Bernard Dickerson

Lyric tenor in operatic character roles
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The Independent Online

Bernard Dickerson, singer and teacher: born London 30 June 1934; died London 13 February 2004.

The tenor Bernard Dickerson was an artist whose performances one remembered. He did not sing star roles, but his characterisations were always vocally and dramatically just right.

His light, lyric tenor was managed with great technical skill, while his gifts as a comic actor were always - or very nearly always - held within the bounds of acceptable comedy. Perhaps one role above all can demonstrate his ability to tread that narrow path in safety: Flute, in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. For most of the opera his Flute was a rather frightened member of the Forest of Arden Dramatic Society. When he finally came to sing the prima-donna role of Thisbe, his roulades were worthy of Joan Sutherland, but he never went quite over the top dramatically.

Born in London in 1934, Dickerson studied privately with the baritone Roy Henderson. The first time I heard and saw him was in 1961, as the dashing young Piquillo, hero of Offenbach's La Périchole, performed by the John Lewis Partnership Music Society. One of the last times was in 1988, when he sang the elderly, cuckolded King Menelaus in another Offenbach operetta, La Belle Hélène, given by New Sadler's Wells Opera. In the 27 years between, Dickerson appeared with the English Opera Group, at the Aldeburgh, Cheltenham, Glyndebourne and King's Lynn Festivals, with the New Opera Company and English Music Theatre, at Covent Garden and with Opera North. Abroad, he sang for Musica nel Chiostro at Batignano, at Wexford and the Flanders Festival.

During the 1960s Dickerson sang mainly with the English Opera Group. In 1966 he created the Boy in the premiere of Purgatory by Gordon Crosse at Cheltenham, having no trouble in playing a convincing 16-year-old. He also sang Damon in Handel's Acis and Galatea at Aldeburgh. The following year he gave his virtuoso performance of Flute in London, when the EOG gave a season at Sadler's Wells Theatre. For the1968 Aldeburgh Festival he took on the role of the Younger Son in The Prodigal Son, Britten's church parable, given at Orford Church. In 1969 the EOG presented Purgatory at Sadler's Wells and in Aldeburgh.

Dickerson acquired a new Britten role in 1970, when he sang the Madwoman in Curlew River, another church parable, but now staged in Snape Maltings. Though the shadow of Peter Pears, creator of the role, fell heavily over the Madwoman, he provided a different, but equally valid characterisation. A Midsummer Night's Dream was also performed at the Maltings, and then toured to the Flanders Festival. He took part in two first British performances of operas by well-known composers: in 1972 he sang the Piedmontese in Friedenstag by Richard Strauss for BBC Radio 3 and in 1973 he sang the title role of Shostakovich's comic opera The Nose, presented by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells.

In 1972 Dickerson started an association with Glyndebourne Festival that lasted for a decade. He sang Anfinomo, one of Penelope's unwelcome suitors, in Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Don Curzio, the stuttering lawyer in Le nozze di Figaro; the Schoolmaster in Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen; and Bardolfo in Verdi's Falstaff. This last was another occasion when he very nearly went over the top, but in the event, refrained from doing so. He also made a dashing Baron Lummer in Strauss's Intermezzo for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The tenor visited Wexford Festival in 1973, appearing in two of the operas, as the Marquis in Prokofiev's The Gambler and as Pippetto - another convincing adolescent - in Donizetti's L'ajo nell'imbarazzo ("The Embarrassed Tutor").

Dickerson created another role for the EOG in 1974, Baldovino in the premiere of Thea Musgrave's The Voice of Ariadne at Aldeburgh in June, and subsequently sang it at Sadler's Wells in October. He also appeared as Lechmere, the protagonist's friend, in Britten's Owen Wingrave at Ghent, one of the earliest productions of the opera outside Britain. He sang for the first time with Musica nel Chiostro at Batignano in 1975, as Erice, the old nurse in Cavalli's L'Ormindo and returned there in 1982 for Rameau's Platée, another role in drag, this time an elderly nymph.

In 1980 Dickerson sang Frantz, one of the comic servants, in a new production by John Schlesinger of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann at Covent Garden. In 1983 he took on all four of the comic servants in the same work for Opera North in Leeds, scoring a great success. As one critic put it, he sang with a "delicious finesse" that had been rather lost at Covent Garden.

At the end of his career he sang Count Riccardo in Wolf-Ferrari's School for Fathers for Phoenix Opera at the Camden Festival in 1983 and Don Bolero in Lecocq's Giroflé-Girofla for the John Lewis Partnership Music Society and Menelaus in La Belle Hélène in 1988.

After he stopped singing, Bernard Dickerson taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, inspiring generations of students with his own high standards of musical performance.

Elizabeth Forbes

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