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The Scots are taking over the MET's Gotterdammerung?

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 9 February 2012 | 8:37:00 pm

The Scotsman interviews the MET Gotterdammerung's Paterson & Cargill:

As the New York Met’s epic production of Götterdämmerung is broadcast in cinemas, Tim Cornwell travels to the USA for a look behind the scenes – and to meet two of the opera’s Scottish stars

OPERA doesn’t get much bigger than Götterdämmerung at the Met – the four-hour climax of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, at New York Metropolitan Opera – “the biggest, grandest, most respected opera house in the world”, as Vanity Fair magazine put it. The company spends over $250 million (£156m) a year, rotating between about two dozen different operas at the rate of up to seven shows a week.

The Met’s new Ring cycle is directed by Robert LePage and cost a reported $16m (£10m). It has become famous for its 45-ton (40 tonne) set, consisting of 24 giant angled planks that rotate on an axle above and to the back of the stage. They are set near-flat for some scenes, vertically for others, while video projections turn them into forests, fiery mountains, forbidding banquet halls or rivers flowing with blood. In some they move and lurk menacingly, like giant abstract dogs.

This Saturday, two weeks after its premiere, Götterdämmerung will be broadcast live to over 1,600 cinemas in 54 countries, including seven in Scotland. One of the most human figures in this drama of Gods and superheroes is Gunther, a weak-willed, self-doubting king who plots the betrayal of heroic Siegfried but is still in awe of him. He’s played by bass-baritone Iain Paterson, the Royal Scottish Conservatoire graduate whose career is on a rising trajectory on the international opera stage.

When I arrive, the scene on the stage at the Met looks like a cross between a film set for On the Waterfront and another for Ben-Hur. Giant classical pedestals from the set of Anna Bolena, the Donizetti opera designed by Paterson’s fellow Glaswegian David McVicar, are being slowly lowered into place for the evening’s performance, dwarfing stage crew who swarm around like dockworkers. The understage seems as cavernous as a dry dock for the Titanic.

To the right, the huge revolving beams that made up the set of the previous night’s Götterdämmerung are stowed, awaiting their next outing.

Paterson leads the way through to the dressing rooms, down a corridor lined with double-bass cases that face out from the walls like sarcophagi. We wait for three huge silvery chandeliers to be rolled past us on trolleys. His name is on one of the doors, though velvety costumes for another singer, from the cast of Anna Bolena, are already hanging there.

Three years ago, when he came here for his debut performance at the Met, a helpful porter told Paterson: “This is the dressing room that Mr Pavarotti used to prefer.” He was monitoring his blood pressure regularly, at that time, and on that night, “the biggest thing” he’d ever done it went from normal to “through the roof”. “I don’t know if they were winding me up, but it certainly broke the tension,” he says.

The Scots are not quite taking over Manhattan. But from our country, better known in the opera scene for the emasculation of its national opera company rather than nurturing superstars, there is quite a confluence of talent. The Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill makes her own Met debut in Götterdämmerung in April, singing the Valkyrie Waltraute in one of the opera’s most moving passages (meaning she is not featured in this weekend’s broadcast). The musical coach working closely with both of them is John Fisher, another Glaswegian, a legendary opera director who ran both La Scala and Welsh National Opera. McVicar’s new production of Anna Bolena, meanwhile, is just a reminder of that director’s huge presence on the international opera scene.

At a boutique coffee shop near the Lincoln Centre, housing New York’s opera and ballet companies and its famed Juilliard School, Paterson and Cargill meet for an interview and a gossip, and agree to meet Fisher to watch the Scotland-England rugby match. “It’s Mecca, really, it is Mecca,” Cargill says. When she came for the audition, walking past the photographs of the great singers of the past, “I don’t know how I managed to walk. It’s slightly terrifying, but it’s amazing.”

Paterson graduated from what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama a couple of years before Cargill. They pursued different paths to success, with Paterson heading to Opera North and rising up the ranks in English opera, while Cargill focused initially on a concert career, and firmly rooted in Scotland. New York’s been a bit of a reunion, for their two careers have rarely crossed paths until recently.

“People have been coming up to me and saying, your countrywoman has got a fair set of pipes,” says Paterson.

Both have sung big roles in big houses internationally – Paterson in Don Giovanni at English National Opera and Billy Budd at Glyndebourne; Cargill in the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Proms – but they share what seems a genuine ingenue’s astonishment at being at the Met.

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