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Anthony Rolfe Johnson remembered

8 August 2010

Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Peter Grimes in the 1993 production by Scottish Opera
Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Peter Grimes in the 1993 production by Scottish Opera(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was a founding member of Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac alongside Felicity Lott, Ann Murray and Richard Jackson. In this exclusive interview with Opera Now, Graham Johnson shares his memories of Tony and speaks in detail about the qualities that defined him as a singer.

I first met Anthony Rolfe Johnson in 1972 when he and I were both still students. He was just finishing his studies at the Guildhall, and I was coming to the end of mine at the Royal Academy of Music.

Tony explained to me at our first meeting how a completely new life as a singer had suddenly blossomed for him after he had expected to spend the rest of his life working as a farmer.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm of someone who had heard his choral singing, he had come to the Guildhall as a mature student, completely inexperienced and unschooled. For four years he was there virtually day and night: his dedication must have been almost frightening – but it paid huge musical dividends.

What I heard at our first rehearsal was something so beautiful and breathtakingly musical that one did not ask how it had come about, one simply gave thanks that it existed.

A little later I heard him at the British Institute of Recorded Sound in South Kensington where Pierre Bernac, Poulenc’s great baritone, made yearly visits to give classes. Tony sang Poulenc’s Bleuet, an unbearably moving Apollinaire setting about a young soldier during the First World War preparing to go over the top from the trenches. Bernac was known for being a real taskmaster, but on that occasion all he had to say was “My God, what a singer you are!” I can still hear the heart-stopping way Tony sang the closing lines of Bleuet: “O douceur d’autrefois/ Lenteur immémoriale.” We recorded the song for Hyperion some years later.

One gave thanks for Tony’s singing because he himself seemed to be giving thanks simply for being alive when he sang. He came from a strong Methodist background and had been a singer of hymns from childhood. Perhaps this accounts for the stable, calm and yet fervent quality that was part of the magic of his singing. I always felt that he must have been loved by his cows as much as he loved them and that his kindness to all God’s creatures accounted for an almost Franciscan aura of goodness about him – without any trace of holier-than-thou.

The mellifluous fluidity of Tony’s sound, seemingly produced without effort, was the result of an extraordinary combination: an easy head-voice underpinned by, and launched from, an equally easy baritonal register. Tony’s floated tops notes had roots in the soil, as it were, which was what made them so beguiling. As the years went on he developed greater punch and fiery incisiveness for some of his bigger roles, but he was never a typical tenor. He wasn’t one of those singers who achieved their effects through bluster and testosterone. He preferred to be persuasive and golden rather than hectoring and brassy.

It is terribly sad that we should have to bid farewell to two such great English tenors as Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson within a few months of each other. They each had their very different strengths and they were both great artists.

Unlike Philip, the gritty challenges of composers such as Harrison Birtwhistle never appealed to Tony. While I think of Philip as essentially an heroic musical figure, Tony took another route – he was quietly seductive. It is not that Tony lacked stentorian and manly colours and possibilities (when I first met him he excelled in the sport of archery) but with him every note was a serenade to the absent lover, “an die ferne Geliebte”, and there were always ladies in the audience who were enraptured by his music-making.

Tony was a true chevalier, and I think the lack of ‘coercion’ in his voice (the forcefulness of a command was veiled by the plea of an invitation) made him very special. There was so much repertoire in which he excelled: Monteverdi (a composer whose Orfeo he later conducted), Handel, Bach, and Mozart. In Schubert his own personality seemed effortlessly to chime with that of the composer, and in Britten he was successful in such disparate roles as Albert Herring and Aschenbach at the different ends of his career.

A full version of this interview will be published in the September/October 2010 issue of Opera Now – click here to subscribe now.


News round-up - 29 July 2010

29 July 2010

Eva Wagner-Pasquier
Eva Wagner-Pasquier(Photo: Picture-Alliance / DPA)

Plácido Domingo
Plácido Domingo(Photo: Jose Zakany)

Eva Wagner-Pasquier suffering from stress

Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the joint director of Bayreuth Festival, has been admitted to hospital with circulatory problems. This year’s six-week Wagner extravaganza opened during the weekend with a new production of Lohengrin, and Wagner-Pasquier’s symptoms are said to have been caused by stress in the run-up to this event.  The great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner has been joint director of the Festival together with her half-sister, Katharina Wagner, since 1 September 2008.

Production to be filmed on location in Mantua

Plácido Domingo is to play the title role in a televised production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, featuring historically accurate locations in the Italian city of Mantua. Scheduled for broadcasts on 4 and 5 September, this ambitious project will be directed for the BBC and Italy’s RAI Uno by award-winning cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. Following hot on the heels of Domingo’s debut as Simon Boccanegra at London’s Royal Opera House in June, Rigoletto will be the 69-year-old singer’s second major baritone role.

