Gerald English obituary

The tenor Gerald English, who has died aged 93, spent most of his formative years in northern France, and his later ones in Australia. During the main part of his career, based in Britain, he was free-ranging, too, in the music he sang.

At the age of 25 he sang alongside the countertenor Alfred Deller in the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. As a founder member of the Deller Consort he gained an informed knowledge of vocal repertoire extending from the 13th century to the Elizabethans, though he also took an interest in contemporary music, appearing in first performances of works by, among others, Richard Rodney Bennett (The Ledge, Sadler’s Wells, 1961) and Henze (We Come to the River, Royal Opera, 1976).

An international career took him from Glyndebourne to La Scala and he made five appearances at the BBC Proms (1974-77) – one of them as soloist in Elisabeth Lutyens’ And Suddenly It’s Evening (1976), on the occasion of Simon Rattle’s Proms debut. He sang the title role in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, gave the premiere of Tippett’s Songs for Dov, the European premiere of Berio’s Opera and performed Lutosławski’s song for voice and chamber orchestra Paroles Tissées, all under their respective composers. He also sang under John Barbirolli and Thomas Beecham.

From 1960 to 1977 he was a professor at the Royal College of Music, at the same period acting as tutor at New College, Oxford. Academic and administrative responsibilities came to the fore after his emigration in the late 1970s to Australia. Having served as artist in residence at universities in Western Australia and New South Wales (1973), he decided shortly after to settle in the country.

He was appointed founding director of the Opera Studio at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne (1977-89), where he lectured, taught singing, directed and conducted operas, sometimes from the harpsichord, and also supervised postgraduate vocal studies in Baroque music and movement. From 1990 to 1994 he was a lecturer in the music department of Newcastle University, New South Wales, and he retired from singing in 2004.

Born in Hull, east Yorkshire, Gerald was the son of Ethel (nee Gambrell), a tailor, and Alfred English, a chemist and manager with Reckitt and Coleman, and when he was two the family moved to France. He remained there for 14 years, returning to attend the King’s school, Rochester, in Kent, before undertaking war service in military intelligence and studying at the Royal College of Music. In 1956 he made his opera debut as Peter Quint in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw for the English Opera Group under the composer.

Pre-classical music, notably Gibbons, Purcell, Monteverdi and Bach, formed a large part of the repertoire in the first part of his career. To all these he brought a distinctive, unvarnished light tenor timbre; the diction was exemplary, though the delivery could lack warmth and (especially in Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse) sensuality or drama.

French song, especially Fauré, was something of a speciality, and he also featured in recordings of Britten’s War Requiem (under Karel Ančerl) and, alongside the soprano Heather Harper, The Beatitudes by Arthur Bliss – his impassioned singing of the high-lying passages in the Epilogue of the latter aspires to spiritual transfiguration. In Berg’s Wozzeck he appeared initially as Andres, later as an especially demented Captain, for the Paris Opéra, La Scala (under Claudio Abbado) and at the 1976 Adelaide festival.

Tonal allure was never a primary consideration for English, but this was a propensity he could use to his advantage as a character tenor. The role of the sly, not to say slimy, manipulator Pandarus in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, which he recorded alongside Janet Baker and Richard Cassilly with the Royal Opera under Lawrence Foster (1977), suited him to a tee. He also made something of a party piece of the Song of the Roasted Swan in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, relishing the protracted squeals of pain. He was an excellent sight-reader and tackled taxing roles with no apparent fear.

Landmarks of the Australian stretch of his career included Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared at the Melbourne international festival (1992) and his own 70th birthday concert in 1995, for which 13 composers (including Roger Smalley, Michael Finnissy, Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards and Wilfrid Mellers) each wrote a piece.

Chief among the various Australian composers whose works he performed were Peggy Glanville-Hicks, all of whose vocal music he recorded, and Andrew Ford. The latter wrote a dozen pieces for him: songs big and small, four song cycles, an operatic role and two solo music-theatre pieces.

The second of the music-theatre works, an extraordinary monodrama entitled Night and Dreams: The Death of Sigmund Freud, marked the effective culmination of his career. Focusing on the last days of the great psychoanalyst and exploiting English’s more than passing resemblance to him, it made huge demands of the 74-year-old singer.

Onstage alone for an hour, the performer has to deliver spoken as well as sung text; there is no conductor, as all other sounds, including the menacing tread of jackboots, are pre-recorded. The work was created for the Adelaide festival of 2000 and staged subsequently at the Sydney and Melbourne festivals of the following year. Elizabeth Silsbury noted in her review in Opera magazine that his was a virtuoso performance in which English could afford to let some cracks show as they merely added “force and credibility” to the character.

His first marriage came in 1954, to the viol player Jane Ryan, who appeared on some of his early recordings of Baroque music. They had four children, Helen, Timothy, Sarah and Nicholas.

After their divorce, in 1974 he married Linda Jacoby, and they had a son, Phillip. That marriage also ended in divorce. From 1987, he had a long-term relationship with Helen O’Brien, with whom he had five children, Lucy, Alexander, Eugenie, Isabella and Edward. They lived together between 1993 and 2012 in southern Victoria, and then he returned to live in the UK.

He is survived by his children; and by two sisters, Margot and Yvonne.

• Gerald English, tenor, born 6 November 1925; died 6 February 2019