English conductor Nicholas Braithwaite has spent many years conducting orchestras in Australia, England, and throughout Europe, but he is probably best known to audiences for his work in opera. He has led performances of more than 70 operas, including at the English National Opera where he conducted an acclaimed Wagner Ring cycle. On August 4, he conducts a special one night only concert of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg Act III for the State Opera of South Australia, to celebrate 20 years since the company’s first production of the Ring cycle. Braithwaite spoke to Limelight about his love of Wagner.

Nicholas Braithwaite. Photograph supplied

I know you have a strong connection with Wagner’s music. Can you tell us what makes it so special for you?

I first encountered his music at Covent Garden rehearsals, conducted by Rudolf Kempe, when I was a teenager.  I was bowled over and have been ever since.  It is gesamtkunstwerk – and every single one of his operas is about redemption through love in all the different manifestations that can occur, allied to some of the most sublime music ever written – Walküre Act 1, The Todesverkundigen in Walküre Act 2, Wotan’s Farewell at the end of Walküre Act 3, the trio at the end of Götterdämmerung Act 2, The Immolation at the end of Götterdämmerung Act 3,  the delicacy of Siegfried’s death in Götterdämmerung Act 3, the very different delicacy of the Eva/Hans Sachs scene in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Act 3. And Parsifal – the greatest work of human compassion I know.  I could go on.

How important was the time you spent studying as a member of the Bayreuth Festival Master Classes?

It was my Road to Damascus.  I had grown up surrounded by first class professional musicians, but what I met at Bayreuth during the Wieland Wagner years was something of an entirely different order.  A dedication to perfection taken to a level I had not met before. Allied to an artistic imagination also of a new level.  And I was able to observe Hans Knappertsbusch at work – a great, if sometimes variable, conductor who understood that great art is not made up of mere technical accuracy.

Can you tell us about your time working on the ENO Ring cycles in the 1970s and what that meant to you?

When I arrived at ENO I had played in the orchestra for, trained the chorus for, and conducted The Flying Dutchman with Chelsea Opera Group, and had also conducted a concert performance of Meistersinger Act 3. At ENO I then conducted Lohengrin (a recording of this performance is available from the Oriel Music Trust) before being entrusted with the Ring Cycle.  The ENO Ring was known as the Reginald Goodall Ring because he was the conductor who prepared it over four years, an opera at a time, and then performed the cycle in the fifth year.  There were various stand alone performances of individual operas, and I once had to conduct the first night of Götterdämmerung when Reggie had a row with Rita Hunter and refused to conduct. I sat in the pit for every performance he conducted, absorbing his utterly extraordinary knowledge of style, pulse and architecture. It was a remarkable experience. I then conducted five cycles.  The Ring has been the central work of my life, perhaps along with Parsifal, and I’m sure you can imagine what a fulfilment that was for me.

Are there other key moments that stand out in your career in terms of conducting Wagner?

Every Wagner opera  that I have conducted has been a life-enhancing experience.  In many ways the most significant joy has been the years of Wagner at Music Camp.  During a weekend each year for nearly 40 years a group of friends gathered around a 17th century farmhouse and barn in the English countryside. The orchestra all live in tents in the paddock, summoned to breakfast by Siegfried’s Horn Call or the Curse motive. We met on Friday afternoon and by Sunday afternoon  performed – usually two acts at a time – a Strauss or Wagner opera. During that time we did the Ring twice.  No audience, apart from a few friends.  Wonderful singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Susan Bullock, Daniel Sumegi and many more. The orchestra was amateur, and we would not make any claim to perfection, but over the years we arrived at a mutual understanding of style that was immensely rich and rewarding.

Have you conducted a full Meistersinger or just Act 3?

I have done a concert performance of Act 3 with that great Australian tenor Ronald Dowd. And two concert performances of the complete opera.

Why do you think Act 3 works so well in a situation like the forthcoming SOSA concert?

The story of Act 3 is complete in itself.  Hans Sachs coming to the decision that he must help Walther win Eva as his wife even though he is himself in love with her, then giving Walther a composition lesson so that the song really will be a master song. Beckmesser coming in to Sachs’s house to spy and see if he can work out what is going on. Eva also coming in to Sachs’s house to see if she can find Walther, all of them getting together to commit to getting the right result from the competition. The quintet, one of Wagner’s most magical compositions. And then the magnificent midsummer day competition – the entry of the Guilds,  the extraordinary outburst from the townspeople of love for Sachs, the Prize Song – which really is one of the greatest songs ever written – and the happily ever after denouement.

Can you tell us how you feel about the key members of your cast (which includes Kate Ladner as Eva, Fiona McArdle as Magdalene, Bradley Daley as Walther, Shane Lowrencev as Hans Sachs, Andrew Shore as Beckmesser and Samuel Sakker as David)? And whether you have worked with them before?

I think we have as good a cast as you will hear anywhere in the world, and better than you will hear in a great many prestigious places! I have worked with them all at one time or another. An essential ingredient for an ensemble opera such as Meistersinger is that the cast are matched, and get on with other. Done deal in this case.

Do you have a favourite Wagner opera?

Probably the one I am working on at any given time!

Where would Meistersinger sit in that?

I don’t have a pecking order because they are so different. What one gets from each of them is diverse and meaningful in very different ways.

Did you enjoy writing your autobiography So What Does a Conductor Do? And did you learn anything or reassess anything looking back over your career?

I did enjoy writing the book. Mainly because I have been so lucky in life:  I have been able to watch some of the greatest musicians of our time at work from close at hand, and in many cases actually to work with these extraordinary people. Coupled to that the opportunity to stand at the heart of so many of the greatest creations of the human mind and heart – what a privilege that has been. Looking back, and revisiting, a whole lifetime of treasured memories was a very great pleasure indeed.

Nicholas Braithwaite conducts State Opera of South Australia’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre on August 4