“Personal reasons” prompt Peter Stein's decision 

German director, Peter Stein, has withdrawn from the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Boris Godunov “for personal reasons”, said a spokesperson for the company. Stephen Wadsworth has taken over the production, which will receive its premiere on 11 October. All other elements of the production are to remain intact.

Balázs Kovalik’s contract term comes to an end

A power vacuum has been left at the top of the Hungarian State Opera following the departure of the company’s artistic director, Balázs Kovalik. Kovalik’s contract came to an end last month and was not renewed or extended by General Director, Lajos Vass. A statement issued by the state secretary of Hungary’s ministry responsible for culture said that "negotiations are in process with various personalities of the opera world on possible cooperation".

Wigmore Hall director, John Gilhooly, elected to top position

The Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) has appointed Wigmore Hall director, John Gilhooly, to succeed outgoing RPS chairman Graham Sheffield. Gilhooly was previously the Society’s honorary secretary and has been part of the RPS council since 2007. The annual RPS Music Awards feature an Opera and Music Theatre Award that went to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2010.

Savonlinna Opera Festival’s Opera By You 2010 – Free Will

Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland has launched an online community opera project called ‘Opera By You’. Participants are being invited to interact with the project’s core creative team, actively contributing to a new opera that will be premiered in 2012. The theme of ‘Free Will’ has already been selected from over 100 online entries, together with a loose narrative concept involving a team of dead geniuses who return to Earth to improve the lot of mankind – “with unexpected and puzzling results”.

Three classic operas plus Adams’ A Flowering Tree

Cincinnati Opera has announced details of four productions for its 2011 Season. Highlights include the local premiere of John Adams’ Indian folk tale opera A Flowering Tree, and a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Revivals of Rigoletto and Eugene Onegin complete the line-up, the latter featuring baritone Nathan Gunn in his role and company debut as Onegin.

The Royal Welsh College to partner with Welsh National Opera

The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff, has launched a new MA in Opera Performance. Starting in September, the course will be delivered in partnership by the Royal Welsh College and Welsh National Opera, offering advanced students access to professional training and performance opportunities. It will be led by Angela Livingstone, the College’s recently appointed Head of Opera, Vocal Studies and Choral Conducting.

Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer

Pecan Summer, Australia’s first opera for an all-Aboriginal cast, has received a standing ovation at its Melbourne preview. Written by Australian soprano, Deborah Cheetham, it tells the story of thousands of Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents under acts of parliament between 1869 and 1969. A commission for London’s 2012 Olympic Arts Festival, the opera will receive its world premiere in Australia on 9 October.

Application deadline – 21 January 2011

Next year’s Handel Singing Competition final will take place in London on 7 April 2011 at St George's, Hanover Square. Applicants are invited to apply by 21 January 2011.  Bookings for the 2011 London Handel Festival will also open in January.

Sir Charles Mackerras remembered

27 July 2010, London, UK

Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras(Photo: Felicity Palmer)

Leos Janáček
Leos Janáček

Gavin Plumley is British a musicologist and journalist. He is the editor of a website dedicated to the life and work of Leos Janáček and has broadcast and written widely about the composer.

Opera Now: How significant was Sir Charles Mackerras' contribution to establishing the status of Janáček’s operas within the mainstream repertoire of opera houses worldwide?
Gavin Plumley: Sir Charles's training in post-Second World War Prague gave him an invaluable connection with many of the musicians who had grown up with Janáček's music. Later, in Britain, he was able to advocate the scores to an entirely new audience. Although the more stubborn elements of taste sometimes got in his way, Sir Charles's determination ultimately won through. His highly idiomatic approach, both in performances of Janáček and all other repertoire, allowed us to hear the music in the best light. Combined with the English-language scholarship of John Tyrrell (with whom Mackerras worked on editions of the scores) and the Welsh National Opera/Scottish Opera cycle of the operas in the late 70s/early 80s, his fervent discipleship really was the key to establishing Janáček in the international repertoire.

ON: Sir Charles was a conductor who excelled in performances of symphonic music as well as opera. What qualities as an artist helped him to interpret these different kinds of repertoire so convincingly?
GP: I think it was very simple: Sir Charles never wanted to impress his own aesthetic onto a composer's work. Moreover, he was a bright and analytical man who just brought out the music's nascent qualities. His performances of Der Rosenkavalier, for instance, went back to the piece's roots. What can be a rather lugubrious work was truly a comedy in his hands – it sparkled.

