William Dart: Like a rocket taking off

By William Dart

New Zealand bass to sing in Elgar's choral work, Gerontius

Martin Snell recalls his first exposure to Elgar as "breathtaking". Photo / Manuel Fischer
Martin Snell recalls his first exposure to Elgar as "breathtaking". Photo / Manuel Fischer

Martin Snell is back in the country after "a busy summer at Bayreuth, with glorious weather making up for the fact that I was stuck in the one place for two-and-a-half months".

Tonight the New Zealand bass takes the stage in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius with Auckland Choral. A few weeks ago he was in Wagner's hometown, playing Reinmar von Zweter in a "somewhat controversial" Tannhauser, King Mark in a "cut-down children's version of Tristan and Isolde" - and covering three roles in Frank Castorf's equally controversial production of The Ring.

Snell shudders at the thought of being the recipient of the vociferous boos and hisses that filled the theatre after each performance of The Ring. "German audiences do like to vent their spleen," he says.

"Some of the audience had waited many years for a ticket at Bayreuth and were not prepared to experience what was basically an expensive Eurotrash staging.

"It's simply wasting important resources."

The bass compares it to a concert presentation of Die Walkure in Tokyo a few weeks ago, in which he sang Hunding alongside Simon O'Neill's Siegmund with the New Japan Philharmonic, conducted by Pietari Inkinen.

Staging may have been minimal, but "there was magic in the air", Snell remembers.

"I looked in the monitors backstage and saw the absolute concentration of the Japanese audience, followed by their utter adulation at the end. That's the power of music. "It doesn't matter what the language is."

However, all is not so rosy in Europe at the moment. "The end of the economic depression is not in sight, despite what politicians tell us," he says. "More so for the cultural sector, which is so dependent on the public purse."

He mentions the cancellation of Palermo's The Ring earlier this year, after just two operas, a project that was to have marked Pietari Inkinen's debut in the work.

Prospects are tough for eager young local singers, too, he says, who must consider what product or service they are offering. "There's a limited market in this country with only two New Zealand Opera productions a year, and a third in Christchurch. This is not enough to sustain any regular public following."

He recalls his involvement in a Gianni Schicchi for Christchurch Opera in 2009 that was over before the public knew it was on.

"They had a loyal following but a company has to have regular performances for it to feature in people's consciousness."

Tonight's The Dream of Gerontius takes him further south, back to his Dunedin childhood, having been reared as a choirboy on classic Anglican church music.

"Several times a week we'd sing the greats - Stanford, Wesley, Parry, the whole caboodle," he remembers. "In fact, it's still the music I listen to for relaxation when I don't want opera."

He heard his first Gerontius in Manchester as a student. It was in the Free Trade Hall with the Halle Orchestra and tenor Robert Tear - "it was breathtaking."

A little later, singing in the chorus at Ripon Cathedral, Elgar's score was almost overwhelming.

"Being in the middle of this extraordinary music was like a rocket taking off," he laughs. "I hope that's the thrill the audience gets on Saturday."

He likes the declamatory aspect of Elgar's writing. "You get the feeling that you're the voice of God and, at the end, it's almost like there's an evangelical thing going on."

Snell has yet to play Wagner's Ultimate Deity, Wotan, but, in the meantime, rehearsing Tristan, he was finding curious connections with Gerontius. "There are hints of Wagner coming through in Elgar's music," he says. "You don't know quite what it is sometimes, but it's intoxicating, and transports you to another world."

Performance
What: Auckland Choral
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, tonight at 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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