Neil Easton

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Neil Easton, opera singer and teacher: born Sydney, New South Wales 10 April 1922; married (one son, two daughters); died Sydney 11 September 2001.

The Baritone Neil Easton was one of the splendid group of Australian singers who appeared with Sadler's Wells Opera (later English National Opera) during the 1960s, a group which also included the sopranos June Bronhill and Elizabeth Fretwell, the tenors Ronald Dowd and Donald Smith, and the baritone Geoffrey Chard. In opera, the baritone is frequently the villain, but Easton, with his warm, smooth voice and sympathetic personality, was much more at home with friendly characters such as Consul Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Captain Balstrode in Peter Grimes, Marcello in La Bohème and Giorgio Germont in La traviata.

Born in Sydney, Easton studied at the Conservatorium there and began his career by singing with the Sydney and Melbourne opera companies. In 1954 the Elizabethan Opera Trust, forerunner of Australian Opera, was formed and Easton appeared with that company. In 1958 he sang Captain Balstrode, which was to become one of his best roles, and Telramund (one of his few excursions into villainy) in Lohengrin, both in Sydney. In 1960 he appeared as Sharpless, with Joan Hammond as Butterfly, in Melbourne, and was heard by Norman Tucker, general manager of Sadler's Wells Opera, who invited him to join Sadler's Wells.

Easton made his London début on 22 March 1961 as the Forester in The Cunning Little Vixen, the British premiere of Janacek's opera, with June Bronhill as the Vixen. It was a "highly successful English début" as Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote in Opera magazine. The baritone's character suited the Forester's optimistic view on life perfectly while he had no trouble with the musicial idiom, new to singers at that time. The following year Easton sang Giorgio Germont, with Elizabeth Fretwell as Violetta, and their duet in the second act was greatly admired. He also sang Marcello in La Bohème, another fine characterisation.

In April 1962 Sadler's Wells performed a new production of A Village Romeo and Juliet at the Delius Festival in Bradford. Easton sang the enigmatic Dark Fiddler, and repeated the role later in the month in London. In July Sadler's Wells gave the London premiere of Ildebrando Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral, a setting of T.S. Eliot's verse play, in which Easton sang the Fourth Tempter. In December of that eventful year, he sang Sonora, one of the more sympathetic miners in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, with Fretwell as Minnie and Don Smith as Dick Johnston.

The Music Master in the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos was another congenial role in 1964, while Easton sang his first London Balstrode, with Dowd as Grimes and Fretwell as Ellen, in April 1965. On 28 October Sadler's Wells presented the London premiere of Janacek's From the House of the Dead, based on Dostoevsky's account of his own prison experiences. Easton sang the central, Dostoevsky character, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, and once again impressed by his charismatic dramatic performance, as well as his fine singing. At Christmas, in sharp contrast, he sang the Father in Hansel and Gretel.

Sadler's Wells Opera paid a visit to La Monnaie in Brussels in September 1967, and Easton sang his usual role in From the House of the Dead. He took part in the premiere of Malcolm Williamson's The Growing Castle at Dynevor Castle, Wales, on 13 August 1968. Based on Strindberg's A Dream Play, this two-act chamber opera used four singers for 28 different characters, and was repeated at Australia House in London in January 1969. Meanwhile, in August 1968 Sadler's Wells Opera moved to the much larger London Coliseum. Easton sang the Music Master and Sharpless there and, in March 1970, his last new role with the company, Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte.

Back in Australia Easton continued to sing for a few years. In March 1974 at the Sydney Opera House he took part in the premiere of The Affair, a short piece by the Australian composer Feliz Werder. After he retired from the stage he became an extremely successful teacher of singing, running a studio in Sydney that continued, although with a smaller number of pupils, almost until his death.

Elizabeth Forbes