ON: Which of Sir Charles' Janáček opera recordings stands out most for you, and why?
GP: They are all benchmark recordings. I am very fond of the second Supraphon recording of Káťa Kabanová, which balances the more caustic elements of Janáček's sound world with the underlying Romanticism in the score. But the thrillingly paced Jenůfa with the Vienna Philharmonic is unbeatable.

ON: Apart from his extraordinary legacy of Janáček recordings, how else do you think Sir Charles will be remembered?
GP: At the end of a dress rehearsal for Martinů’s The Greek Passion at Covent Garden, Sir Charles should have been on stage taking his curtain call with the cast. Instead he was at the back of the pit correcting the trombone parts. He clearly had better things to do than just bask in the glory. It's a cliché to say “it was all about the music", but for a man who contributed so much musicologically and in performance, it feels like a good truism.

Clonter Opera Theatre presents Rossini's La cenerentola

26 July 2010, Cheshire, UK

Review by Antonia Couling

This particular production of La Cenerentola served well as a means of showcasing the young talent taking part, but little more.

Director Michael McCaffery was at pains to explain how he was trying to reveal the bare theatrical roots of the opera and investigate the darker side of the story, but didn’t actually manage to pull off either of these concepts on stage, so that the production was merely robbed of all vitality.

The lack of invention extended to the set by Elroy Ashmore – a simple flat with classical period doorframes cut into it, plus a few pieces of furniture that were laboriously pulled on and off stage by stagehands between scenes – as well as the costumes (also Ashmore), which were classical in period with Turkish outfits for the ball. Cinderella wore a slightly smudged white dress – extremely practical for house-cleaning – so there was no contrast when she changed into another white, albeit slightly sparkly dress for the ball. David L Sadler’s lighting was a little more inventive if not always successful, although it did add some depth to the set.

The singers were more successful. Both sisters came Rossini-ready and presented a united vocal force: French soprano Eva Ganizate (Clorinda) displayed tight runs and a confident vocal line, while Máire Flavin (Tisbe) applied admirable clarity and accuracy.

Úna McMahon might have brought a lighter touch to the role of Angelina, though her voice is arguably more suited to Verdi than Rossini. She also needed to inject more smile into her Italian, which was dramatically demonstrated during the final scene, where she did actually smile whilst handing out forgiveness all round. We were then witness to a rather fabulous instrument.

Matthew Stiff’s Don Magnifico was perfectly suited to this typically Rossinian patriarch role. He had vocal presence and comedic sensitivity and could carve out a good career for himself. Marcus Farnsworth as Dandini was delightfully relaxed on stage and camped up his role wonderfully. His runs were a tad messy, but on the other hand, he had a particularly pleasing lower register. The most theatrically satisfying scene of the night was the one between Dandini and Magnifico.

Thomas Herford didn’t quite rise to the demands of Don Ramiro. He has a good, Italianate leggiero instrument, but is not in control of it. In ‘Si, ritrovarla, io giuro’ he was doing so much wrong that could be corrected – the jaw constricted, the chest tight – especially as he produced one rather fine top C.

The experience of professional baritone Paul Carey Jones showed, with a strongly characterised and vocally pleasing Alidoro. And a highlight of the evening was the tight ensemble singing at the Act I climax. The performers were clearly well schooled under musical director Clive Timms, who also had the 12-piece Clonter Sinfonia bouncing along merrily with plenty of pep and cohesion, despite the odd lack of tuning in the violins.


Anthony Rolfe Johnson dies, aged 69

26 July 2010, London, UK

Anthony Rolfe Johnson
Anthony Rolfe Johnson

British tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson has died, aged 69, following a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Johnson came to music relatively late in life, starting out as a farmer before deciding to change direction. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he was recognised as one of the leading English tenors of his generation, performing and recording prolifically before illness forced him to stop.

A student of Richard Lewis and Peter Pears, Johnson’s career included all of the major operatic roles and song cycles written by Britten for Pears. He was also active as a teacher at the Britten-Pears School in Suffolk, and went on to be appointed as the director of the School in 1990.

Johnson’s approach to vocal colouring and articulation, coupled with his own enormous emotional range, made him a natural successor to Pears. In particular, Johnson was a formidable interpreter of the role of Aschenbach from Britten’s Death in Venice, which he first performed in the 1983 co-production by Scottish Opera and Geneva Opera, then later at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Other operatic roles in which Johnson excelled included the Evangelist from Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions, Debussy’s Pelléas and Mozart’s Idomeneo. He became the tenor of choice for several recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and was a founder-member of Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was appointed a CBE in the 1992 Queen's Birthday Honours list.

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