Anthony Rolfe Johnson (1940-2010)

English tenor dies aged 69


The English tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who has been critically acclaimed in a range of operatic roles by composers ranging from Monteverdi to Britten, has died.

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Starting his career as a farmer, Rolfe Johnson decided to become a tenor and studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music under Ellis Keeler and Vera Rózsa, and later with the distinguished English tenors Richard Lewis and Peter Pears.
After initial experience in the chorus and a number of small roles at Glyndebourne Festival between 1972 and 1976, he made his first major debut in 1973 with the English Opera Group as Count Vaudémount in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. He subsequently made his major solo debut at Glyndebourne in 1974 as Lensky in Eugene Onegin.
In 1976 he became a founder-member of Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac, other members being Felicity Lott, Ann Murray and Richard Jackson. The group presented themed programmes, often involving both spoken word and song, and made several distinguished recordings for Hyperion.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson also made a reputation for his interpretation British music, including performances and recordings of Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and perhaps especially Britten. His recordings of the latter’s music included a memorably dramatic and emotionally engaging performance in the title role of Saint Nicolas, an equally powerful performance of the Canticle ‘Still Falls the Rain’, and a very individual performance of the title role of Peter Grimes, where in the 1993 recording by Bernard Haitink he was partnered by Felicity Lott as Ellen Orford.
He also made a powerful impression singing Monteverdi. In the BBC Music Magazine article on the greatest tenors, published April 2008, Catherine Bott wrote: ‘I’ll never forget his performance in Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses at English National Opera: intensely moving and an unobtrusive masterclass in Monteverdian style’.

Daniel Jaffé