Obituary: Denis Dowling

Elizabeth Forbes
Tuesday 24 September 1996 23:02

The connection between the New Zealand-born baritone Denis Dowling and Sadler's Wells (later English National) Opera spanned 45 years. Dowling made his debut with the company as Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier in March 1939, while still a student at the Royal College of Music, and said farewell on 29 June 1984 (five days after his 74th birthday) as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky in Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Metropolitan in New York, on the last night of ENO's American tour.

Though he lost several years owing to the Second World War and its aftermath, Dowling clocked up a vast number of performances of more than 100 different roles. A skilful comedian, with a flexible lyric baritone voice, he excelled in Mozart and Rossini, but he was equally convincing as the sadistic Prison Camp Commandant in Jancek's From the House of the Dead or the Secret Police Agent in Menotti's The Consul and as Baron Mirko Zeta in The Merry Widow or Pooh Bah in The Mikado.

Denis Dowling was born in Ranfurly, New Zealand, and brought up on his father's sheep farm, where he himself worked on leaving school. After playing the baritone (saxhorn) in the local brass band, in 1929 he began to take singing lessons with Frank Tuohy, a well-known local voice teacher. Within a year he was entering - and winning - competitions in Dunedin and Christchurch and taking part in concerts and radio broadcasts.

In 1933 he sang Marquis Henri de Corneville in Planquette's Les Cloches de Corneville for the Dunedin Operatic and Dramatic Society, his "first essay into the realms of musical comedy". Then, after winning the Melbourne Sun Aria Contest in 1934, he came to London to study further.

Dowling obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where his vocal teacher was Dawson Freer. In July 1937 his performance of Ford in a College production of Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor was noticed by Lilian Baylis, director of the Sadler's Wells Opera, who suggested that he should contact her when he had completed his studies. Though Baylis died later that year, in 1939 Dowling was asked to sing Faninal at Sadler's Wells.

As the first singer to be awarded the Tagore Gold Medal for the best all-round student of the year, he left the RCM in a blaze of glory, but the outbreak of the Second World War postponed all plans for the future. It would be nine years before he returned to Sadler's Wells.

During the war Dowling served as an officer with the Royal Artillery; taking part in the D-Day Normandy landings he was blown up twice, first into a barn, then out again, with dire effect on his lungs.

After demobilisation, in 1947 he joined the newly formed English Opera Group, singing Junius in The Rape of Lucretia and Sid in Britten's Albert Herring at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, Copenhagen, Oslo, Amsterdam and Lucerne, and Ben Budge in Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera at Cambridge. In 1948 he finally returned to Sadler's Wells, making his first appearance as Silvio in Pagliacci.

New roles followed thick and fast: throughout the 1950s he was giving up to 70 performances a season. He sang Escamillo and Dancairo in Carmen, Dr Falke in Die Fledermaus, Angelotti in Tosca, a Showman and a Sergeant in Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, Sharpless in Madam Butterfly, Baron Douphol and Germont in La Traviata, Pietro in Simon Boccanegra, Marcello in La Boheme and many other roles.

One of his earliest successes was Figaro in The Barber of Seville, which he first sang in 1950. The role suited him both vocally and dramatically, displaying his superb diction as well as the solid technique acquired at the RCM. Another favourite was Doctor Malatesta in Don Pasquale, a similarly mercurial character. His first Mozart role was Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte, followed by the Count in The Marriage of Figaro and Papageno in The Magic Flute.

In 1956, the Mozart bicentenary year, Dowling made a very stylish Don Giovanni and, moving from master to valet, a highly subversive Figaro. Two years later he took on the spoken part of Pasha Selim in The Seraglio, revealing a beautiful speaking voice. Perhaps the finest of all his Mozart roles was Don Alfonso (Cosi fan tutte), in which a smooth and polished manner did not conceal the character's deep cynicism.

Nineteen fifty-six was also the year that Dowling gave one of his best comic performances, Sir Tristram Mickleford in Martha; in 1957 Gianni Schicchi, a genial rogue with a great sense of humour, was equally good, but both were surpassed in 1959 by Dandini in La Cenerentola. A superb sense of comic timing, together with his habitual excellence of diction and the fluency of his florid singing, made this a magnificent portrayal.

Shortly afterwards, Dowling moved from Figaro in The Barber to Doctor Bartolo, scoring yet another great success. In 1963 he added Raimbaud in Count Ory to his collection of Rossini roles, followed by Fabrizio in The Thieving Magpie and, after the company moved to the Coliseum in 1968, by Taddeo in The Italian Girl in Algiers.

Meanwhile, as soon as the copyright on the Gilbert and Sullivan operas expired in 1962, Sadler's Wells mounted Iolanthe, in which Dowling made an imposing Earl of Mount-ararat, and The Mikado, with the baritone as Pooh Bah. In 1963 Iolanthe was toured to Germany, where it caused astonishment as well as mirth.

From the House of the Dead in 1965 aroused very different emotions; Jancek's opera, based on Dostoevsky's autobiographical novel, brought out a more serious aspect of the singer's talent. Cast against type as the cruel Commandant, Dowling won universal praise. Sir Humphrey, a role he created in Phyllis Tate's The What d'ye call it? at the Cheltenham Festival in 1966, and George Selincourt, which he sang in the premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett's A Penny for a Song in 1967, were more in his usual style.

Rejoining the English Opera Group in 1971, Dowling sang Merlin in Purcell's King Arthur at the Norwich Festival and at Drottningholm in Sweden, receiving great praise. For ENO (as it had became in 1974) Dowling took on many character roles: the Commissioner in Madam Butterfly, de Bretigny in Manon, the Commissar of Police in Der Rosenkavalier, Marquis d'Obigny in La Traviata, and Baron Wurmerhelm in Prokofiev's The Gambler, bringing them all to vivid theatrical life.

The gems of the collection were Benoit and Alcindoro in La Boheme and Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky. Having originally sung this extremely disagreeable character in 1972, he repeated it for several revivals until 1984, when War and Peace was given at the Coliseum, then in Austin, Texas, and New York. Subsequently Dowling retired, both as singer and as Vocal Consultant to the company, a post he had held since 1976.

Denis Dowling, opera singer: born Ranfurly, South Island, New Zealand 24 June 1910; married 1943 Phyllis Clutterbuck; died London 23 September 1996.

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