James Rutherford as the Dutchman in the 2015 Müpa Budapest production of The Flying Dutchman
© Janos Posztos

The Rugby World Cup only happens every four years, so it’s a measure of what Müpa Budapest means to oval ball fanatic James Rutherford that he skipped a match in order to talk to Bachtrack. The venue for Ádám Fischer’s “Wagner Days” festival since 2006 has become a second home to the British bass-baritone, and he will return in 2020 to sing Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

“The Béla Bartók Concert Hall has a stunning acoustic,” he enthuses. “It could have been made for Wagner. Of course, they’ve got wonderful Hungarian singers there and – flatteringly for me – they try and find the best Wagner singers in the world to do the lead roles. They really look after their singers, way beyond what we can normally expect elsewhere, and when you’re given respect and care that’s a wonderful starting point. Artistically it’s brilliant – Fischer is a conductor whom I really rate – so I enjoy going there every time. They’re very loyal to singers too, and the audiences are great, so it ticks every box.”

2006 was significant for another reason too, as it marked Rutherford’s quantum leap into big voice repertoire when he won the Seattle Opera International Wagner competition. His road to get there had been indirect, however. “I didn’t emerge fully formed as a Wagner bass-baritone. After college and the Opera Studio I sang Handel, Bach, and especially Mozart, paying my way with choral society jobs. I did Le nozze di Figaro a lot early in my career and worked with pretty much all the national companies. It was at the Royal Opera House that I started out in the big stuff, albeit in small roles, and that’s where I got a taste for Strauss and Wagner. When you’re surrounded by the finest singers every day and your first Wotan is Bryn Terfel, you take note! And all these great singers made me think this is where I should be heading.

“In 2006, which was Mozart Year, here was I, a Mozart singer, with nothing in the diary. Nothing at all. Instead I got offered a Jokanaan in Salome when I was just 33 and that tipped something.”

Not every singer has an appetite for competitions but Rutherford had plenty of experience before Seattle. “I’d always been good at them when I was a student, and because I was so hard up I’d try anything if there was money involved. The Seattle competition came up and the boss of that was coming to London so I sang for him. Afterwards he wrote me a letter saying I must come to Seattle, which was a nice vote of confidence to receive, and winning it got me into auditions wherever I wanted to go. Within a year I’d sung Wolfram (in Tannhäuser) in San Francisco and I was off.

“Do you know the American bass Eric Halfvarson? Wonderful chap. He said to me while I was doing Wolfram: “You know James? You will be the Hans Sachs of your generation.” To which said yeah, right, thanks, and laughed it off. Three years later I met him again at Bayreuth. He was singing Hagen and I was Hans Sachs.”

James Rutherford as Hans Sachs in the 2015 San Francisco Opera production of Meistersinger
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

That was quite a step up for a Mozart singer. “The key was to sing it with the Mozart voice and then let it grow. A generation ago a Vienna or Munich cast would have alternated between Mozart and Wagner. Hans Hotter would sing the Count on Monday and Wotan on Wednesday and it was normal. George London was another: he was famous as both Don Giovanni and Wotan. But me? Since 2006 I haven’t sung any Mozart at all, which is a little odd. For some reason in our generation there’s no overlap.”

“When I was in Berlin a few years ago, singing Wolfram again, I went to see the Don Giovanni in a crazy Deutsche Oper production where the singers did exercises while they sang. Giovanni had to do press-ups and Leporello had to do sit ups and run around the stage. There they were, these gym-bunny baritones with six-packs, and not one of them knew how to phrase Mozart properly. I sat there thinking of the people I’d worked with – Colin Davis, Charles Mackerras, my mentor Thomas Allen – and I thought no wonder I know how to sing Mozart. What a shame I wasn’t allowed to sing it after the age of 33.”

Would Rutherford go back to Mozart now if the opportunity arose? “I’d love to. I think Mozart is harder to sing than Wagner, but nowadays I guess that physically I’m built more like a Wagner singer than a Mozart singer. Of course, I would have loved to have sung Giovanni or the Count, but now I work mainly in German-speaking countries where they love to put you in a box, so I am a Wagner and Strauss singer. Which is fine because I love that rep.”

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I ask why there isn’t a box for him on this side of the English Channel too. “Ha! How many big Wagner operas have been done in this country in the last decade? ENO founded its reputation on doing big Wagner, but in recent years they’ve done one Parsifal and one Meistersinger where Iain Paterson sang Sachs for them. Iain’s amazing – can you imagine learning the whole of Hans Sachs in English? – and he’s the only other Brit of my sort of age who’s doing the same thing. But ENO just doesn’t do Wagner anymore. Of course, when I left college they were doing 20 operas a year and now they do half that number. For my regular work in places like Frankfurt and Düsseldorf they do 25 operas a year. Apart from some smaller roles at Covent Garden I haven’t worked in the UK since 2006.

“I got myself into this niche partly because I have a mortgage and a wife and kids, but also because I love this music. So where else do I go if I want to sing it if not Germany? I’ve never relocated out there, though; I’ve always managed to work on guest terms. In Frankfurt I did have one of their best contracts but I still wasn’t there all the time, I’d just go over two or three times a year. I’m back there in a year or so for another Siegfried.”

James Rutherford as Hans Sachs in the 2012 Wiener Staatsoper production of Meistersinger
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

It sounds like a tough lifestyle for a family man. “When you’re away nine or 10 months of the year it’s not very good for being a husband and father, but I’ve managed to have three or four months off in chunks this year for the first time in ages.” Next month he’s back on his travels to Düsseldorf to sing Wotan. “That’s become a regular thing the past year or two. We’re doing one cycle and it will only keep me away from home for 11 days.” That sounds extraordinarily short time for a Ring cycle. “We’ve rehearsed it opera by opera in the past few years so now we’re just bringing it all together. I do three operas, I’ve worked with all the cast before, so we just do two days of brush-up on each show. How perfect is that? We can do that with the Ring because there are so many performances in Germany that everyone’s familiar with it. In the UK currently there’s the one at Covent Garden and that’s it.

“I waited until I was 43 before doing Wotan, bearing in mind I’d already been singing Sachs for four or five years by that stage. My voice isn’t the hugest but perhaps I can sing quieter music better than some other people, and there’s quite a lot of that in Wagner. You bring to the table what you can, and that suits some houses more than others. There’s one company that won’t touch me because they say they need a “screamer” for these parts!”

Looking at Wagner’s male roles, Sachs strikes me as the one with the most complicated inner life. Rutherford concurs. “Absolutely! That’s why I’m looking forward to still singing him 20 or 30 years from now. And it’s such a big thing. It takes two hours 25 mins just to sing my character! There’s nothing else that comes close. It’s my number one role – I’ve performed it almost 50 times – and it just fits me. When you’re onstage for four hours as Sachs you cover every human emotion.

“I know it’s sacrilege to say so but I prefer Die Meistersinger to Tristan und Isolde, let alone Verdi or Puccini. I picked up the score of Tosca after the summer, knowing I had to nip over to Düsseldorf and sing Scarpia in a couple of shows, and I thought “yes, it’s fine, I know it”. But whenever I open the score of Meistersinger it’s like looking at something on a higher plane.”

Click here to find out more about the Müpa Budapest production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary.