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Dennis Wicks

Operatic bass at his best in ambivalent roles

Dennis Frederick Richard Wicks, operatic bass: born Ringmer, Sussex 6 October 1925; married 1952 Jean Davis (one son, one daughter); died Brighton 11 June 2003.

Dennis Wicks, a bass with a resonant voice and a fine presence, sang with most of the British opera companies, including Welsh National Opera and Opera North, but his 40-year-long career was mainly spent at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and English National Opera.

An excellent musician, he was greatly in demand for new and modern works, but he also sang a large repertory of 18th- and 19th- century operas. Apart from Mozart's Dr Bartolo, he did not take on many wholly comic roles, but was always very good as ambivalent characters such as Rocco in Fidelio or Osmin in The Seraglio. Probably his finest role was Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier.

Dennis Wicks had the inestimable advantage, for a musically gifted boy, of being born in the village of Ringmer, Sussex, just down the road from Glyndebourne. The son of a local builder, Wicks sang in the church choir, and was a member of the Boy Scout troop who took collection plates round after concerts in the Organ Room at Glyndebourne in the years before the Second World War. He became a joiner, but the lure of opera was too strong, and he studied singing with Janni Strasser, then Chief Coach in charge of Music Studies, and with David Franklin, who sang the Commendatore in Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne in 1938-39.

Wicks joined the Glyndebourne chorus, and made his solo début in 1950 as Antonio the gardener in Le nozze di Figaro with the company at the Edinburgh Festival. The following year he sang Antonio at Glyndebourne itself and the Alcade in La forza del destino at Edinburgh. The Doctor in Macbeth followed in 1952 and the Herald in Alceste and the Keeper of the Madhouse in The Rake's Progress in 1953. Wicks also covered more important roles, and in 1961 deputised for Carlos Alexander as Gregor Mittenhofer in Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers and for Mihaly Szekely as Rocco in Fidelio.

In 1962 Wicks was engaged at Covent Garden, making his début as Baron Douphol in La traviata. Over the next 10 years he took on a great number of roles, ranging from Hans Foltz the Coppersmith in Die Meistersinger and the Sergeant in the British premiere of Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova, to Luther in The Tales of Hoffmann.

In 1970 Wicks returned to Glyndebourne as Mr Lynch in the premiere of Nicholas Maw's The Rising of the Moon, and in 1974 he sang the Pastor in Gottfried von Einem's The Visit of the Old Lady and the Opera Singer in Richard Strauss's Intermezzo. Meanwhile, at Covent Garden in 1972 he took part in the premiere of Taverner by Peter Maxwell Davies, as the Archangel Michael, and also sang Dr Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro. Wicks had first sung Dr Bartolo at Sadler's Wells in 1967, and in 1971, by which time the company, soon to become English National Opera, had moved to the London Coliseum. He would spend the rest of his career with ENO.

Wicks's facility in singing modern music was given full scope at the Coliseum. In 1973, after a fine Dikoy in Janácek's Katya Kabanová, he sang Father Ambrose in Penderecki's The Devils of Loudun. In 1974 he sang Cadmus in the British premiere of Henze's The Bassarids. In 1975 the Ballad Singer in Britten's Gloriana was followed by three of his best roles, Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Osmin in The Seraglio and Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. Though some critics considered his Ochs not boorish enough, I always found the lack of vulgarity in his characterisation a distinct blessing.

Like practically every other singer in Britain, Wicks took part in the world premiere of Henze's We Come to the River at Covent Garden in 1976. In the same year at the Coliseum he sang Gian Corrado Orsini in the British premiere of Ginastera's Bomarzo, a production put on jointly by the New Opera Company and ENO. In 1977 there were two world premieres, Iain Hamilton's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, in which Wicks sang Brother Vicente, and David Blake's Toussaint, in which he sang Darban and Laveaux. Wicks also took part in a third world premiere at the Holland Festival, singing the Priest and Athanasius II in Axel by Reinbert de Leeuw and Jan van Vlijmen.

Wicks's roles in 1978 were the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, the Man in the Window and a Convict in Martinu's Julietta, and the Mother in Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins - a riotous but menacing performance. In 1979 Wicks went to Buenos Aires to sing Swallow, the lawyer, in Peter Grimes.

During the 1980s he remained as busy as ever at the Coliseum, singing many new roles: Varlaam in Boris Godunov, Daland in The Flying Dutchman, Arkel in Pelléas and Mélisande and the Magistrate in Werther were all fine, carefully considered characterisations.

In 1983 Wicks sang Astradamors in the British premeire of Ligeti's Le grand Macabre, Steffano Colonna in Wagner's Rienzi and Maître Ramon in Gounod's Mireille. In 1985 he sang the He-Ancient in Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage for ENO and the Pope in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini for New Sussex Opera in Brighton, of which he later became artistic director.

Wick's final appearance for ENO was in 1990, in a double bill of Delius's Fennimore and Gerda, in which he sang Consul Claudi and Councillor Skinnerup, and Gianni Schicchi, in which he took the role of Simone. His career had lasted exactly 40 years.

Elizabeth Forbes