Obituary: Charles Craig

Charles Craig was the most Italianate of British tenors.

On summer evenings in the 1960s his voice, luscious-toned and with ringing top notes, could sometimes be heard on Italian radio broadcasts of Verdi's Aida or Otello, relayed live from the Roman Baths of Caracalla or the Doge's Palace Courtyard in Venice. British tourists, eating their supper in some Italian resort by the Mediterranean, would recognise the Radames who so lovingly and idiomatically phrased "Celeste Aida" and would laugh when local listeners claimed that the tenor's voice was "typically Italian". They knew better: the steady stream of golden tone was issuing from the throat of a Londoner born in the City Road, very nearly within sound of Bow bells.

Charles Craig was the youngest of 15 children. His parents were shopkeepers and no one else in the family was interested in music, apart from an elder brother who owned a few operatic records. The future tenor's first singing lessons came from listening to Caruso in "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci. On leaving school he worked at various jobs, in tailoring, as a warehouseman and as an assistant in his parents' shop.

He was 19 when the Second World War broke out and he joined the army. Posted to India in 1943, he landed in an Entertainments Unit and for the first time dared to hope that one day he might have a musical career. Demobilised and back in London in 1946, he auditioned for the newly-formed Covent Garden Opera Company and was accepted - but only for the chorus.

Five very frustrating years followed. Craig was given only the smallest parts, servants, messengers, priests and gypsies; but he listened to other tenors from backstage and started to build up a repertory. In 1951 Sir Thomas Beecham, who was to conduct Balfe's The Bohemian Girl at Covent Garden, held some auditions. When he heard Craig, Beecham immediately offered to sponsor him, to provide him with lessons in singing, acting and languages, and also to pay him a salary on which he and his family could live until his career was launched. The tenor Dino Borgioli was chosen as singing teacher, but Craig refused to alter his natural method of voice production and merely allowed Borgioli to help him iron out certain technical difficulties and to coach him in various roles.

Beecham had also promised to launch him at one of his own concerts and kept his word. Charles Craig made his debut on 17 December 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall in Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's Day and Liszt's Psalm 13. Unfortunately he was not well - in fact he had pneumonia - and did not make an impression on either the critics or the audience. The following year, urgently in need of money, he joined the Carl Rosa Company, making his debut as Rodolfo in La Boheme. For nearly four years he toured the British Isles with them, singing Faust, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, the title role of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and Chevalier des Grieux in Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

In April 1957 the Carl Rosa gave a short season in London at Sadler's Wells Theatre. Craig's singing of Cellini and Des Grieux was greatly admired. He had already sung the Duke of Mantua with Sadler's Wells Opera the previous February; now he joined the company, leaving the Carl Rosa (which was disbanded in 1958). New roles during his first two seasons at Sadler's Wells included Saint-Saens' Samson, Manrico in Il trovatore, Babinsky in Schwanda the Bagpiper and the Prince in the first British professional performance of Dvork's Rusalka.

At the age of 40 Charles Craig finally achieved his ambition and was acknowledged as one of the best living British operatic tenors.

In 1959, a significant year for him, he made a highly acclaimed Covent Garden debut as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly and then sang Cavaradossi in Tosca, with even greater success. At Sadler's Wells he tried two other congenial new roles, Andrea Chenier and Luigi in Puccini's one-acter, Il tabarro. He also scored a personal triumph as Sou-Chong, Richard Tauber's role in Lehar's Land of Smiles, at the Coliseum.

Finally, back at Covent Garden he sang Turiddu in the new Zeffirelli production of Cavalleria rusticana, twinned as usual with Pagliacci. Craig was often criticised for being a stolid, unimaginative actor, but when well directed, he could be powerfully dramatic. His Turiddu, from black patent-leather hair to high-heeled boots, was totally convincing as a small-town Sicilian spiv.

Throughout the 1960s Craig's career gathered momentum. At Sadler's Wells he added Nadir (The Pearl Fishers) and Bacchus (Ariadne on Naxos) to his roles, while at Covent Garden (1961) he sang his first Radames in Aida. This had immediate results in gaining him engagements abroad: during the next decade he sang Radames at Rome, Vancouver, Barcelona, Zurich, Naples and Bologna.

In 1963 he reached another landmark in his career: he tackled Verdi's Otello for the first time with Scottish Opera. Though Craig lacked the physical stature of some interpreters of Otello, his vocal mastery of the role was quite impressive enough to make one oblivious to his height. In 1966 he made his US debut at Chicago as Otello and over the next 15 years sang the part in Vienna, Berlin, Naples, Munich, Venice, Salzburg, Turin, Lisbon, Dusseldorf and other cities - but not in London.

His Italian repertory included many other Verdi operas; he sang Arturo in I Puritani opposite Joan Sutherland at Boston and Covent Garden; Pollione in Norma with Maria Callas at the Paris Opera; Calaf in Turandot and Canio in Pagliacci, which he exchanged for Turiddu in the Zeffirelli double bill, were both very successful roles. In the Russian repertory he took the part of Prince Vassily Golitsyn in Khoyanschchina and sang Sergei at the British premiere in l963 of Katerina Ismailova.

Craig also attempted some of the more heroic German roles. For Scottish Opera he appeared as Florestan (Fidelio), Siegmund in Die Walkure and Siegfried (Gotterdammerung only). At Berlin he sang Lohengrin and at Hamburg he repeated Siegmund, undoubtedly his most effective Wagnerian role. Later, Aegisthus in Elektra became a favourite character part.

In 1980 he returned to English National Opera (as Sadler's Wells Opera had become) to sing Radames, Cavaradossi and, in the following year, Otello, which he had he had still never sung at Covent Garden, although he had substituted for an indisposed tenor with the Royal Opera at Manchester in 1981; then in November 1983, 20 years after he had first sung the role destined to become his most famous, he gave two performances of Otello at Covent Garden in place of Placido Domingo, also indisposed.

Charles Craig's last stage appearance was in 1985 with ENO in Tosca. The 66-year- old tenor's vocal chords were still in good shape; his voice retained its Italianate timbre, while the top notes rang out with their old clarion strength in Cavaradossi's cry of "Vittoria" as he learns of Napoleon's victory at Marengo.

Elizabeth Forbes

Charles James Craig, opera singer: born London 3 December 1919; married 1946 Dorothy Wilson (one son, one daughter); died 23 January 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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 People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower