Eric Garrett: Bass who sang more than 70 roles in 40 years at Covent Garden

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The Independent Online

The Yorkshire-born bass Eric Garrett sang at Covent Garden for more than 40 years. His repertory of some 75 to 80 roles with the company included a great many of the noble of Brabant (Lohengrin), Flemish deputy (Don Carlos) or burgher of Calais (The King Goes Forth to France) variety, but also others of greater size, such as Donizetti's Don Pasquale, Mustafà in Rossini's L'italiana in Algerì or Kecal (The Bartered Bride). Whatever the importance of the character, he always impressed it with his own forceful personality. His strong, dark-coloured voice was equally serviceable in the comic roles which were the main staple of his repertory as in those of a more dramatic nature, such as Dansker in Billy Budd.

Garrett was born in Skelton, North Yorkshire in 1931. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and also studied with Dame Eva Turner and Tito Gobbi. In 1956 he joined the Covent Garden chorus which his wife, the soprano Jean Povey, had joined the year before. His first small solo role, in February 1957, was Hermann Ortel the soap-maker in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. In 1962 he became a company member, making his official debut as Benoit, the landlord and Alcindoro, Musetta's nouveau-riche admirer, in La Bohème. He gave up Benoit after a few years, but continued singing Alcindoro throughout his career. The following season, he took on another character who would remain in his repertory until the very end, the sacristan in the first act of Tosca. He sang it again in 1964 in a new production, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi.

Other interesting roles during the Sixties included the police commissioner in Der Rosenkavalier, Don Fernando in Beethoven's Fidelio, Guildenstern in the British premiere of Humphrey Searle's Hamlet (1969) and later Polonius in the same opera. He also sang Koen in the world premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett's Victory (1970). Garrett began a stint with Welsh National Opera in 1968, singing Zuniga in Carmen. This was followed in 1971 by the animal tamer and Schigolch in Berg's Lulu, two very different characters, in which he transformed himself from a large, circus strongman to a frail, elderly tramp. Garrett's final appearances with WNO were as Dr Dulcamara in L'elisir d'amore (1974), a role that suited him particularly well, and Geronte, Manon's elderly lover in Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

Garrett sang Count Macrobio in Rossini's La pietra del paragone at the 1975 Wexford festival, then returned to Covent Garden for another sympathetic role in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. During this period he also sang several roles with Flanders Opera in Ghent and Antwerp. These included Dr Dulcamara, the title role in Verdi's Falstaff (coached by Tito Gobbi), Donizetti's Don Pasquale, and Scarpia in Tosca. The latter was particularly well-received. So, apparently, was the performance of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier that he gave in Los Angeles in 1984. He did not stress the vulgarity of the Baron, but his high spirits and tremendous enjoyment of life overflowed irresistibly.

During the Eighties, Garrett was given some decent roles at Covent Garden: Kecal in The Bartered Bride, which was a great success, Mr Swallow, the coroner, in Peter Grimes, Colonel Frank in Die Fledermaus, Truffaldino in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, Snug the joiner in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Mustafà in L'italiana in Algerì. Garrett was not scheduled to sing Mustafà. He took over "with no notice at all, dashing in through heavy fog [driven by his son] from his home in Hertfordshire." He had to run the last quarter-mile to the opera house and the curtain rose an hour late, but he was in total control, vocally and dramatically, and at the end he received a tremendous ovation. He sang Mustafà again in 1991 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, with equal success.

Garrett sang for another decade at Covent Garden, where his Don Pasquale, Dr Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, and Varlaam, the drunken monk in Boris Godunov were all well characterised. In 2000, he sang Dansker in Britten's Billy Budd at the Venice PalaFenice – a local premiere – and his two final roles for the Royal Opera were Luther, the innkeeper in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and the sacristan in Tosca, which he had sung so many times before, still as annoyed as ever when the mop falls over each time his back is turned.

Elizabeth Forbes

Eric Garrett, opera singer: born Skelton, Redcar and Cleveland 10 June 1931; married Jean Povey (one son, one daughter); died Majorca 8 May 2009.