Interview: James Johnson

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Published: 17th October, 2016

Wer ist Wotan? Deborah Humble introduces American bass-baritone James Johnson…

A collective metaphorical groan rang out amongst Melbourne Ring Cycle ticket holders the day Opera Australia recently announced that, due to ill health, Greer Grimsley would not be coming to sing the role of Wotan in the 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle.

Actually, it was not so metaphorical.

“What?” says one Wagner Society member as we discuss the news at a Sydney dinner party. “That was the main reason I decided to go a second time.”

“Oh dear,” says another, “not again.” She is referring to the withdrawal of Juha Uusitalo in the same role in 2013.

“Where will they find another Wotan at this late stage?” is what everyone who has paid substantial money for tickets wants to know.

Introducing American bass-baritone James Johnson, who, although perhaps not the first name that Ring Cycle aficionados might think of, has been singing the Wagner repertoire for nearly 30 years. Since debuting in the role of Wotan in Paris and Nice in 1988 he has sung on many of the world’s great stages including the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Metropolitan and Teatro Colon.

“That first production was significant,” says Johnson, “not only for it being the first time I sang Wotan, but also because I had an icon among conductors to work with.”

He is speaking about the great Croatian conductor Berislav Klobucar who directed more than 53 operas during a 40-year tenure at the Vienna State Opera and who was a regular guest conductor in Bayreuth. One could say it was an auspicious beginning.

Since gaining his initial experience in Germany and Austria at the theatres in Braunschweig, Cologne and Graz, Johnson has performed not only Wotan and the Wanderer but Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Telramund in Lohengrin, the Dutchman in Der Fliegender Hollaender, Barak in Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Jochanaan in Salome, with some of the biggest names in the conducting world: James Levine, James Conlon and Donald Runnicles to name a few.

As a bass-baritone Johnson says that the role of Wotan has always been “comfortable vocally.” There is a lot of upper-range singing in the Ring, particularly in Siegfried where the role sits high for a long time, and Wotan as a role is often credited with opening up the top of the voice. “Of course, as in all Wagner roles in my experience, it takes a few times to hit your stride with them. Age helps in making the evenings more manageable.”

We discuss which parts of the role he finds most enjoyable. He cites Die Walkuere and Siegfried not only “because the character development is more complete, but because the singing is very bel canto.”

This comment reminds me of a story about James Morris who was singing the role through for Hans Hotter, the great Wotan of the post World War Two era. It is said that as Morris started singing, complete with his best guttural German and numerous glottal stops, that Hotter exclaimed something like “Nein, Nein! Sing it like Italian Opera, bel canto.” Dietrich Fischer-Diskau who was honed by years of Lieder singing, was also known for approaching the role this way and John Tomlinson famously said that it was not possible to get through the role of Wotan unless “one sings it very, very well and very, very beautifully.”

I am interested in finding out Johnson’s views on how a singer knows when he is ready to take on this mountain of a role dramatically and vocally. It has been said by many who have tackled it that the role of Wotan cannot be interpreted but must be inhabited and Johnson is said to be a gifted actor. Bryn Terfel was around 40 before he decided to carry Wotan’s spear and side stage in 2013 Terje Stensvold confided to me that the secret to his vocal longevity was that he hadn’t tackled a large Wagner role until he was well over 50.

“All Wagner repertoire is a challenge,” states Johnson, “and it is wise, in my opinion, for a singer to sing them later rather than sooner. It is better to be mature not only vocally but experientially and personally as well, so that the roles do not create anxiety for the performer, but create joyful anticipation.”

Now living in Portland, Oregon and married with two grown sons, the singer clearly never expected to be singing the role he loves in Australia. “I am somewhat ignorant about the country and its culture,” he tells me. “I do have some Australian friends and I look forward very much to getting to know the continent better. Hopefully there will be time for that. Generally with the Ring I go into my ‘tunnel’ and stay there until I am finished, but the schedule seems more lenient this time.”

And does he have any particular expectations regarding the Armfield production?

“I have met and talked with Lyndon Terracini and I have read some interesting things above it. I am looking forward to participating in it and singing for the Australian public. As to having a favourite, each production is unique in either its director, conductor, costumes and sets, and singer colleagues that are dear to me.

This repertoire was the reason I became a singer, and I am grateful to have spent my working life performing music I love so dearly.”