Second Innings

Players on their careers and hobbies outside cricket

Bob Willis
The Wisden Cricketer

Watching the fat lady sing

Led Zeppelin who? It was Wagner that rocked Bob Willis' world

Interview by Emma John

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A still from Götterdämmerung: "My attention never wavers when I'm watching Wagner" © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Bob Willis
Teams: England

What was your first experience of opera?
I was taken to Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq D'Or at Covent Garden when I was about 14 and I didn't really enjoy it. I didn't understand what was going on at all.

When did you get the Wagner bug?
I went on a trip to Vienna in the 1980s and the choice of Saturday night entertainment was a bierkeller or the opera house. Two of us went to the opera in our dinner jackets, while our friends went to listen to the oompah band. The performance was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Wagner, and I'd had a bit of a tutorial before I went from my next-door neighbour, who was a big fan. I was absolutely stung by it.

And what was it about Wagner in particular?
I think when you get stung by Wagner that's more or less it, most other opera pales into insignificance. I'm not a physically emotional person, but I can never stop myself crying at the end of Götterdämmerung when the strings come storming in.

How did you learn? By following the score?
No, I can't read music. I read Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights. It's quite a lonely pursuit in a way. I'm happy listening to it on my own. A few years ago I even invested in some videos of the Ring. Not only can I immerse myself in the recordings, but I can now watch it at home as well.

Could you share your passion with anyone in cricket?
No. My love of Wagner has taken up so much of my listening time that I've probably missed out on other things. The people I've played cricket with, like Paul Allott and Ian Botham, are very keen on pop music of the 1970s. I'd barely heard of, er, who are they… Led Zeppelin.

So you're a bit obsessive?
I suppose so. My musical loves have been Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Mahler, Shostakovich and Wagner. Somewhere along the line I should have found some space for other music instead of pretending to do my physics homework listening to Highway 61 Revisited time after time.

"The people I've played cricket with, like Paul Allott and Ian Botham, are very keen on pop music of the 1970s. I'd barely heard of, er, who are they… Led Zeppelin"

How did you get into Dylan?
I went to a rugby-playing school. I hated rugby and in the winter when the muscled brethren were playing, I used to play football with the school old boys. This taught me how to drink cider and vomit it up on Surbiton station, and other life-altering lessons. One of the guys I played with was a big folk music fan and he brought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan for me to listen to. I'd only just joined the Beatles fan club, but I gave them up after that.

What was special about Dylan?
Lyrics. Everybody else was singing about she loves me and I love her and I'll meet you down the cinema. Dylan was social comment and humour.

Why do people become so obsessive about Wagner?
Because you've got to study it. You can't just go along and wait for such-and-such an aria to come along. You're immersed in it for hour after hour.

Which is the longest opera you've sat through?
Götterdämmerung is about six hours 20 minutes, with the intervals.

Drop off at any point?
Not at all. My attention never wavers when I'm watching Wagner. If I don't know the piece, I try to learn something from it. I'm easily annoyed by extraneous sounds. We rushed after play at The Oval once to see Simon Rattle conducting Parsifal, and there was some bloody American who was videoing it, and his camcorder made a whirring noise - it was unbelievable!

Did you say anything?
No. I'm very diplomatic.

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