The tenor Robert Tear died this morning, March 29: he was 72. His repertoire was vast but he brought something special to British music. He was born in Barry, Glamorgan and studied at the Boys’ Grammar School there. He attended King’s College Cambridge as a choral scholar.
His operatic debut was in the role of Peter Quint in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and throughout his life he took on many of the roles Britten wrote for Peter Pears, including the composer’s last stage work, Death in Venice – Tear sang Aschenbach in the Glyndebourne Touring Company production in the 1989-90 season. His numerous Britten recordings include Albert Herring, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Spring Symphony, St Nicolas and War Requiem (in Simon Rattle’s EMI’s recording). He also created the role of Dov in Sir Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970). Other British repertoire at which he excelled included the choral works of Elgar and Vaughan Williams as well as music of an earlier period, Purcell and Handel.
But Tear’s range and musical sympathies were enormously broad and during his long career (his stage debut was in 1966 and he retired in 2009 after singing the Emperor in Puccini's Turandot)) he sang or recorded roles in operas by Berg (he sang the painter in the Friedrich Cerha completion of Lulu under Boulez), Delius, Donizetti, Henze, Janácek, Messiaen, Mozart, Offenbach, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky (Lensky was the role of his Covent Garden debut in 1970) and Wagner. Along with his stage and oratorio work, Tear was a fine recitalist, leaving recordings of music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, as well as songs by Tchaikovsky (with Philip Ledger at the piano, a regular musical partner). He also made a speciality of reviving Victorian parlour songs, often in the company of the baritone Benjamin Luxon.
From 1992-94 he was artistic director of the Vocal Faculty of the London Royal Schools of Music and at the time of his death was a visiting professor of Opera at the Royal Academy of Music. He is an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and in 1984 was awarded the CBE. In 1995 he published a hugely entertaining autobiography, Singer Beware: A Cautionary Story of the Singing Class, a book which beautifully conveys his talents as a raconteur and wit.
Tear’s voice was very ‘British’ in sound, quite ‘tight’ but very flexible and capable of conveying great expression, and combined with his skill as a stage actor, he was a valued and valuable member of any opera company.