Exclusive: Why Covent Garden shuns Bayreuth’s British Brünnhilde

The Spectator today publishes my exclusive interview with Catherine Foster, Bayreuth’s Brünnhlde for the past six summers, whom no British opera company has asked to sing a major role.

Why ever not?

Every summer for the past six years, Bayreuth has risen to its feet to acclaim an English Brünnhilde. Catherine Foster, from Nottingham, was the heroine of Frank Castorf’s anti-capitalist staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The director was booed to the rafters, the singer hailed as saviour. Three perfectionist conductors, Kirill Petrenko, Marek Janowski and Christian Thielemann, insisted on her return each year. Across Europe, Foster commands the roles of Elektra, Isolde, Senta (Flying Dutchman) and Turandot. At 44, she is approaching her vocal prime.

So it is a bit odd to find that no British company has offered her a leading role, or presently plans to do so. Six years of ovations at Bayreuth count for nothing in Blighty. Something has gone fairly rotten in our state-subsidised system if a regnant British soprano cannot get a call from Covent Garden.

I decided to make the call myself, catching Catherine Foster on WhatsApp as she was looking forward to a summer spent cultivating her garden. Bayreuth is resting the Ring and this is her first holiday since 2013. ‘I love my garden,’ she assures me in a mid-Midlands accent that would have set D.H. Lawrence purring…

Read on here.

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  • Bogda says:

    it’s really perplexing that she has not sung Brunnhilde at any major opera house. Her bayreuth performances were sensational and widely lauded. I’d even dare to say that she is currently the finest performer of the role (Stemme included). Could it be that she has a wrong agent?

  • Henry Rosen says:

    Covent Garden had Nina Stemme singing Brunhilde last..there is no one better on earth. And since there has been very little repertoire for Miss Foster to sing. So Norm, what would you like her to do? This is an utterly ridiculous comment on your behalf.

    • Bogda says:

      Stemme is excellent, but can’t say that she’s better than Foster. Having heard both on many occasions, both have strengths and weaknesses. I’d personally chose Foster anytime. Only reason Stemme gets cast is that she is more famous.

  • John Rook says:

    Any chance of someone posting the whole interview? Thanks in advance.

  • Allen says:

    I have huge doubts about this. Maybe something else is going on – attitude problem, snobbery of the inverted variety (all too common these days)?

    How about:

    Thomas Allen
    John Tomlinson

    ….. not exactly from the right side of the tracks, as she describes it.

  • Adrienne says:

    “no British opera company has asked to sing a major role”

    So never mind Covent Garden, why hasn’t Opera North offered her a role?

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Moreover, Catherine Foster is badly recorded – as far as I know only the 3 Brunhilde roles in the Ring with the Weimar orchestra are on the market.

  • Alexandra says:

    She was an extraordinary Brünnhilde in Budapest’s Wagner Days in June. She’s a goddess on the stage and wonderfully down-to-earth in person.

  • Emil says:

    Ummm…I’m confused. It’s a nice interview, it’s interesting, but she doesn’t say anything about why she isn’t being hired in the UK – that part is all your analysis. What’s exclusive about that?

  • Steohen Diviani says:

    It’s a pity that NL uses his article to attack public subsidy for the arts. Have any private opera companies in the UK employed her?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Can you read English? How does a discussion of a possible abuse of subsidy amount to an attack on subsidy? Curb your prejudices.

      • Steohen Diviani says:

        Why, then, mention subsidy at all? You write: ‘Something has gone fairly rotten in our state-subsidised system’. That’s not an attack on subsidy? Even indirectly? Has Glyndebourne ever cast her? Has she been asked to sing the big Wagner roles in Paris? I did an online search and could find nothing, so is the French subsidised system also ‘rotten’? Later in the article you attack snobbery, blaming ‘the posh boys who run the opera circuit’ and a ‘faultline in the class system that governs our supposed egalitarian arts’ for CF not being employed. (The loaded adjective representing another dig at arts subsidy.) You write of ‘the myopic prejudices that run through our metropolitan state system like mould in Stilton cheese’, yet you produce no evidence for your assertion that snobbery dictates casting policy. At a time when arts subsidy is under attack in the UK and has already been slashed by Tory austerity, when there are an ever-growing number of private, non-subsidised opera companies, which price out many opera lovers and, again, return opera to the bad old days when it was an interest of the privileged few, we should be defending the subsidized sector not attacking it. (There is also the context of the article appearing in a right-wing, pro-Brexit and neo-liberal Tory weekly.)

  • DYB says:

    I can only judge Catherine Foster on her Brünnhilde in Simone Young’s “Siegfried” recording. Ms. Young’s Ring is quite excellent. It’s biggest blemish is Foster, whose Brünnhilde is embarrassing. It sounds like they pulled a random woman off a bus and shoved her in front of a microphone.

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