Ian Wilson-Pope: From the Bank to Valhalla - via Hollywood. A Wagnerian interview

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 17 January 2014 | 1:49:00 pm

Edit: With Fulham Opera Ian Wilson-Pope
With Fulham Opera getting ready to perform two Ring cycles in February we thought it might be time to revisit this interview with the productions Wotan from two years ago. 

It's not often one gets to speak to a god. It’s even more unusual to speak to one who spends his spare time as either a Hollywood movie star or a Texan Oil Baron (care of Blake Carrington) and yet still has time to perform in two complete Ring Cycles – in a church in Fulham! But such is the life of anyone with more than a passing interest in Wagner. However, no matter how unusual a background, it was a pleasure to meet (and hear perform) the highly talented, friendly, patient and very busy Ian Wilson-Pope – Fulham Opera’s Wotan. During our time together, he spoke about his childhood, training with British legend Norman Tattersall, appearing in the latest Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film, explained how he prepared to play Wotan and much more. I also manged to acquire two examples of an even younger Wotan from 2008. Have a listen - you may be surprised what you might find hiding out in Fulham.

TW: Ian, first of all, let me thank you for taking the time out of what I know is very busy schedule to chat with us. Could we begin by asking you tell us a little bit about yourself?

IWP: I was born in 1970 (New Year’s Eve, actually!), and I’m originally from South West London, but grew up in the Colchester area of North East Essex – now I live in South Croydon, where I’ve been since 1998. I went to state schools in Tiptree, Lincoln and Colchester, left school with two A levels and numerous O levels/GCSE’s in 1989, then worked for Midland Bank for 8 years until 1997 and I was 26, when I decided it was then the right time to go to music college and make a career out of singing. I had sung for amateur operatic societies and small groups up till then.

I studied for 6 years at Trinity College of Music in London under John Wakefield, and won the Ricordi Opera Prize in 2001 (while still a 3rd year undergraduate); and I left with a BMus and a PGDip. I’ve studied with David Barrell for 6 years, and have had regular coaching with Kelvin Lim, David Barnard, Della Jones and Ben Woodward. I’ve been building my career slowly ever since, and I recently appeared as Leporello in Guy Ritchie’s Warner Bros. film “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” which came out on DVD this week!


TW: What was that like, working on a such a high profile "blockbuster"? It must have been much different to working in opera?

IWP:It was a very enjoyable experience: I was almost treated like royalty (which was very embarrassing for me) by the crew and runners.

The audition was in October 2010, and I went to a room in an office just off Tottenham Court Road, and chatted to the casting guys, who then asked me to sing for 20 seconds or so into camera.

On the day of filming in January 2011, I was collected at 5:30am and driven to Elstree Studios, where they had built a replica of the Paris Opera stage in the George Lucas Studios. Guy Ritchie was around, although the morning we basically set the scene in the opera ourselves (it was the final scene of Don Giovanni, from Elvira’s entrance and when the Commendatore came in), and we worked through with the 2nd Unit director and crew, till Guy arrived later on with Mr Downey Jnr, Mr Law and Ms. Rapace. I have to admit, it wasn’t our voices they used, even though we had to sing it as we filmed it. That was the only down side, but also it is only a small part of the film, it’s the false “denouement” in the middle of the film. But, I loved doing it, and would like to do more, preferably with my voice, next time!

Ian as Wotan: Fulham Opera
TW: Having heard you perform we can only hope so. So tell us, what brought to you opera? It is still a pretty unusual profession for someone to chose.

IWP: I had two main interests as a child: acting and classical music. I’ve always loved acting, since I saw my elder brother on stage in a school play at the age of 4! My first acting role was at primary school, as a train driver/train engine aged 5, and I played Scrooge at 10!

My Dad used to play records (LPs) to me on a Sunday evening when there was little on TV; I was the only child of four interested in classical music.

TW: Did that make things difficult for you? I grew up in a house where my "passion" for Wagner (and Schoenberg, Ligeti, etc ) was certainly not shared and at the best tolerated by a somewhat patient family. While different to you of course, Gary Lehman has spoken recently of some of the "difficulties" of coming from a background where opera - indeed in his case "classical music” was not the norm. Do you share any of those experiences or does that not apply to you at all?

IWP: I guess it was difficult, my brothers and sister did tease me to some extent, but I think I learned to deal with it by the time I went to secondary school. I don’t remember being bullied about that at school... (That’s not to say I wasn’t bullied at school...) I suppose I was fortunate that both my parents liked classical music; it was probably harder for my father, as he came from a background where classical music and opera were not the norm – a typical working-class London family.

Anyway, my Dad liked opera, mainly Puccini and that ilk, and when I was old enough (about 14), I realised that opera was the combination of acting and music. As my voice broke, I found my own singing voice, and then went from there, taking voice lessons at 18 from Norman Tattersall in Colchester, and buying records of complete operas – At 15, as I was studying music at O Level, I took part in a school workshop from “Opera80”, and I went to see “La Cenerentola” in Lincoln’s Grand Theatre. From then on, I was hooked.


