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.

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