Fifty years ago, on 14 January 1947, the fledgling Covent Garden Opera Company (later to become the Royal Opera), gave its first performance. The opera was Carmen and Don Jose was sung by the Australian tenor Kenneth Neate.
During the first season, which lasted about six months, Neate sang Don Jose 21 times; he also sang 17 performances of Tamino in The Magic Flute - everything in those days was sung in English - and 12 of the Italian Singer in Der Rosenkavalier. Neate had a strong, lyric tenor voice and, for the four seasons he sang with the company, he remained with the repertory.
He returned to Covent Garden on a famous occasion in 1959 when he took over at short notice from an ailing tenor as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, with Joan Sutherland as Lucia. By then Neate was already singing much heavier roles, such as Florestan in Fidelio, Lohengrin and, the part that became his cheval de bataille, Tannhauser. During the next dozen years, he clocked up more than 150 performances, mainly in Germany and Austria, but also in Australia. Later he sang Tristan a number of times.
Kenneth Neate was born in Cessnock, New South Wales, in 1914. He studied singing at the University of Melbourne and toured with an amateur company in Madama Butterfly and Carmen. On the advice of John Brownlee, the famous Australian baritone, he went to New York to study with Emilio de Gogorza and Elisabeth Schumann. His voice came to the notice of the conductor Bruno Walter, and he was engaged to understudy Chester Kallman, who was singing Tamino at the Metropolitan in 1941. Neate then joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and, after he was invalided out, sang for the troops.
At the end of the Second World War, he came to London, where David Webster and Karl Rankl were auditioning singers for the Covent Garden Opera Company, and was immediately engaged. After Don Jose, Tamino and the Italian Singer during the first season, he sang the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Boheme and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. He rapidly gained stage experience, and by the time he left the company had become an excellent actor as well as a fine singer. He toured Australia with the J.C. Williamson Company, he sang in Italy and Paris, and, in May 1956 at Bordeaux, sang the title-role in the first performance of Henri Tomasi's Sampiero Corso, which was repeated at the Holland Festival in June the same year.
Neate began his attack on the heavier German repertory with Florestan in Fidelio at Karlsruhe in 1958. After his much- acclaimed return to Covent Garden in 1959 for Lucia di Lammermoor, in which he was a splendid partner for Joan Sutherland - his height was particularly appreciated by the prima donna - he sang Gounod's Faust for the Dublin Grand Opera, and returned to Karlsruhe for Tannhauser and Lohengrin. In 1960 he toured Australia with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and the following year was engaged at the New York City Opera, where he sang Radames in Aida, Don Jose, Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, and created Judge Danforth in Robert Ward's The Crucible, an opera based on Arthur Miller's play.
Neate made an excellent Loge in Das Rheingold at Bayreuth in 1963, and continued to sing Tannhauser, in Hagen, Mulhouse, Bucharest, Adelaide, Sydney and Innsbruck, where he achieved his 150th performance during the 1969/70 season. Meanwhile he had taken up another Wagner role - Tristan. After singing Tristan at Coblenz in October 1966, at the end of December he sang the role in Stockholm, with Birgit Nilsson at Isolde and Kerstin Meyer as Brangaene. The opera, with the same cast, was taken by the Royal Swedish Opera to Montreal for Expo 67, and the tenor later sang Tristan in Mannheim and Budapest.
After a final tour of Australia in 1970, when he appeared as Florestan, Neate returned to Innsbruck, where he sang Aegisthus in Elektra in 1974, and the title-role of Verdi's Otello in 1975. He was then 61 years of age, but his interpretation of Otello was highly praised, both vocally and dramatically. After his retirement he taught singing in Munich.
Kenneth Neate, tenor: born Cessnock, New South Wales 28 July 1914 ; married Gertrude Vollath; died Munich 26 June 1997.
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