TW: Norman Tattersall was of course something of a British legend - I believe he once sang with Flagstadt, although that might be the least important of his accomplishments. What was he like as a teacher - I believe he was known as being "honest" and "to the point"?

IWP: Norman was indeed a legend, in many ways. He was one of the first to pioneer the songs of Vaughan-Williams, and indeed had a long association with V-W’s wife, Ursula. He was certainly a character; flamboyant, but both honest and caring. He taught me to appreciate song, in all its forms, from German Lieder to English song, and to sing with line, beauty and emotion. He had been very influential at the Colchester Institute as the Head of Music Faculty, and there is still a bust of him on display at the Institute. I remember seeing him in a performance of “Messiah” in the Town Hall in Colchester, and it was staggeringly good. He was always supportive, a very genuine man.

TW: Do you have a “favourite” opera/composer?

IWP: I love all late romantic operas, from Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and Mussorgsky. My favourite is still Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” – I first heard Franco Corelli and Mario Sereni singing this on one of my Dads LPs, and that really sparked my love of singing.

TW: And your "favourite role" – if you have such a thing ?

IWP: I think to date my favourite role I’ve performed is Wotan in “Das Rheingold” (which we did last summer). It’s not as vocally demanding as “Die Walküre”, although he is onstage for 2 hours or more.

Roles I really want to sing would be Gerard in “Andrea Chenier”, Philip II in “Don Carlos” and Commendatore/Don G. in “Don Giovanni”, and of course Boris in “Boris Godunov” - and I am thrilled to be singing Wotan in “Die Walküre”, even if it is one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever sung!

TW: Four of my favourite operas outside of Wagner. But tell me Ian; who is Wotan?

IWP: Wotan is the Head God of Norse Mythology, sometimes known as “All-Father”, Odin or Wouden. We get Wednesday from Woudensday. He is basically the creator of men, and ruler of the world. (He laughs) But I suppose you are looking for a little more than that? Ok, to me Wotan is the epitome of an “everyman”; in him we see the faults and flaws of being human. He makes mistakes; he tries to do the right thing, but ends up making a mess of things. He can be arrogant, self-opinionated, devious, but his essential nobleness shines through – after all, he is able to give up the Ring on learning of the effects of the curse from Erda. He is essentially tragic, in that he must learn to accept his own “mortality” and destruction of everything he has built. Even though he is a God, he is not all-knowing and all-powerful, but flawed – similarly as to how the Greeks and Romans viewed their Gods, so the Norse/Germanic Gods were viewed the same. One can’t help wonder if he doesn’t envy humanity, their mortality, knowing that everything will end! With Fiona, we are playing him totally as a man, but a very powerful man, (a sort of Rupert Murdoch kind of media mogul, almost untouchable), and although he’s a God, he really is the most human character in the whole opera.

TW: And what about Brunnhilde, Fricka and Alberich? What is his relationship to them?

Ian with Richard Latham: Boheme. Opera Up Close
IWP: Well, as you know, Wotan is Brünnhilde’s father (her mother is Erda, the ancient Earth Goddess), and she adores him and he her. Their relationship becomes strained though by her apparent questioning of his motives and his pent up rage and frustration ends up being unleashed solely on her, but because, deep down he really loves her, she is saved from a fate worse than death as he finally gives into her demand to surround the rock with magic fire

Fricka is Wotan’s wife and Queen of the Gods – she and Wotan haven’t seen eye to eye (pardon the pun), over anything since the debacle of “Das Rheingold” with him offering Freia as payment to the giants – it’s a fraught, tense and passionately hateful relationship, but one in which she always manages to get the upper hand – but, like a Dynasty or Dallas wife, she won’t leave him while he provides her with the lifestyle she’s grown accustomed to.

Alberich the Dwarf is his nemesis, the one who stole the Rheingold and created the Ring of Power, and placed the dread curse on it – Wotan was unnerved by Alberich’s evil-intentioned quest for power (as it mirrored his own, slightly more noble intentioned quest for power), and so sought to defeat Alberich’s schemes. As he would now only pose a threat to Wotan if he were to get the ring back, I don’t think Wotan thinks too much of him as a serious adversary. Wotan knows that Alberich has amassed an army; that his son will bring the destruction of the Gods about, and by the end of “Walküre” he comes to accept this. He only seeks to prevent Alberich gaining the ring again. This explains the almost comical nature of their scene together in Act II of “Siegfried”, and it is Alberich who is unnerved to see Wotan then. I think this is Wotan finally accepting death and the end, as he now knows he cannot influence any further the events and just waits to see the outcome of things. In “Das Rheingold” they are two sides of the same coin, but because Wotan develops as a character, he takes on elements of the tragic hero; whereas Alberich, who simply wants his Ring back, doesn’t “evolve” into a likeable character – any sympathy we may have had with him in “Das Rheingold” disappears in the later operas.

