Obituary: Donald Adams

Elizabeth Forbes
Wednesday 10 April 1996 23:02

The bass Donald Adams had virtually three careers - first as a straight actor, secondly, as a principal singer with the D'Oyly Carte company and in Gilbert and Sullivan for All, a touring company that he co-founded; finally, as an opera singer, appearing with all the major British companies and several in Europe and the United States.

His favourite Gilbert and Sullivan character was the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance, because "it's every schoolboy's idea of a pirate king, a good part to act, with some fine mock-Verdi to sing." He also liked playing Sir Roderick Murgatroyd in Ruddigore and was particularly fond of Murgatroyd's song "The ghosts' high-noon".

As an opera singer he excelled in comic parts such as Dr Bartolo (both Mozart's and Rossini's, in The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville) and Quince in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but could summon up a surprising amount of venom for, say, Monterone in Verdi's Rigoletto or Dikoj in Janacek's Katya Kabanova. Each role he sang was meticulously presented, with the vocal and dramatic sides of the character perfectly co- ordinated.

Donald Adams was born and brought up in Bristol. He became a chorister in the cathedral where, at the age of 16, he played Thomas a Becket in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. He served in the Army during the Second World War, spending the last two years of his service as resident director of the Army Repertory Theatre at Catterick Camp.

In 1949 he made his professional debut at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London. After two years at the Great Yarmouth Rep, he appeared as the Irish washer-woman, Mrs Ginnochic, with Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane in the music-hall sketch "Old Mother Riley and her Daughter". While they were playing at the Chelsea Palace in 1952, Lucan suggested that Adams should audition for the D'Oyly Carte.

Adams joined the chorus, sang small parts and understudied 26 roles. His first major role was Colonel Calverley in Patience (1952). In 1953 he became a principal bass, singing Dick Deadeye (HMS Pinafore), the Pirate King, the Earl of Mountararat (Iolanthe), Arac (Princess Ida), the title role in Mikado, Sir Roderick Murgatroyd and Sergeant Meryll (The Yeomen of the Guard). He also married Muriel Harding, who was a soprano with the D'Oyly Carte company from 1945 to 1954.

From 1963 much of his energy was concentrated on Gilbert and Sullivan for All. In January 1969 he left the D'Oyly Carte, who were playing in San Francisco at the time, and for several years toured with Gilbert and Sullivan for All in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. The company also made several films. He wrote and appeared in the one-man shows Adams Tale, An Evening with Donald Adams and Another Evening with Donald Adams.

His transfer to the world of opera was gradual: after singing Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady for Scottish Opera in 1983, he sang the title role of the Mikado in Chicago (in a production directed by Peter Sellars, then aged 25), followed by Baron Mirko Zeta in The Merry Widow and the Theatre Director and the Banker in Lulu. Also in 1983 he made his Covent Garden debut as a Frontier Guard in Boris Godunov, later singing Quince in Midsummer Night's Dream, and Colonel Frank, the prison governor in Die Fledermaus, a role that suited his comic talents to perfection.

He first appeared with English National Opera in 1985, as the unpleasant old bully Dikoj in Katya Kabanova, and with Welsh National Opera the same year, as Monterone. At Glyndebourne he sang Dikoj in 1988, and for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Rossini's Dr Bartolo, a role he also sang in Amsterdam.

Engagements now followed thick and fast: over the next few years he sang the Sacristan in Tosca at Geneva; the Mikado in Los Angeles; Mozart's Bartolo, and Pooh-Bah from the Mikado for ENO; Quince and the lawyer Swallow in Peter Grimes - a splendidly pompous characterisation - at Glyndebourne; and Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier (1990) for Welsh National Opera. This last performance was a triumph for the singer, now 62 years of age, and no longer in his finest of freshest voice, but who made up for any vocal deficiency by the marvellously subtle way he handled the text. The following year he made a superb Schigolch in Lulu for Canadian Opera in Toronto, and in 1992 at San Francisco sang Nick Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream). Unfortunately he did not sing this role in Britain, though he repeated it in 1995 at the Ravenna Festival.

Returning to Covent Garden in 1993, he gave excellent performances of Badger and the Priest in The Cunning Little Vixen, while for ENO he sang Mumlal in Smetana's The Two Widows. His final role for ENO, in March 1996, was Don Pasquale. As with Baron Ochs, it was perhaps a shame that he did not sing this part earlier in his career. However, he gave, as always, a complete and rounded performance, broadly comic but, by implication, sad, even tragic at times; though not in his very best voice, he carried off the comic patter duet with Alan Opie's Doctor Malatesta in superb style.

Donald Adams, born Bristol 20 December 1928; married Muriel Harding (deceased; one daughter); died Norwich 8 April 1996.

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