British tenor Gerald English, who spent much of his career in Australia, has died aged 93 in the United Kingdom, where he spent the last years of his life. The tenor, whom Australian composer and broadcaster Andrew Ford described in his book The Memory of Music as possessing “a gloriously clear tone and the best diction I have ever heard from a classical singer,” was born in 1925. He spent World War II working in military intelligence before studying at the Royal College of Music in London. He made his opera debut in 1956 as Peter Quint in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw for the English Opera Group and went on to perform and record extensively, including at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, La Scala and all around the world, serving as a professor at RCM from 1960. Over his long career, English performed in concert with conductors from Stravinsky and Berio to Britten and Boulanger.
Gerald English as Sigmund Freud in Andrew Ford’s Night and Dreams
English also performed extensively in Australia, where he became a resident in the late 70s. He performed in Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Berg’s Wozzeck at the 1976 Adelaide Festival and became founding director of the Victorian College of the Arts’ opera studio in 1977. He performed as a soloist with all of the Australian state symphony orchestras as well as the Australia Ensemble and Elysium Ensemble, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney in 1989. He sang Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared at the 1992 Melbourne International Arts Festival and gave the world premiere of Ford’s Harbour for tenor and solo strings with the Australian Chamber Orchestra that year.
In 2000 English gave the premiere of Ford’s chamber opera – with libretto by Margaret Morgan – Night and Dreams: The Death of Sigmund Freud, which opened at the Adelaide Festival before moving to Sydney and Melbourne. “Gerald English gave a virtuoso performance, full of voice in both speech and song,” wrote Elizabeth Silsbury for Opera, while Helen Thompson wrote in The Age: “There can hardly be a more appropriate or better performer anywhere in the world than Gerald English.”
English recorded prolifically, including French songs, Bach cantatas and a complete works of Monteverdi, as well as recording on the Tall Poppies and Move Records labels in Australia.
In addition to giving the premieres of a swathe of works for tenor by Ford, English performed the music of many other Australian composers, including Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards. In fact, for his 70th birthday in 1995 English persuaded 13 Australian composers to each write him a new work to be showcased at a birthday concert at Eugene Goossens Hall.
“Most classical singers run a mile from new music,” Ford told Limelight. “The ones that embrace it are rare indeed, and Gerry was one of those. He sang new music with the same care and attention he would sing Schubert or Schumann. He made no distinction.”
“I composed for him twelve times: songs, song cycles, two music-theatre pieces – Whispers (with Rodney Hall) and Night and Dreams (with Margaret Morgan) – and the only professional role in my young people’s opera The Piper’s Promise,” Ford said. “As a composer, you were always on your mettle, because when you talked to Gerry about a new piece, you knew that he’d had similar conversations with the likes of Stravinsky, Britten, Tippett and Berio. And he went back so far. In 1950 he’d been a founder member of the Deller Consort, and in the 60s sang as a soloist for Beecham, Barbirolli, Ansermet and Boult. Nearer our own time – Boulez, Abbado, Dohnanyi, Previn and Rattle. In fact he was the soloist in Rattle’s first Prom, singing Elisabeth Lutyens’s And Suddenly it’s Evening.”