A stalwart of concert hall and opera house – for which he amassed a repertoire of more than 100 roles – for much of the latter half of the last century, baritone Thomas Hemsley came to attention as a 24-year-old unknown opposite the veteran Kirsten Flagstad – then aged 56 – in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the opening production in the Mermaid Theatre in its original north London premises in 1951.
An invitation to sing Hercule in Gluck’s Alceste at Glyndebourne in the 1954 season duly followed, the first of many appearances at the East Sussex venue, including the 1961 British premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers.
A relative lack of opportunities at home in a Britain only just beginning to shake off post-war austerity led Hemsley to spend a decade in Germany – at Aachen and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein – and then move on to Switzerland, appearing with Zurich Opera from 1962-67. He was also acclaimed for his portrayal of Beckmesser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the Bayreuth Festival from 1968-70.
At Aldeburgh in 1960, Hemsley created the role of Demetrius in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – afterwards recording it, with the composer conducting – but had to wait until 1970 before making his debut, in Tippett’s The Knot Garden, with the Royal Opera. Later UK engagements included appearances with Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera (from 1977-85) and Kent Opera, with whom he was much praised for his Falstaff in 1980.
In the concert hall he was especially admired for his interpretations of Christus in Bach’s Passions, Britten’s War Requiem and song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.
After retiring from singing, he became a teacher – including a long relationship with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – and competition adjudicator. In 1998, he wrote an admired book, Singing and Imagination. He was awarded a CBE for services to music in 2000.
Thomas Jeffrey Hemsley was born in Coalville, Leicestershire, on April 12, 1927, and died on April 11, the day before his 86th birthday. He is survived by his wife and three sons.
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