40 Years On: Gwynne Howell

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The latest appearance by the Welsh bass is as Titurel in Wagner’s Parsifal. Mansel Stimpson talks to him…

Gwynne Howell. ©Guy Gravett

When I meet the veteran bass Gwynne Howell, he is not only preparing for Parsifal at Covent Garden but is also performing at the Coliseum as the King in English National Opera’s Aida. In addition he is looking forward to travelling to Houston in the New Year to sing the role of Dansker in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. Add that he has also been busy in the recording studios and it’s apparent that, regardless of the roles not being large, his schedule is a remarkable one for a singer who can now look back on forty years in the business. While recognising with a touch of sadness that the great roles in which he made his name are now behind him, he clearly enjoys the parts that are coming his way. He’s proud of the recent review that he got from Richard Morrison when, commenting on ENO’s Aida, the critic remarked that “the veteran Gwynne Howell showed all the other singers how to deliver clear diction”. But, although Gwynne mentions this, you absolutely believe him when he says that he has never been driven by ambition and that he has no ego. “I’m happy digging a plot in my garden”, he assures me, and, being a sports enthusiast too, he readily likens singing to a game.

This parallel is in his mind when he talks of those moments that he has found the most memorable when performing. “I think that all singers have felt it as something very, very precious: that moment when you feel that you are singing at your best. At such times I’ve been out-there singing but it’s also as though I’ve been back here watching it happen. When you experience that, it’s like a footballer scoring a goal and the response from the crowd sounds like a great ‘yes!’. It’s a fantastically privileged moment, very euphoric; but, of course, as soon as you’re back in the dressing room, it’s all lost: you take off the make-up and costume and come down to earth, back to reality.” Perhaps because such moments are transient Gwynne refuses to be too earnest about what he does and likes to say that there has to be fun in giving a performance. But, lest he be misunderstood, he quickly adds that “we don’t treat it as a joke though”. Indeed, this is the man who, although he had initially set out to have a career as a town planner, sums up his early days by saying this: “Until I entered the door to audition at Sadler’s Wells, I was just walking through my life. In reality I was always meant to be a singer.”

Gwynne Howell as The Pharaoh in ENO's recent Aida. ©ENO/Tristram Kenton

The audition to which he refers took place in 1968. “Before then I treated my singing as a hobby, but even so there were lots of high-level goodies coming my way. I was working in the Town Hall in Manchester and singing at the Free Trade Hall which was just two streets away and sometimes going to the BBC, which was even closer. Initially classical music was not really my thing. I was basically a jazz fan: Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, that sort of thing. I went to the Royal Northern College of Music, however, albeit as an external student for an hour or two a week and there I encountered a very, very sensitive singing teacher, Gwilym Jones. He had a wonderful singing voice but only wanted to teach and for me he was a catalyst. It was he who said to me that it would be a sin if I did not become a singer. That comment shook me a bit – indeed, as I recall, it brought tears to my eyes.” Following this there was the audition at Sadler’s Wells. “I took a day off work and came down to London on what for a Welshman was a very important day: March the First, St David’s Day.”

That successful audition led to work with the company both in London and on tour and over two and a half years it enabled Gwynne to appear at least 150, perhaps 200, times. This was the experience he had behind him when he first came to Covent Garden. “I remember asking Joan Ingpen if I should have started here, but when she learnt of the amount of experience I’d had at Sadler’s Wells she at once remarked ‘You would have been lucky to do ten or fifteen here’. This recollection leads Gwynne to comment on certain changes he has witnessed in the opera world during the course of his career. Some of his views, questioning rather than opinionated, may seem controversial. For instance, while recognising that companies like Kent Opera and Opera for All that would tour and provide experience for young singers are virtually no more, he questions certain aspects of the various programmes for ‘Young Artists’ that have sprung up in more recent times. “From any ten singers taken up, how many are we going to get who will go on to sing for twenty-five years? If you have a programme designed for ten people, you substantiate it by taking on ten. But if, say, you only have five who are really good, shouldn’t we just have five and concentrate on them? And in opera houses that are the finest in the world is it right to have these youngsters perform to the extent that they do? I only ask.”

The other big change in recent decades provokes this comment: “When I started, people didn’t fiddle around too much with productions. The abstract approach hadn’t got going. Of course, I’m not saying that I endorse the style of that period: the endless flats and the way you would walk on, stand firm, sing and walk off. But nevertheless there are times when I wish they wouldn’t play around with things so much. There are more extreme examples by far but I can even instance what I’m doing now as Titurel in Parsifal. I’m dressed from head to toe in armour and I have to move myself on stage by means of a small, motorised trolley, which may or may not respond as it should. That could even be dangerous and inadvertently I could end up with my back to the conductor and not able to correct it save by having someone come on and turn it round. That might be the first ever laugh in Parsifal!

Although the role of Titurel is brief, Gwynne is far from being a newcomer to Wagner or indeed to this opera. He cites Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger as a favourite role and has appeared as both Fasolt and Hunding in The Ring. Furthermore he has been the Wanderer in Siegfried although, not being drawn to the Wotan of Die Walküre and aware that the role did not really suit his voice, he decided not to proceed with that after it had been mooted for him by Lord Harewood. (“I did try it out and at one point the coach said to me quite perceptively ‘Have you had enough yet?’ and I said ‘Let’s go and have a cup of tea’ – and that ended my work on it”). In contrast Gwynne has always embraced Wagner’s successor to The Ring: he appeared as Gurnemanz when Sir Reginald Goodall conducted Parsifal in 1986 and again under Mark Elder in 1999. “It’s a refinement after the demands and the dramatic intensity of The Ring Cycle. That work is, if you like, a kind of mystic fable, like The Lord of the Rings in music, whereas with Parsifal I’m reminded of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World: not the dinosaurs, of course, but the gentler parts of that which feature lovely plains and vegetation. Parsifal contains music that goes right through you.”

I mention to Gwynne Howell the view of some commentators like Robert W. Gutman that, despite Wagner calling Parsifal a sacred work and blending within it both Christian themes and variants of the grail story of Arthurian legend, it can be seen as an anti-Semitic tract. But, while Hitler may have embraced Wagner and seen this opera’s quest for purity as analogous to his own belief in an Aryan race, Gwynne feels that today the piece speaks of other less distressing things – indeed, he feels that it explores the vulnerability of those in the modern world who seek the path of goodness. “You can always read into it what others have said about it, but I believe that what counts is what it means to you. In that respect, whatever Wagner’s beliefs – or lack of them – Parsifal is like the Bach Passions which are hardly up-beat pieces and which draw large audiences even at a time you might not expect that because today so many lack religious faith. It seems to me that when you listen to any of these works you’re drawn by the beauty in them which creates its own light. If these works were decadent we wouldn’t listen to them. What’s there can’t really be defined, but I defy anyone unless they are deaf not to respond to the ‘Good Friday Music’ in Parsifal and to the wonderful choruses in the St John Passion and certainly in the St Matthew Passion. As for the conductors I’ve worked with on Parsifal, Goodall, Elder and now Bernard Haitink, some may prefer one and some another, but their different approaches are just variations on a theme. For anyone coming afresh to Parsifal, I would say you don’t need to know too much or to read more than what is in the programme. Just get the structure, listen to the music and watch the stage. Get sucked in by what you find in the theatre, not by pre-conceptions of what you should be thinking. Allow it to happen and it will take you on a journey because it’s real magic.”

To get a clear picture of Gwynne Howell it seems appropriate to close by turning away from his thoughts on Parsifal in order to bring out a few additional comments that relate to his career generally. These are comments made alongside his assertion that his proudest moment was when he received his CBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1998 and had the opportunity to admire her at first hand. Earlier he has mentioned happy memories of performing, but it is significant that when I ask him what he takes away from having had a long and distinguished career he refers neither to performing as such nor to audience responses. “I would just say I’ve been very privileged to have met the people I have met. The biggest joy that I’ve had out of music and singing has been the one-to-one sessions I have had: sessions with Muti at the piano or those wonderful hours I spent with Reginald Goodall. No less so with Benjamin Britten when I was brought in early in my career as a replacement Christus for his recording of the St John Passion and with Josef Krips when I did The Creation and the Missa solemnis. Those sessions took me on an inner journey. Furthermore, in a world where in all sorts of ways we seem to lack skilled instructors and technicians, I remember the gifted language coaches we used to have, people like Ubaldo Gardini and Hilde Beal who taught us how to use words. When I think of them I know that I deliver the voice but they deliver the artist.”

  • The opening night of Parsifal is 6 December at 5.00 and runs until the 21st
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • On Thursday 20 December at 7.30 p.m. the Clore Studio is presenting “In Conversation With Gwynne Howell”; tickets are £10, Students/ROH Access List £6

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