Anthony Rolfe Johnson: British tenor who excelled in the works of Britten, Mozart and Monteverdi

The British tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson was one of the finest exponents in his generation of the roles originally sung by Peter Pears in the operas of Benjamin Britten. However, his interpretations were in no way copies of the senior tenor's idiosyncratic versions; rather, they were recreations of the music that perfectly suited his own voice and style. His other favourite opera composers were Monteverdi and Mozart, while he sang the great Bach Passions and Handel oratorios throughout his career. As a recitalist he was a founder member of the Songmakers' Almanac and specialised in Schubert lieder and Britten's canticles. He also became an excellent conductor, especially of operas in which he had himself sung, such as Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

Rolfe Johnson was born in Tackley, Oxfordshire in 1940 and though fond of singing from his childhood, he considered music a hobby and became a farm manager. Consequently, he did not start to seriously train his voice until his late twenties, when he entered the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 1970 he sang the title role in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz and I wrote in Opera magazine that "Anthony Johnson's (sic) musical phrasing and smoothness of tone were a pleasure to listen to and in his aria… there was real dramatic feeling." Rolfe Johnson made his professional opera debut in 1973 with the English Opera Group, singing Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky's Iolantha, followed in 1974 by the first of his Britten roles, Albert Herring. He then sang at Glyndebourne for three summers, as Stroh in Strauss' Intermezzo, Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Fenton in Verdi's Falstaff.

In 1978 he joined English National Opera and sang four Mozart roles in quick succession: Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Tamino in The Magic Flute, Belmonte in The Seraglio and Ferrando in Così fan tutte. For ENO he also sang in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and the same composer's The Return of Ulysses – both of which were greatly admired – and two more Britten roles, the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia and Essex in Gloriana. Meanwhile, in 1983, he had added another Britten title to his repertory: Aschenbach in Death in Venice, which he sang for Scottish Opera and in Geneva. He also acquired several Mozart roles during the Eighties, the Emperor Titus in La Clemenza di Tito at the Holland Festival; the title role of Lucio Silla at La Scala, Milan; and Idomeneo at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. In 1988 he made his Covent Garden operatic debut as Jupiter in Handel's Semele, having already sung there in the Britten War Requiem the previous year. He returned to the Royal Opera in 1992 as Oronte in Handel's Alcina.

Rolfe Johnson made his Metropolitan Opera, New York debut in 1991 as Idomeneo, returning in 1994 as Aschenbach. During the Nineties he sang Idomeneo at the Salzburg Festival, Shuisky in Musorgsky's Boris Godunov at Geneva and in 1994, his first Peter Grimes. Of all his Britten roles, Grimes was probably his finest; quite different from Pears or Richard Lewis or Jon Vickers, his characterisation was utterly gripping. He sang it for Scottish Opera, in Lisbon, at Glyndebourne, with the Covent Garden company in Palermo and in Savonlinna, Finland. His final Britten role was Captain Vere in Billy Budd, which he sang at a concert performance in Manchester in 1997. In 2000 he created Polixenes in Philippe Boesmans' operatic version of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in Brussels, repeating it in Lyon.

Elizabeth Forbes

Anthony Rolfe Johnson, recitalist, opera and concert singer: born Tackley, Oxfordshire 3 November 1940; married three times (three sons, two daughters); died London 21 July 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions