Norman Bailey, CBE

Born: March 23, 1933;

Died: September 15, 2021.

IT was May 1990 and the Glasgow Herald critic Michael Tumelty left the city’s Theatre Royal, having been deeply moved by Nuria Espert’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It was, he noted in his review, unlikely to be surpassed. It had offered brooding atmosphere and heartbreak. “That was not sweat I wiped from my cheek at the end,” he wrote, “it was the result of a relentless accumulation of dramatic impetus.”

And among the standout cast

– Arthur Davies, Janice Cairns, Anne-Marie Owens – he noted Norman Bailey’s “dignified, resonant (and peerless) Sharpless”.

Such critical raves were frequently directed at Bailey, who has died aged 88. He was one of the leading interpreters of the heavy and severely challenging bass roles in Wagner operas. He was supreme as Wotan (The Ring Cycle), Hans Sachs (Die Meistersingers von Nurnberg) and the Dutchman (The Flying Dutchman). His voice was strong and assured with a rock-steady technique and a vibrant timbre.

His diction in those long scenes was immaculate and never wavered.

Even in the lengthy Sachs oration in the last act of Meistersingers, by which time he had been on stage for four hours, he delivered the music with a calm confidence and an exceptional musicality.

He was acclaimed for his Sachs in the 1976 Scottish Opera/David Pountney’s production of Die Meistersinger, conducted by Alexander Gibson. It was revived by the company the following year and again in 1983, with Bailey in peerless form.

Bailey was also a master of the many baritone roles in Verdi, as was seen when Scottish Opera opened its new production of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Edinburgh Festival in 1976. Again, the cast was superb, with Bailey singing the title role opposite the fiery Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. One critic wrote of Bailey’s performance: “He delivered a tense, uncomfortable Macbeth: exactly right.”

Bailey had made his Scottish Opera debut as Kurwenal in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1973. It was a mighty role and he made an immediate impression. He was

cast for Sachs as a result and the production was recognised throughout the world of opera as a triumph for the company. Scottish Opera’s anthology relates: “When Scottish Opera presented Die Meistersinger it was a marvellous achievement. It was a brilliant colourful production and with that great musician Norman Bailey singing Hans Sachs.”

He was to return to sing with the company for another Wagner epic (The Flying Dutchman in 1987) and Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma in 1993, as well as that role as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly (1987-90).

His debut at the Royal Opera has become part of operatic legend. The company, in 1969, was about to

revive its Die Meistersingers with an international cast. The performer who was playing Hans Sachs fell ill on the day of the first night and the company “searched throughout Europe” for a replacement.

Someone eventually suggested that Bailey was just down the road at English National Orchestra, rehearsing a new production of The Flying Dutchman, and he had sung Sachs the previous year in Germany.

He literally walked up the road, on to the stage and sang. He was cheered to the rafters and all done without stage or music rehearsal. A week later he got rave reviews again for his Dutchman down the road.

Norman Stanley Bailey was born in Birmingham and was evacuated to Scotland during the war.

He spent much of his childhood in South Africa, where he read theology at Rhodes University. He then studied singing at the Vienna Music Academy and gained experience in the 1960s with various German opera companies.

In 1967, he joined Sadler’s Wells Opera (later the ENO) and his international career soon followed. He made his London debut with the company in 1968 as Sachs in its famous (in English) production of The Mastersingers, conducted by Reginald Goodall. He was the first English singer to sing Sachs at the Bayreuth Festival in 1969 and 1970.

Bailey, as he did with Scottish Opera, remained loyal to the companies that had supported him at the start of his career. Other roles for ENO included Pizarro (Fidelio), Prince Gremin (Eugene Onegin), and Kutuzov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. He sang in all the leading opera houses of the world – the Metropolitan in New York, as well as Vienna and Milan – and his strong voice coped with such large houses. He also featured on many acclaimed recordings, often winning awards.

Bailey was much in demand to record with leading conductors: Georg Solti (The Flying Dutchman and Die Meistersingers), Bernard Haitink (The Magic Flute), and Goodall (The Ring Cycle), to name but a few.

Memories of Bailey at Scottish Opera are still fresh for many. On a personal note, I remember sitting in the gods at a packed Edinburgh Playhouse for his Hans Sachs. His vocal and physical stamina was outstanding. Bailey was instrumental in putting the company on the international opera map.

Bailey, a man of much courtesy and personal warmth, was made a CBE in 1977. He was a keen chess player and golfer. Throughout his career he was a follower of the Baha’i faith. His 1957 marriage to Doreen Simpson was dissolved in 1980 and in 1985 he married the American soprano, Kristine Ciesinki. They often sang at the ENO, and they retired to live in Idaho. She died in a flying accident in 2018.

Bailey is survived by the three children from his first marriage.