He’s worked with and assisted Mackerras, Boulez, Goodall and Jurowski – but bit by bit, British conductor Anthony Negus has joined their ranks with his clear-eyed, sensitive readings of Wagner’s operas. Negus is now leading Melbourne Opera’s Tristan and Isolde in what is a coup for the independent company. Here the Wagner specialist shares his insight into some of the most complex works in the canon.

Wagner is quite obviously a composer close to your heart. What was your first encounter with him?

I think it must have been an LP record. Toscanini conducting. I was always very keen about Toscanini, and there was a record called Toscanini conducts Wagner: Volume One with a beautiful gold medallion of his head on the front, and it contained the Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung which completely got me hooked. As well as the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod, and the Parsifal Prelude and Good Friday Music.

Anthony Negus. Photograph: supplied

That’s the perfect first introduction, really. 

Oh, it was. And then my parents were very keen anyway about opera, and so bit by bit we went to Covent Garden and I saw my first Rheingold, and I saw Meistersinger when I was still at school, and so on. We went as a family to Bayreuth to see the whole Ring, 1961, conducted by Rudolf Kempe, whom I subsequently met. And the following year I heard my first Tristan at Bayreuth and it’s still an unforgettable memory, hearing that first phrase from the cellos coming up from the invisible orchestra.

Do you remember who was in that Tristan

Yes, it was the first year of Wieland Wagner’s production which you know is famous for Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen. But I saw it that first time with the wonderful former generation soprano, Martha Mödl, and it was Windgassen as well. But I was rather appalled that they made the cut, this traditional cut in act two, which I am proud to say we are not going to be making here in Melbourne. But that evening, I imagine, looking back on it, that probably Martha Mödl may have requested it because at that stage of her career… I thought, “wow, I’ve come to Bayreuth and they’ve made a cut!” I couldn’t believe it at the time. But it was an unforgettable evening, and the Liebestod was just out of this world.

As a conductor, what qualities are required of you when you approach Wagner’s operas?

Oh, you ask a question which I shall take a lifetime to try and find the answer to. You’ve got to have a sense of what things are leading to. You must not allow yourself to get over-carried away by all the excitement on the road. They must be exciting, but they always have to relate, you’ve got to know where the real climax comes, just as you have to in any great work of art – Mahler symphonies and so on. And you’ve really got to have an understanding of the importance of every key moment. There are moments, for instance, in Tristan – the moment when Isolde describes how she was about to kill Tristan, and then he looked into her eyes, and she dropped the sword. That’s the most fundamental moment in the piece, he keeps coming back to it. And one’s got to recognise that the audience has got to hone in. I see it like a camera honing in, really. It’s the solo viola telling us this story, and you just have to make these moments tell within the span of the whole.

Also, for me, the influence of Beethoven on Wagner is paramount, particularly in terms of rhythm. And there’s one thing I cannot bear about a performance of Wagner, and that’s a generalised mish mash. It’s got to be absolutely clean and precise. It’s like chamber music. And I was telling the orchestra yesterday evening, we were doing act three, I said “do not make a crescendo just because somebody else is!” Because Wagner has not written everybody the same. I think I’ve told you about two key elements of it, the third one I would say is finding the right balance, so that everything that needs to be heard properly has got to be heard in relationship to the rest.

The idea of taking the long view is so crucial in Wagner, and something that I think a lot of conductors grapple with.

That’s an aspect of it that has come to me fairly naturally. It’s interesting that the conductors that I’ve admired and been influenced by have that quality. I mean, Furtwängler above all of course in Tristan. But Rudolf Kempe was very much a conductor who built the whole piece, never gave away too much. In fact, he erred on the other way sometimes, and took it back too much for my taste. But nevertheless, he had this wonderful span. As well as poetry. I think one has to have a sense of poetry.

Has Tristan been a piece you’ve always wanted to conduct?

Yes. I suppose of all the Wagner works, apart from Parsifal, which I’ve lived with a huge amount – I have lived with all of the major works of Wagner since I was in my teens, but Tristan‘s come my way the most, because in addition to experiencing it at Bayreuth as a listener, I got to work on my first production with that legendary Wagnerian Reginald Goodall for the Welsh National Opera. And we spent months in which I played for his rehearsals, and I also prompted the performances. I conducted the offstage stuff for the recording we made and so on. So I lived with Tristan then for three years, ’79 to ’81. And then another decade later, we did a new production conducted by your own Sir Charles Mackerras, whom I got to know very well because he became Music Director at the Welsh National Opera from 1987 until 1992. And he came and did Tristan in ’93, and I got one performance, so I conducted my first performance of this, and I got to assist umpteen people both on this production and different productions of Tristan over the years until I got to do my own one at Longborough Festival, of which I’m the music director, in the heart of England.

You obviously see Furtwängler as one of the best interpreters of the work. What have you learnt from his interpretation?

The sense of another dimension. There are some climaxes which go beyond the loudness of a climax. They evoke something much more. Furtwängler described himself as a tragedian, and I think he’s got it right. He had the sense of tragedy – a numinous and tragic quality that lies behind these extraordinary moments, like the moment that Isolde extinguishes the torch, thereby setting in motion all of the events. And you just sense the extra-dimensional quality behind Furtwängler’s conducting. Since then, I’ve also come to appreciate a lot ways of doing it. I mean, Karl Böhm was thrilling, but I felt it lacked poetry. He scorched away a lot of the dolce in it.

There is a drivenness to Böhm’s interpretation.

Very driven. It was a very highly sexual production from the 60s, and he was taken with the Oedipal aspect which Wieland Wagner followed with Tristan as son of King Marke so to speak. And Carlos Kleiber also, I find inspiring. And Reginald Goodall’s recording is very much in the Furtwängler line. But I feel now at last I’m able to let go a bit and say “I’m doing what I find in the piece”. So I’m deeply grateful to all that I’ve heard and seen, but it’s time for me to concentrate on the piece, and how I’m able to express it myself. So I’ve had the opportunity after enjoying the rehearsals with the orchestra. We finished act three yesterday, although there’s a lot more work to do on it, but it was a wonderful feeling knowing that the orchestra had played pretty well everything in the piece, and we had worked on quite a lot of it in some detail.

Tristan occupies this very particular place in Wagner’s output, in that it feels worlds away from Lohengrin. What accounts for this great leap forward? 

I think Lohengrin represents a summing up of his work up to that point. And he’s got a real perfection about it, Lohengrin. I can’t tell you how I long to do that piece, I’ve never conducted it. Not only was it a musical ending partly for him because the revolution came and he was so involved at the barricade, and he then became a wanted man. Posters were up everywhere, “Wanted: Herr Kapellmeister Richard Wagner”. So he had to escape, he couldn’t even hear the first performance of Lohengrin in Weimar, which Liszt conducted because he was in exile.

But I think the leap [from Lohengrin to Tristan] is via the Ring, because after Lohengrin he stopped more or less composing for a few years beyond the odd thing and he did more conducting in Zurich. He wrote a lot of prose, plus all these extraordinary walks in the mountains. And then meeting with the Wesendoncks and falling in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, and the first fruits of that are in the first act of Walkure, in which all over the place “I.L.D, ich liebe dich” written all over his score and so on. He wrote the text for the Ring and then he started composing Rheingold, and then he composed Walküre and then Siegfried acts one and two, so he’d come a long way from Lohengrin by the time he wrote down the first notes of Tristan in 1857.

You’re in rehearsal at the moment. Have you met with your singers yet?

Of course I’ve met with my singers, we’ve been rehearsing for three weeks! [Laughs] You don’t throw Tristan on with a conductor swanning in. I work with my singers, my God. I’ve been having a wonderful rehearsal period with Suzanne Chaundy, who is a fabulous director. We saw eye to eye immediately. Our lovely Isolde, my goodness, you wait until you hear Lee Abrahmsen as Isolde, that is a discovery. And I’m very happy that we were able to get, you know that it should have been Marius Vlad, I suggested that maybe we ask Neal Cooper, who has done it with me and has sung Tristan in Germany and I think and hope he’s going to be the real thing.

Obviously you consider yourself a singer’s conductor then?

Yes, I’m as much a singer’s conductor as an orchestra conductor. The more I conduct, the more I learn about the wonders of this orchestra, and I think I’ve established a very nice relationship with the players, they recognise that I’m not one of these ego-driven people. I’m in there to try and bring out the best from them, and help them discover the wonders of this piece, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do but I think, as the modern idiom is, we’re in quite a good place at the moment.

As a conductor, when you come to these immense, complex pieces, and you meet with a director, what kind of relationship are you looking for? Antonio Pappano says that the best relationships are the ones in which he and the director throw around suggestions in a rehearsal room, and by the end of the day neither remembers which suggestion belonged to whom. There’s a flow there.

An empathy! A kind of empathy. I think that’s a very good way of putting it. Above all, I want a director who appreciates the music. That’s an obvious one, but there are directors who really find the music a bit of a nuisance. And with a piece like Tristan, that would just be anathema. I have been very fortunate because when we did the Yannis Kokkos production, he’d been a designer, and he produced a very poetical production for the Welsh National Opera. He wasn’t really into the text very much, but his assistant, Peter Watson, and then later on my wife, Carmen Jakobi, both of whom are very much right into the text, were able to bring that to the singers. And then I worked with my wife, who is out here in Australia at the moment looking after the German diction and the German altogether, and she did a production for Longborough. And she’s discovered the music with me, and I think, although she’s not a musician as such, her knowledge has deepened through my musical point of view, just as my dramatic feeling has deepened through her influence and above all her influence for language and for German literature. And then moving on to Suzanne, she wrote me an email last December describing her ideas and I felt yes, the attitude is right, she loves the music, she knows the music is telling this inner story of Tristan and appreciates that, so I have no hesitation. I knew instinctively that we would get on, it would be fine, and it has been. It’s been great.

Melbourne Opera’s Tristan and Isolde plays the Palais Theatre, St Kilda February 2 – 7 and the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on February 10.