Illustration: John Watson

Harry Sever on conducting Wagner: ‘I’d always been quite afraid of him’

Aged only 32, Sever will conduct two performances of Die Walküre this summer
May 1, 2024

Harry Sever, at the tender age of 32, is working on the Ring Cycle. Conductors have waited their whole lives before being given a chance to delve fully into Wagner’s sprawling, daunting, unfathomable 16-hour masterpiece. And it’s true that Sever is not yet being let loose on the entire work alone. But he’s having an experience that few musicians of his age can even imagine.

Later in the summer, he will climb onto the podium in the orchestral pit at Longborough Festival Opera and conduct two performances of Die Walküre, the five-hour second part of the cycle. During the rest, he is assisting the main conductor, Anthony Negus.

With Wagner, there is an almost literal sense of passing the baton. Negus, now 78, had to wait until he was 67 before conducting his first Ring Cycle. He had seen his first Ring Cycle at Bayreuth under Rudolf Kempe in 1961 and spent much of his life as the assistant to the great British Wagnerian Reginald Goodall. Goodall, for his part, was in his late sixties before he was allowed to fly solo. There is something precocious about Sever embarking on this journey at 32.

It was during lockdown—denied the chance to wave his baton at anyone—that he first tentatively approached Wagner. “I’d always been quite afraid of him. It just felt to me, like, ‘I’ll do that when I’m old.’”

He got a Met Opera DVD of their Ring Cycle and began with Das Rheingold while mending a duvet cover. By the end of the first opera, he had set aside the mending and he sat entranced through the next three. He was hooked.

Enter the Longborough festival near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire—a project of love started by a local builder, Martin Graham, and his wife, Lizzie, in the barn in their garden. The Grahams’ daughter, Polly, invited Sever to audition for a fellowship to assist Negus in this, the latter’s second Ring Cycle, which begins in mid-June. 

“He’s amazing,” says Sever of Negus. I think he’s nearly 80 now but he’s got unbelievable energy for Wagner. 

“He really has no ego at all, as far as I can tell. He just believes in what’s on the page in front of him and trying to get something good out of it. It’s this ability to respect the score. Ninety-nine per cent of the work has kind of been done for you, if you just look for it.”

Sever has a similar approach to what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience. “I’m not a big sci-fi person; I don’t like Dungeons & Dragons, or even Lord of the Rings. But I do ask, for instance, about political systems. So, what happens in Rheingold? Gold is stolen from nature and used to create a kind of industry of subjugation. 

“I find the way that the motifs express that particular story very beautiful: nature versus greed and ambition.”

He struggles to remain optimistic about British attitudes to opera. “In other places—Germany, Scandinavia—you go to shows and there are teenagers there and tickets don’t cost a fortune. People don’t dress up, necessarily. And it’s so clear to me that it’s not an elite thing. It’s just a human experience. 

“There was this Arts Council thing the other week, a complaint that we’re pursuing excellence—‘too many operas by Puccini and too much focus on excellence’—and I just felt like, oh, come on!

“You would never go to a sports coach and say, ‘Yeah, can you just maybe not worry so much about Raducanu’s excellence, it’s fine if she’s just kind of okay. Or say, ‘There’s just a bit too much by Shakespeare.’” 

I think that we can take it that Sever’s Wagner will be more than just okay.