John Cameron

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The Independent Online

John Cameron, baritone singer and vocal teacher: born Coolamon, New South Wales 20 March 1918; twice married (one daughter); died London 29 March 2002.

The Australian baritone John Cameron sang with conventional opera companies both in the United Kingdom and in Australia; he was an excellent concert singer, but his remarkable facility in the interpretation of new and contemporary music ensured that he sang in a great many premieres and first British performances during his 25-year career. These included works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Benjamin, Luigi Dallapiccola, Humphrey Searle, Richard Rodney Bennett, Harrison Birtwistle, Gottfried von Einem and Alexander Goehr.

He was also a splendid singer of Gilbert and Sullivan, making many recordings of the baritone roles in the operas. A performance in The Yeoman of the Guard outside the Tower of London elicited the compliment from Howard Taubman in The New York Times that "he is a Jack Point [who] can act and a clown who can sing". After his retirement from the opera house, Cameron became a highly respected and much-loved teacher of singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

John Cameron was born at Coolamon, New South Wales, in 1918. During the Second World War he served in the Australian Artillery and then the Army Education Service. After giving a recital for the troops in New Guinea, he entered Sydney Conservatorium on a rehabilitation scholarship. In 1948 he won the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Vocal Contest, and toured Australia and New Zealand with the National Opera Company of NSW. He sang with the National Theatre Company in Melbourne, then travelled to London.

Cameron joined the fledgling Covent Garden Opera Company (later the Royal Opera) in the 1949/50 season, making his début as Germont in La Traviata. During his three seasons there he also sang Rangoni in Boris Godunov, the Speaker in The Magic Flute, Morales in Carmen, Angelotti in Tosca, the Novice's Friend in Billy Budd and one performance of Count Tomsky in The Queen of Spades. In 1951 he took part in the world premiere of Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress, singing the Shepherd; at the revival the following season he sang Pliable.

Cameron returned to Australia in 1955, and during the Mozart bicentenary year of 1956 sang Figaro, Papageno in The Magic Flute and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte for the Elizabethan Trust Company in Sydney. The following year he was back in London, creating the role of Sydney Carton in Benjamin's A Tale of Two Cities for the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells Theatre. After this fine performance it was obvious where Cameron's talents lay, and in 1959 he gave an even more asssured account of the title role in the first British performance of Dallapiccola's The Prisoner, again presented by the NOC at Sadler's Wells.

The following year he sang the Chief of Section in the first UK performance of Searle's Diary of a Madman, based on a story by Gogol, for the NOC, and the title role of Milhaud's The Sorrows of Orpheus for Group Eight at the St Pancras Town Hall. He also sang with great success in a Gilbert and Sullivan Promenade Concert at the Albert Hall. In 1961 he took part in another world premiere, as the Other Man in Richard Rodney Bennett's The Ledge, for Rostrum opera company at Sadler's Wells, and in 1962 he sang Jack Point in The Yeoman of the Guard during the City of London Festival on a stage erected in the shadow of the Tower.

Cameron was engaged for the 1963/64 season at the Oldenburg State Opera in West Germany, where his roles included Handel's Arminio and the four baritone villains in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. By 1965 he was back in London at Sadler's Wells, where he had made his company début in 1952 as Silvio in Pagliacci. This time he sang Tovey in a revival of Bennett's The Mines of Sulphur. The following year he sang Mozart's Figaro and, a particularly congenial role, Sir Robert Cecil in Gloriana. Cameron was no stranger to the work of Benjamin Britten, having sung in the War Requiem, and in Billy Budd. In 1967 Sadler's Wells took Gloriana to the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, where it was greatly admired.

Cameron gave one of his finest performances with the English Opera Group at Aldeburgh as Punch in the world premiere of Birtwistle's Punch and Judy in 1968. Though the opera was not greatly appreciated at the time, Cameron's Punch was acknowledged as a superb characterisation. The opera was given at Sadler's Wells Theatre the following year. Nineteen seventy saw another successful British stage premiere for the baritone, the title role of Hindemith's Cardillac, given by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells. Cardillac, together with Punch, provided the greatest achievement of Cameron's singing career.

Two more first British performances followed, three roles in Einem's The Trial by London University at the Collegiate Theatre, in 1973, and the title role of Goehr's Arden Must Die for the NOC in 1974. During that year he also gave a magnificent account of Dick Deadeye in HMS Pinafore and played Aristophanes in Telemann's The Patience of Socrates, both for Kent Opera.

Cameron began his teaching career at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1976. He was still teaching as a member of staff last November, and was a Fellow of the college when he died. Recently, he concentrated on teaching lieder, stressing, as he had demonstrated himself throughout his career, the importance of words in conjunction with music.

Elizabeth Forbes

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