65th birthday, this engagement appears to be coming to remarkable fruition. "It's true that there is a lot of Wagner activity all over the world," Negus explains. "And it will speed up in the next couple of years in the runup to the bicentenary of his birth in 2013. For those of us closely involved, it feels like our version of preparing for the Olympics."

Walkure at LFO: 2010
For Negus the highlight of 2013 will be conducting, in a single season, the complete Ring cycle at Longborough, the Gloucestershire opera festival best known for being held in what was, originally, a converted barn. Longborough's involvement with Wagner began with a reduced-size Ring, for an orchestra of just 18 players, adapted by the composer Jonathan Dove, in the late 1990s. Negus took over conducting duties on the project halfway through and managed the impressive feats of slightly enlarging the orchestra and bringing in Bayreuth's Wotan, Sir Donald McIntyre, for the final performances.

Longborough's owner, Martin Graham, had long held the ambition, apparently ludicrously unrealistic, of staging a full-size Ring cycle. Every winter he made additions to the theatre – the red velvet seats came from Covent Garden when it was refurbished; the pit has been enlarged to accommodate 60-plus musicians. The Longborough Ring eventually commenced, under Negus's baton and directed by Alan Privett, with Das Rheingold in 2008. A concert version of the first act of Die Walküre was included in the 2009 season – "to get the orchestra acquainted with the very long journey we were about to take" – and last summer the full version was performed.

"The fact that people still talk about chicken sheds and so on in relation to Longborough does wear a bit thin," Negus says. "We really are creating something remarkable with this Wagner pilgrimage. The small Ring worked very well and the full-scale Das Rheingold went better than we could have hoped. But last year's Die Walküre was the best thing we have done and a significant step forward. I can't wait for Siegfried."

The critics agreed about Die Walküre. Michael Tanner claimed the ongoing cycle could stand comparison "in terms of musical interpretation and commitment, to any Ring one might see in the world". The Sunday Times identified Negus as a "British Wagner conductor second to none". Though he may have had comparatively limited experience of conducting full-scale operatic productions, when the opportunity came to take on the Longborough Ring, Negus was nothing if not prepared.

As a child of musical parents he saw his first Ring in his early teens and a Rudolf Kempe-conducted Rheingold in 1960 at Covent Garden when he was 14. The following year the family attended a Bayreuth festival Ring cycle and the year after that, Negus, on a student exchange visit to Germany, found himself actually in the Bayreuth pit for a Karl Böhm performance of Tristan.

"Of course the stage door man shouted at me, but some instinct told me I'd be OK if I stayed put and didn't leave for the whole evening, even to go to the loo. The players were completely unfazed. The pit was covered and they wore civvies, so there were even a few rather fat men in lederhosen." The young Negus found a way to return to the pit repeatedly and observed at the closest quarters conductors such as Kempe – "conducting in a T-shirt", Knappertsbusch – "very crumpled summer jacket" and Sawallisch. "I was there the first time boos were heard at Bayreuth in 1963 for a Wieland Wagner production. I also bought tickets and remember queuing in 1966 for Boulez's Parsifal. The whole period was very formative."

In the early 70s Negus returned to work at Bayreuth and became friends with Wagner's grandson, the director Gottfried Wagner. He worked as an assistant on a new production of Tannhäuser directed by Götz Friedrich and on some Ring rehearsals. He remembers marital tensions among the Wagner clan and political anxieties about Friedrich being the first East German to work at Bayreuth. He was also becoming increasingly aware of the cultural difficulties surrounding Wagner's work, not least the accusations of antisemitism.

"While it is never possible to be entirely free of politics, when I first went to Bayreuth it was a comparatively apolitical period. In the years since I've observed how we apply our increased psychological knowledge and understanding of Wagner's period to the way we approach the pieces. And I find my understanding of the dramatic aspect of the pieces has grown naturally with all this. And being a Wagnerian allows one to hate him as well as to admire him at times. I've read things he did and said, even aside from the Jewish issue – the way he treated friends, for instance – that provoke abhorrence. But I've also read about compassionate aspects of his character that moved me deeply."
Walkure at LFO: 2010

Working most recently on Meistersinger and Siegfried, Negus acknowledges that in the characters of Beckmesser and Mime there are quite clearly Jewish parodic elements. "These things can blacken the overall picture. David McVicar directing at Glyndebourne was all too aware of the shadow that can hang over the last scene of Meistersinger. We all have to deal with it in our own way, but when you penetrate below the surface of what Wagner is writing, then it goes much deeper than the nationalistic elements that were grabbed by Hitler and the Third Reich."

Negus admits there have been periods of his career when he has needed "to get away from the whole Wagner thing". He says the period from 1974, when he returned from Germany, to 1979 was "almost a Wagner-free zone" until Goodall was invited to conduct Tristan for the WNO. "It was a major moment in my life when I heard Goodall's Mastersingers at Sadler's Wells in 1968. I hadn't realised that Wagner could sound like that. Solti was the main Covent Garden conductor of Wagner at that time, and while he could be thrilling, this had a far more gentle quality of attack: there was a rich undertone and measured, unhurried tread, which was quite amazing."

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