Once, a while ago – quite a while, but she refuses to specify – Catherine Foster was not an opera star and didn’t dream about it. She had decided that once she left the local comprehensive in Nottingham, she would be a nurse.
“‘Catherine, we have to be realistic about your expectations,’ my teacher told me,” says Foster now, “This was at work experience. Mine, I was sent to this factory to be shown how to sew pockets onto jeans.
“I said, ‘You think this is as far as I can get - ?!’”
Foster, who once was a midwife but tonight accepts the Wagner Society’s Reginald Goodall Award for outstanding service to Wagner and his music, had organised things early.
“A few years ago, mum was clearing the loft out and found something in an exercise book. The title was ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I wrote, ‘When I grow up I am going to be a nurse and a singer’ and I drew a picture of it.
“I’ve known since I was three. When I was small, mum lost me and when she found me again I was in the church, singing Away in a Manger,” she says, “It was July.”
So no arias? She laughs. “I never wanted to be an opera singer. It was Lena Zavaroni and things.”
The now forgotten Scottish child star is to this day the youngest person to have a top 10 album in the UK but, really? Her? Weren’t the parents big on Mozart and the like? “God no no no” – Foster adopts a gruff midlands accent – “We can’t be doing with things like that.”
Nursing looked unlikely though, and not because her teacher wasn’t rooting for her. She initially failed her exams but “I didn’t see that as a problem, I just said, ‘ok, I’ll take them again’ and I did, and I passed.”
Such tenacity is a theme. Nurses tend not to seem underworked but after qualifying Foster found herself restless, used to evening’s studying after a 40-hour week.
“I thought, ‘I need to do something’, and not just my nursing, so I looked around and found singing lessons.”
An amateur chorus did not teach Foster technique (“I was singing in a way that was not healthy. It was like Kermit the Frog, I’d pushed the vocal box down so far”) but after learning Puccini and Verdi, with their great romantic sweeps, she found herself doing opera.
At work, she had moved onto midwifery, where a patient’s husband made introductions that led her to celebrated vocal tutor Pamela Cook who took her on after, Foster says, “hearing one note somewhere in an hour’s worth of singing that she thought was a voice.”
Foster credits the late Cook as giving her a career; “She was buried on the day of my Siegfried dress rehearsal, that first year in Bayreuth. It was like losing a second mum.”
On Cook’s encouragement, in 1995 Foster studied at the Birmingham Conservatoire, then briefly at the Royal Northern College of Music, funded after winning the first ever Dame Eva Turner award. Afterwards, she found herself struggling for work.
“I said to Pam, ‘It’s like a closed door, I’m too tall, I’m too blonde, I’m too this, I’m too that…’
“You do have to know people, to make contacts. I didn’t have any so I went to make my own. I’d heard about singing in Germany.”
“My agent said, ‘Yes, but you don’t speak German?’, so I said “And…?’ If I get a job, I’ll learn.”
After sending 100 letters and CDs to German agents, she scored three interviews. She sang Tannhäuser’s Dich, theure Halle because “most soprano arias just go on and on and I needed a one for a young singer that didn’t.”
On her last audition, she found success in front of George Alexander Albrecht, who cast her in Wagner’s Tannhäuser as Elizabeth. She moved to Weimar “with a bed and a few bits of crockery and that was it”, having just married just six months earlier to husband Robert, who stayed back for work. The couple didn’t have the money for the long distance calls, but they stuck it out.
This was 2001, her career properly beginning. Making can-you-believe-it-eyes, she says, “I’d never wanted to sing Wagner, I thought was too long!”
Since then, by her own account, she’s done more than 50 Ring Cycles, 85 productions of the Valkyrie and around 60 of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. In 2007, she took the part she is most associated with, Brünnhilde, and in 2013 made as debut in the role at the celebrated Bayreuth festival (“the most magical, amazing, time capsule experience”), which she’s played annually since and will do again this summer. Does it ever get boring?
There is the clatter of coffee cups as she recoils. “What?! No!”
“The genius of the Ring is that you can take that story and put it in any culture, any time, any period of life, because it is basically a story of what humanity is like. Greed, lust, love, hate, family life. That’s it.”
Her voice taken her across Germany, around Europe, up to Scandinavia, into America and China and countless places beyond. While she fondly recalls fans who travel just to see her – “even my family have got to know them” – she hasn’t performed on a London stage since 2000. Why?
“I’ve no idea, none at all. It’s certainly not from my side. How do you say it politely? I don’t know what else I have to do. In Bayreuth, they say, why are you not there?
“I hold no resentment, nothing about the fact I had to go to Germany to make my career because I firmly believe that’s something that had to happen to me to get into the German repertoire.”
“It is a common thing that’s said, that Britain doesn’t champion its own singers.”
She wonders then if she’ll be asked the same thing tonight, at the award. Then she begins to look beyond, to plans in Valencia, another Bayreuth, perhaps something in Dubai. Catherine Foster may not need us, but we’re lucky to have her.
Catherine Foster receives the Wagner Society's Reginald Goodall Award tonight at the Royal Over-Seas League, wagnersociety.org