Sir John Tomlinson on Pelléas et Mélisande

13/07/2012 16:46 BST | Updated 12/09/2012 10:12 BST

There is nothing better than a nerdy lunch with one of the world's greatest bass singers discussing Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Well, lucky for me, Sir John Tomlinson and I had such a discussion and, luckily for you, I'm about to recall the whole thing in this article.

Celebrating 150 years since his birth, the BBC Proms presents Debussy's only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Claude Debussy, a self-confessed Wagnerian devotee, had, let's face it, an obsession with trying to formulate a new concept of opera. Debussy himself said "It was necessary to go beyond Wagner rather than follow in his path".

Tomlinson and I began on the humanist nature of the work. Debussy said "The characters in this drama try to sing like normal human beings, and not in an arbitrary language based on outdated traditions" and Vincent D'Indy, upon the works opening, said that Debussy "expressed human feelings and sufferings in human terms". After blurting out my historical evidence Tomlinson began by saying "The works sits in an elusive territory... the work is intimate and personal".

"It's epic and death is a major theme, in fact, Act five, for my character Arkel, can be dangerous and depressing. It's actually a disturbing experience." He continued; "Death seems to have a presence and Debussy succeeds in sowing both love and death into one strand which I think is a reflection of human nature."

I injected a little more history into the conversation by suggesting that, perhaps, Debussy seems to approach the composition of the opera the same way the Florentine Camerata did by attempting to form recitatives from the way humans spoke, eventually forming 'recitative secco' (dry recitatives) "There is nothing dry about Pelléas et Mélisande, in fact it's all very wet".

"There is a recitative style which, again, presents a very human approach for us as singers... In some respects the work is like a straight play, the characters talk directly to each other often asking more questions than answering them which brings us back to that very elusive place... there tends to be no logic in the conversation which makes compelling drama but also human drama."

But this consistent recitative must make it difficult to learn and perform? "It does, it is unique and is hard to learn... There is rarely a singular vocal melody, in fact, the vocal melody is constantly hiding somewhere in the orchestral harmony which blends the musical emotion of the piece together very nicely."

"To me opera has two sides: The music, which is an emotionally expressive and powerful medium; and the text, which expresses intention or an intention for actions and these two mediums combined makes a potent mixture."

I brought some more of Debussy's intention and comment into our conversation and quoted again from Debussy's letter to the general manager of the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1894: "The feelings of a person cannot constantly be expressed in melodic fashion, and the dramatic melody ought to be clearly distinguished from melody in general"

"A lot of it is conversation" Sir John reiterated; "The vocal lines seems to work around the harmonic structure in the of the orchestration which is effective in creating this atmospheric drama."

We discussed the orchestral colour in relation to the vocal line "When I sing Wotan, for example, I could be singing a light motif with a heavy orchestral colour underneath, which can alter the way I approach the motif dramatically, do I match the colour? Or do I sing in contrast? It always changes the practicality of the work".

Debussy, in his letter, makes it very clear that he aims to remove himself from various Wagnerian traits and develop the form the opera so I wondered how far Debussy had succeeded; "The piece is no doubt a revolutionary work" he continues; "It's a perfect piece, though I supposed one could suggest that the orchestral interludes, during transitional moments in the opera, sound like Wagner - I can hear Das Rhinegold and Tristan in there".

Pelléas et Mélisande is frequently described as one the landmark works of the 20th century but Sir John was unsure of it's value to the evolution of opera "I'm not sure that it was a part of a further development of opera; It's a bit like evolution itself: the human species has come a long way since the beginning of evolution but there have been several 'off-shoots' of evolution that have led to nowhere; excuse the metaphor but I think we can think of opera like this and Pelléas et Mélisande falls in one of those 'off-shoots'.

Sir John will sing the role of Arkel, the king of Allemonde, a role he first sang with the English National Opera with Sir Mark Elder in the pit in 1980. Tomlinson had "fond memories of concert performances with Sir Andrew Davis in Boston and at Carnegie Hall".

You must be asked this all the time but does your approach change every time? "It does depending on the conductor and director. I've just come from performing this work in Barcelona where Robert Wilson directed, I don't know if you've ever come across his work but he is very inexpressive but it was very beautiful." And what of Gardiner? "He is just brilliant, he conducts something incredible fluid and never lets the music rest"

Sir John Tomlinson sings in this Sunday's Pelléas et Mélisande (Prom 3) at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall.