Thomas Hemsley: Baritone and inspirational singing teacher

His ‘Singing and Imagination’ was described as ‘one of the best books on singing in modern times’

In 1951 Bernard Miles opened the first Mermaid Theatre – in the garden of his St John’s Wood home – with performances of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. The title roles were sung by the great Kirsten Flagstad (then aged 56) as Dido and the 24-year-old baritone Thomas Hemsley as Aeneas. It was his stage debut, commended for its “heroic dignity”, “noble tone and clear enunciation”.

Indeed, these were characteristics of Hemsley’s art which, 47 years later, he was to expound in his book Singing and Imagination, described by Alan Blyth as “one of the best (if not the best) books about singing to be written in modern times”. It was Hemsley’s belief that the basic principles of good singing are very few and simple, but that their application is what is important, using imagination, feelings and intuition: “singing is not voice, but modification of voice”. Dame Janet Baker, with whom he performed on many occasions, writes of the book’s “extraordinary wisdom and truth”.

Tom Hemsley was born at Coalville, Leicestershire, and graduated in Natural Sciences from Brasenose College, Oxford. After private music studies in London and Cologne his first professional singing appointment was as a vicar-choral at St Paul’s Cathedral, the year before he made his Mermaid debut. He did not stay long; in 1951 he sang the role of Death in Gustav Holst’s one-act chamber opera Savitri, conducted by Imogen Holst for the embryonic Chelsea Opera Group. In 1966 it was recorded, with Janet Baker and Robert Tear.

Dido was repeated at the Mermaid in 1952 and in 1953 Hemsley was at Glyndebourne, as Hercules in Gluck’s Alceste, returning in subsequent years to sing Masetto, the Music-Master (in Ariadne auf Naxos), Don Fernando, and Dr Reischmann in the British premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers (1961).

He began to work in Europe, at the Aachen Opera until 1956, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (1957-63) and the Opernhaus, Zürich (1963-67). He continued to sing at the Glyndebourne and Edinburgh Festivals – and at Bayreuth, as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger (1968-70), which he had recorded under Rafael Kubelik in 1967, an issue described by the reviewer Arnold Whittall as having “very special qualities” and the ability of “the individually excellent cast to enthuse even the most jaded listener”. Hemsley’s casting was described as “a significant precedent”.

For the first performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the English Opera Group at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960 Benjamin Britten chose Hemsley to be Demetrius, and on the subsequent recording. At Aldeburgh he was also Balstrode in Peter Grimes as well as taking part in concerts and recitals, including A War Requiem, Schumann, Schubert, Wolf and Lennox Berkeley songs; and in 1978 a memorable Brahms Liebeslieder with Heather Harper, Janet Baker and Peter Pears, and pianists Benjamin Britten and Claudio Arrau.

His Covent Garden debut came in 1970, creating the role of Mangus in Tippett’s The Knot Garden, and four years later he created Julius Caesar in Iain Hamilton’s The Catiline Conspiracy for Scottish Opera. Also for Scottish Opera he repeated his Beckmesser, and was Dr Falke at the opening night of the company’s residence at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, both produced by David Pountney. He was Faninal in Anthony Besch’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, with a female trio of Helga Dernesch, Janet Baker and Elizabeth Harwood, and Malatesta in Peter Ebert’s Don Pasquale. His operatic repertoire consisted of some 150 roles. He ventured into production, including The Return of Ulysses for Kent Opera in 1989.

His inspirational teaching led to masterclasses for BBC and Danish television, and work at music colleges in Britain and Scandinavia, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and Dartington International Summer School. He was, his protégé Christopher Robson said, “Such a nice man, a very honest musician, and great company in the pub”.

He knew singers can be obsessed with the mechanics of the voice “and the divorcing of what is called ‘technique’ from what is called ‘interpretation’, and forgetting the sheer joy in singing”. His philosophy is summed up in the final paragraph of his book, undoubtedly the basis of his own work:

“For true singing artists, when the moment of performance arrives, the act of singing should be an act of faith. They should be able to trust all the work they have done in preparation, to activate the imagination, to open the spirit to the possibility of inspiration, and sing from the heart.”

Thomas Jeffrey Hemsley, baritone and teacher: born Coalville 12 April 1927; CBE 2000; married 1960 Gwenllian Ellen James (three sons); died London 11 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing