But he also had groupies - pelleastres - who mooned about in velvet suits with puffed sleeves, bearing Byzantine jewels on their perfectly manicured fingers. And he had serious admirers in the form of Stravinsky and Puccini, and later Boulez, for whom Pelleas marked the moment when music began to "beat with a new pulse".
This was the pulse of a trance. Debussy aimed to "cultivate the garden of the instincts" and to "trample the flower-beds symmetrically laid out with ideas in white ties", so he underscored the Freudian elements in his Maeterlinck libretto. It's the story of a marriage, an extramarital affair, a murder, and a death from grief, but it's also a riot of teasingly transparent symbols.
Golaud, prince of Allemonde - pun intended - is lost in a forest when he sees Melisande weeping by a pool in which she's lost her crown. Later, frolicking with Golaud's brother Pelleas, she drops Golaud's ring into a fountain. Pelleas embraces her long hair trailing from a window, and as he does so, white doves fly out. We are repeatedly told that the protagonists are "children" - the true location is no real place, but simply the psyche.
Debussy uses this licence to wondrous effect. When Golaud gets his little son to spy on his wife and her supposed lover, the music reflects menace and masochistic excitement without any recourse to Wagnerian thunder. When Melisande dies of grief after Pelleas's murder by his jealous brother, the music is pervaded by an ecstatic stillness which is a million miles from the vocal histrionics of the death scene in La Traviata. There are just four fortissimo moments in Debussy's entire score.
So it's a surprise to find John Tomlinson - the quintessential thundering Wotan - cast as Golaud in the Pelleas which opens at Glyndebourne tomorrow. He has sung this opera before, though in the role of Golaud's father. How did he view Golaud then? "As a turbulent son, whom I did not understand."
How does he view Golaud now, from inside his skin? "Still a bit of a mystery, but he's got something in common with Bluebeard: a man with a genetic defect, afraid of the madness in himself. A man who has it in him to become - at the flick of a switch - a psychopath, like Jekyll and Hyde. This production will stress the romantic, Jekyll side."
But what sort of production will it be? Under instructions from his director, Graham Vick, Tomlinson clams up after saying that it will present the drama as domestic claustrophobia. Vick promises that it will have "more to do with TS Eliot-style verse drama, than televisual soap opera", then he clams up too. I glean more from backstage spies: Golaud's ring will be imaginary, as will the river it's dropped into, and there will be no grotto by the sea; the entire action will take place in a single room, which will be dominated by a giant spiral staircase descending from the heavens; and under the transparent floor there will be flowers. As the audience will discover tomorrow - and Channel 4 viewers on 5 June - Vick is taking one of his famous risks.
For Tomlinson this job marks a comeback to Glyndebourne after an absence of 25 years. "Life," he says, "is full of surprises. In my twenties and thirties I never dreamed I would sing Wotan. I had a heavy bass voice, and a lot of vocal problems, with no high notes at all. But for some reason my voice kept developing, and the voice can go in unexpected directions."
If the challenge of Wotan is to produce the necessary physical stamina, the mental stamina required for Golaud is no less taxing. The demands of Boris Godunov, which he recently sang with ENO, are, in contrast, essentially dramatic. The hardest nut he's had to crack is Schoenberg's Moses and Aron, which he has just sung at the Met in New York. "And in that opera, some critics accused me of singing too much."
If that sounds odd, so were the composer's original instructions. "He'd written exact pitches, and exact durations, but he put crosses on the stave rather than normal notes, to indicate that the singer had an absolutely free hand." Some singers literally talk their way through, but Tomlinson's solution was interesting. "If you hear a typical Russian singer doing Boris, very few of the notes are exactly at the right pitch. The voice may sink down on the note from above, or start on the note and move away, or maybe just touch on it momentarily. Well, that's how I approached Moses - I learnt the part precisely: then on stage I let anything happen."
Since Tomlinson is in demand everywhere, he's frustratingly discreet. He won't name the duff directors he has to suffer under, nor the duff singers who, in his view, get by on marketing rather than talent. Not a single rude word about any of the houses he sings in; on the contrary, paeans of praise for the in-one-day-out-the-next productions in star-driven places such as Vienna. He loved the spontaneity of the semi-staged Ring at the Royal Albert Hall last year: "For Wotan's Farewell, my preparation with Brunnhilde lasted just one minute, and consisted of my telling her that I didn't plan to move throughout the scene." Yet that production earned him a string of awards, including - this week - one from the Royal Philharmonic Society.
Sitting on the lawn at Glyndebourne, watching the sun go down, this 52- year-old Accrington lad seems the picture of contented fulfilment. What advice would he give his younger self today? "Don't go straight for the big time; don't chase tiny parts in smart productions. Go for the work itself: pack in the necessary flying hours on stage, until it feels like your natural habitat. It took me 20 years to become what I call a finished singer."
`Pelleas et Melisande' opens on Friday at Glyndebourne (01273 813813). It will be broadcast on Channel 4 on 5 JuneReuse content