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Anthony Rolfe Johnson

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Few who delay so long achieve so much as the farmer turned tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who died on July 21 at the age 69 after a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Born in Tackley, Oxfordshire on November 5, 1940, he made his first recording as a boy soprano but chose to study agriculture – a reaction against his musical but staunchly Methodist parents – and was working as a farm manager when he joined an amateur choir in West Crawley, Sussex in his late 20s. He was soon noticed and encouraged to consider he might have an alternative to working on the land.

He subsequently trained at the Guildhall School of Music and made his professional recital debut at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank in 1973. The same year he sang with Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group for the first time. In 1975, he stepped out of the chorus at Glyndebourne to sing Lensky in Eugene Onegin (winning, in the process, the John Christie Award) and formed the seminal Songmakers’ Almanac with soprano Felicity Lott and pianist Graham Johnson.

He sang at the Last Night of the Proms in 1977 and made his ENO debut, as Tamino in The Magic Flute, the following year. One of the anointed inheritors of his one-time tutor Peter Pears’ mantle, his Aschenbach in Britten’s Death in Venice for Scottish Opera in 1983 opened doors for him at leading houses and concert halls around the world.

He balanced a busy performing schedule with teaching commitments at Snape Maltings, where he became director of the Britten-Pears School in 1990. His repertoire was wide – from Monteverdi to Boesman – and always eloquently bridged. For all his daunting technical proficiency, Rolfe Johnson was an intuitive singer with a well-honed instinct for rooting out and vividly realising the internal dramas of his characters.

The voice and the personality transferred well to disc, his Nanki-Poo in The Mikado as memorable as his contributions to the encyclopaedic Hyperion Schubert Edition, as Cassio to Pavarotti’s Otello, the Evangelist in the Bach Passions, and, not least, the title roles of Idomeneo and Peter Grimes.

Having moved to Wales, in 1988 he played a major role in the revival of the Gwyl Gregynog Festival. Appointed a CBE in 1992, he is survived by his wife, ex-spouses from two marriages, and five children.

Michael Quinn

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