TW: Is there anyone in particular whose performance of Wotan influences yours?

IWP: I think vocally I am influenced by George London, James Morris and Thomas Stewart, as my voice is similar in timbre to theirs, and I also like the steely qualities in their recordings.

From an acting point of view, my Wotan is influenced by a) the words and music and b) by what the director wants, but I also think James Morris influenced it early on – his was one of the first Wotan’s I ever saw, along with Donald McIntyre to a lesser extent, both influenced my vision of Wotan.

TW: You go into some detail in your continuing blog about how you prepare for a role – and I recommend everyone to read it, as it offers a very unique and valuable insight. However, for those that haven’t yet, could you give a brief run through your process for learning a role?

IWP: I start off listening to the music with the score, getting the general feel for the work, and getting used to the other parts around me. I then read as much about the opera, the characters and the influences on the opera as possible.

I’ll also watch DVD/Videos of performances, to see what other productions make of a character.

Then I will sit at the piano and play through my part and the score (as much as I am able to, not being a trained pianist). This develops a muscle-memory for the music and pitches.

I then begin to memorise the words.... this is the hardest part, and often takes the most time. Often I will then type out the words, and check for errors. Then it is putting it on stage with the director and other characters, and music coaching where possible.


TW: Much is made about the influence of Schopenhauer, etc on Wagner's works. How important is an understanding of this, if at all, to your performance?

IWP: I am aware of Schopenhauer’s influence at the end of “Götterdämmerung”, for example, but I don’t think that it has much bearing on my own performance of Wotan.

There is enough to think about remembering all the text, the moves the director wants and the music, without adding another “unnecessary” level into one’s performing.

I follow two main rules: Is it in the music, or the words? With Wagner, he is explicit in both words and music. Follow those, and you can’t go wrong, even with such a complex character as Wotan.

TW: Do you adapt your technique when performing against a piano score rather than an orchestra and within such a small space as Fulham ?

IWP: I still sing with my “voice” – With an orchestra, there is a possibility that one can be drowned out, except in a favourable venue such as Bayreuth. With the piano, I strive for being able to hear it, and being able to express the text clearly. But I don’t “under-sing” or “reign-in” my performance. Granted, some might say my voice may be too big for St. John’s, but it’s impossible to sing this music without a solid technique – and survive!

TW: I believe you are performing in Gotterdammerung at Longborough Opera this year. Can you tell us a little about working with LFO's Anthony Negus?

IWP: Yes, I will be working with him at LFO this summer. He is incredibly knowledgeable on Wagner, and a very sincere and supportive man. I worked with him in 2010 at Welsh National Opera on “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs); and on “Fidelio”, he was the assistant conductor to Lothar Koenigs; and I am very much looking forward to being a part of LFO’s Vassal Chorus – there will only be 12 of us!
Ian & With Brian Smith Walter; FO

TW: And Ben Woodward (Fulham Opera’s Musical Director and the person who will be playing the piano score for two cycles!) – is he completely insane?

IWP: (Laughs) Yes, he might well be, but he’s not the only one. We frequently ask ourselves: “What have we unleashed here!” I think a bit of insanity is an absolute necessity in this profession!

TW: Apart from FO's Ring Cycle, what else is lined up for the future?

IWP: Well, as I’ve already mentioned, I have Longborough Festival Opera coming up in July. I may have more performances as Mr Basil in OperaUpClose’s production of “The Barber of Seville, (or Salisbury)” and Cox in “Cox and Box” later in the year with Porcupine Opera. Otherwise, it is FO’s “Das Rheingold” on 24th June for the Wagner Society, the Half-Cycle in September, and then “Siegfried” in February 2013. There’s also a possible “Don Giovanni” on the cards for March 2013, too, with a group called Tonic Opera. I hope other things will come my way as a result of these performances with FO.

TW: By the way, how did you become involved with Fulham Opera?

IWP: I first met Ben while performing as Benoit and Alcindoro in OperaUpClose’s Olivier Award winning production of “La Bohème” in 2010 (he played piano for some of our rehearsals), and in 2011 he called out of the blue to say that he was looking for someone to sing Wotan in “Das Rheingold” in August – he said I had been recommended by Zoë South (our Brünnhilde); so I went and auditioned to him and Robert Presley, and was offered the role a few weeks later. After “Das Rheingold”, we decided to do the rest of the Ring, and this mad project was born! I designed the posters for “Das Rheingold”, “Gianni Schicchi” and “Die Walküre”, and also design and write the programmes as well. I now also act as the Treasurer of Fulham Opera, due to my banking background. On top of that I perform Wotan...?

TW: Ian, I know how busy you are – especially at the moment - and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We look forward to seeing/hearing you in May and after.

To read more about Ian go to: Ian Wilson-Pope

To read (and it is recommended) his continuing commentary on how he prepares for the role of Wotan in FO's Walkure go here: On Learning Wotan

For details on FO Ring Cycle in Febuary 2014 go here: Fulham Opera