Their tenor had been taken ill. Could he stand in as Tristan the following day? "Sure," he said. "No problem. But I won't make it down until lunchtime tomorrow. A plumber's coming in the morning so I have to finish my walls tonight." He built into the night, had the walls up by the wee hours and high-tailed it to Glyndebourne in time for the matinee.
This little anecdote sums up a fair amount about Storey, one of the world's great Wagnerian tenors. For example, it demonstrates that he can and does build things. He trained as a cabinet maker and considers building houses "just a matter of learning new techniques". He lives in a secluded valley in Herefordshire where he bought a farm labourer's cottage that he's since quadrupled in size.
"It's like Miami-comes-to-Herefordshire," he says. "All floor-to-ceiling glass. Right now I'm talking to you from my study and can see about 70 cattle out of my picture windows." With a builder's penchant for exactitude, he reels off the room's dimensions and a detailed description of the shelving system he designed for it.
But what that Glyndebourne anecdote also illustrates is that Storey can turn up on any given day and, in his own words, "trot out a little Tristan." Now Tristan – knight of Cornish legend and hero of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde – is not a role that most singers feel they can "trot out". It is, in fact, among the most demanding vocal roles written for any voice. The first orchestra to attempt playing the score gave up after 70 rehearsals. The first tenor to sing it died after four performances. Storey will give his 50th performance of the role in Venice in November.
But first, with soprano Nina Stemme as his Isolde and Donald Runnicles conducting, he will open the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2012-13 season singing the opera's first act (acts two and three come later in the BBC SSO's season).
Storey was a latecomer to professional singing. He grew up in a coal-mining family in Durham and moved to New Zealand in his early 20s to work as a teacher and bespoke furniture maker. Always a keen sportsman, he was injured playing basketball and tried his luck with a local choir to keep himself entertained while on the mend. The tenor section was a bit thin so he was deployed there, and after a year the conductor asked whether he'd ever considered a career in opera.
"I reckon it's genetics," he says with typical matter-of-factness. "All my family worked for the National Coal Board, but my father had a great bass-baritone voice and my paternal grandfather had a lovely lyric tenor."
However, Storey is clear that talent is not simply about luck and genes. "I believe in technique," he says. "Plenty of guys reach a certain point thanks to posh PR and intuition. But, by about 40, they fall by the wayside. You need to have good technique to get through the tricky moments in this business. Thankfully I've had hard taskmasters all my life – particularly my great teacher Carlo Cossutta."
For someone who never intended to sing Tristan – "I'd turned it down several times and refused to even buy the score because it had such a reputation for breaking people" – debuting the role on the opening night of La Scala's season wasn't a bad start.
He'd been more or less ordered to take the part by Daniel Barenboim, a man to whom one doesn't readily say no. "I was in Milan rehearsing Jenufa," he explains, "and Barenboim requested an audience with me. In front of all the directors of the house he led me through various Wagner excerpts then announced to the gathering 'friends, I've found my new Tristan'. To me he just said 'clear your diary. It takes tenors a year to learn this role. You've got five months before opening night'."
Storey did as he was told and spent the next five months being personally coached through the role by Barenboim. Now he says that he couldn't have managed the other roles he's known for – Wagner's Tannhäuser, Berlioz's Énée of Les Troyens, Beethoven's Florestan, Puccini's Scarpia – if it weren't for Tristan. "My voice developed in the way that it did because I'd sung it. Often people wait until they've done a lot of other roles until they attempt the biggie – for me it was the other way around."
Does he do certain things to take care of his voice? Nightly gargling routines or superstitious singers' remedies? Unsurprisingly, he says no. "To be honest, some singers are so damn precious about these things. Just get on with the job. But there are a few things that I know about myself. For example, once a performance is over I'll need to be in bed within an hour and a half. I have to get a good night's sleep. And I don't take early-morning flights any more." But, most important, when he's off-duty he's really off-duty. Which is how he fits in his building projects.
Storey doesn't perform much in the UK – he refuses to sing opera in translation, and that rules out a couple of our major houses.
"I'm really glad to be coming back to Scotland," he says.
He spent a crucial stage of his early career with Scottish Opera under Richard Armstrong, whom he describes as "one of the most influential people of my career. Actually the company means so much to me that I've told them straight up: find a role for me and I'll do it. But for one reason or another that hasn't happened -" He says Scottish Opera "should have been the jewel in the crown of Scottish culture. I used do the Highlands and Islands tours, singing to packed rooms wherever we went. And we're not talking about so-called 'elite audiences' here."
Storey knows his mind and doesn't mince his words. He's straightforward about what he likes in life, and, although he's on the road for 10 months of the year, is savvy about how to get it. He enjoys archery, for example, and takes his bow around the world. He also tends to drive rather than fly when singing in Europe – so that his border collie can come along. "He's sat through more Tristans than most people. I leave him in my dressing room and he listens to the opera over the intercom. When he hears Isolde's Liebestod [the closing passage] he goes and waits by the door, wagging his tail. Smart dog."
Ian Storey sings Tristan with the BBC SSO at City Halls, Glasgow, tomorrow and at Edinburgh's Usher Hall on Sunday. www.ianstorey.com.
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