Arts feature

From the NHS to Bayreuth: Norman Lebrecht talks to midwife-turned-opera singer Catherine Foster

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

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. Behind her head I see an artist’s Nottingham treescape, a nostalgic gift from her husband, Robert de Fresnes, who composes TV theme music — Wimbledon, Masterchef; a million miles from his wife’s immolation. Catherine has just sung five Rings in four weeks in Budapest.

Her father was an engineer, her mother a secretary, no music to be heard. ‘My mum can’t sing,’ she laughs. ‘She changes key four times singing “Go To Sleep My Baby”.’ At ten years old Catherine wrote in her diary: ‘Ever since I was three, I knew I am going to be a nurse and a singer.’ She joined Wilford church, near the centre of Nottingham, and was appointed head chorister. ‘I left the church at 18. I was only there for the singing.’

There was no thought of university. She went straight from school into nursing, 40 hours a week on the ward, studying at night and singing with amateur societies at weekends, ‘which is where I met Rob’. Qualifying as a midwife, she found a singing teacher through one of the mothers — ‘ladies’, she calls them — whom she helped in childbirth. The teacher was Pamela Cook, founder of the Cantamus Girls Choir and an authority on voice training. ‘My technique was very poor,’ says Catherine. ‘Pam said there was just one note in about an hour of my singing that she thought was good.’ After a while Cook sent her to Birmingham Conservatoire. ‘I walked around for ages with the application form in my handbag. I loved being a midwife. I delivered 257 babies and was present at a lot more births.’

Life was never easy in the NHS. Staff who left were not replaced. More beds were added. When she finally got into the Conservatoire in 1995, she carried on doing weekend shifts as a midwife. ‘My old team were very good to me,’ she says.

Winning an award took her to Manchester for a year and then to a fireworks role — Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute at Northern Ireland Opera, and Welsh and English National Operas. This was followed by a raft of failed auditions. ‘I just kept getting turned down and turned down,’ she says. Peter Katona, casting director at Covent Garden, told her she should try Germany, where there are 83 opera houses that hire singers on staff contracts. ‘I wrote 100 letters with CDs and got three replies.’

At Weimar, historic seat of Goethe and Schiller, she sang Wagner’s ‘Dich, teure Halle’ for the music director, George Alexander Albrecht, and was hired on the spot as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Newly married, she moved alone into a tiny flat, with a bed, a sofa, a couple of chairs and an Ikea unit with two hotplates. ‘It was 2007 before I could afford to buy a kitchen. Phoning home cost too much.’

Without a word of German or anyone in town who spoke English, she might have given up pretty quickly had it not been for the force of her ambition and the feeling that she brought a seam of life’s experience to the stage. ‘I was 21 when I held a man in my arms when he died,’ she relates flatly, ‘and 24 when I delivered my first dead baby.’

Dame Gwyneth Jones, Bayreuth’s first British Brünnhilde, came to Weimar to direct her in Flying Dutchman. Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Bayreuth’s co-director, flew out to see her Brünnhilde in Riga. Then the German soprano Angela Denoke cancelled at short notice and Catherine found herself at Bayreuth singing the massive role in a new Ring in front of the German Chancellor and half her cabinet.

Pam Cook, who had booked a flight to see her, suffered a stroke and was buried on the day of her debut. Alone on the vast stage, Catherine fixed her mind on ‘the love of power, and the power of love’. A couple of critics found fault on her first night, but the ovations were louder each night. Conductors told her that her voice sounded fresher as the Ring rolled on, year after year.

One night in the bar, her husband Rob got chatting to a couple of English black-ties.

‘My wife’s in the show,’ he bragged.

‘Oh, really?’ drawled a toff. ‘What’s she singing, then?’


Gobsmacked, George Osborne and Michael Gove came to dinner. Osborne gave her a feature in his London freesheet. It was the only UK newspaper or broadcaster to pay attention. Covent Garden’s Peter Katona never called back. ‘It has been suggested that the biggest favour Britain ever did for me was to send me to Germany,’ shrugs Catherine. ‘I’ve done 52 Elektras and 65 Ring cycles. And the voice is still fresh.’

You have to ask why. The word from Covent Garden insiders is that Rings don’t come round all that often and if you have Nina Stemme signed up, why look any further? Fair enough, but what about Catherine Foster’s other great roles? How is it that ‘a Nottingham lass’, as she calls herself, can’t get a foot in the door of the Royal Opera House?

Her origin is part of the problem. She didn’t go to the right schools or to a Conservatoire with ‘Royal’ in its title. She never mixed with the posh boys who run the opera circuit and was too busy nurturing new lives when her contemporaries were nurdling up to directors. She’s from the wrong side of the tracks, with the wrong kind of accent. This is not just artistic prejudice. It’s a faultline in the class system that governs our supposed egalitarian arts. The summits of British opera are influenced by who’s singing what at the Met, La Scala and Munich, checking each morning to see who’s in, who’s cancelled. ‘What has she done outside of Bayreuth?’ they say. ‘Why is she with a German agent, not one of ours?’

Next year, for the first time, Catherine Foster will sing a leading role on British soil. The conductor Kirill Karabits approached her at Bayreuth to sing Elektra with his orchestra in two concerts in Bournemouth and Birmingham in March. Karabits is presently music director of the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar, where she lives. Catherine is ‘absolutely thrilled’ to be asked. It’s a homecoming, at last. Some of her midwife sisters may turn out, not to mention her mum and dad. She will have two great home nights next season.

Still, it shouldn’t have taken this long and it must not take much longer before we see this great British soprano on a national stage. Catherine Foster is an uncomplaining victim of the smallness of the British opera world, its shrinking opportunities and the myopic prejudices that run through our metropolitan state system like mould in Stilton cheese. Contrary to the Keynesian vision that underpins our state subsidy, Britain is no longer a place for an opera singer to flower. And if you think it is, just ask yourself: what does a Nottingham lass have to do to get a fair hearing in London?

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