Extremely sad this morning to hear about the death of Robert Tear, one of the greatest singers and 'characters' in the British opera world over the past half century. He was 72.
[Update, Tuesday 29th, 6.45pm A Telegraph obituary is now up on site here]
I've been listening to Bob singing for as long as I can remember, but certain occasions stand out as utterly unforgettable. His Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw can scarcely have been bettered: while his presence could emanate sinister power almost effortlessly, the beauty of his voice gave the character its essential extra dimension of seductiveness. At the opposite end of the spectrum, he was in Glyndebourne's Die Fledermaus a few years ago singing Dr Falke the lawyer - a production which included a little coup-de-theatre in the last act when Falke's cloak was pulled off him, abruptly revealing that he was wearing a petticoat. "What's that?" bellowed Eisenstein. The reply: "It's my Freudian slip!" And at the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane at the RFH in 2007, Bob sang the short role of the Blind Judge. His was the finest voice on the platform.
It was on that occasion that I met him for the first time. I'd just been in France for the premiere of my play about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; Bob became very interested since he had known Messiaen well and worked with him. He said that he was winding down his singing career (and his last operatic appearance was in Turandot at the ROH two years ago), but was still interested in performing as an actor or reader. The upshot was that he and I gave the UK premiere of the play together at Lake District Summer Music 2008, in the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.
It was astonishing to be on stage with him. The stage is not my natural environment and appearing alongside such a legend is a tall order. But he was such a strong, reassuring, comforting presence - able to inhabit a role so entirely, even when simply reading - that I was able to "lose myself", forget nerves and respond with all I could muster. With his wife, Hilary, and our team of musicians including Charles Owen and Philippe Graffin, we had a ball in the festival, too, huddling together for warmth in Lake District pubs and watching the rain...
Bob was not just a great singer, but a Renaissance man, fascinated by literature, art and issues mystical. His favourite pastime seemed, indeed, to be painting and he also wrote some amazing texts, short stories which I was privileged to read; his poetry also featured in a Christmas carol, 'Winter's Wait', which was performed at King's College Cambridge last year. He was a vivacious and irrepressible dinner guest, regaling us with hilarious stories from his time as a larger-than-life figure in a larger-than-life profession; and his West London home seemed to buzz with the spirits of all the creative powerhouses who had passed through its portals over the years.
I phoned him just before Christmas to ask whether he would be interested in doing another reading of the play this spring. He told me he wasn't taking on any more work of any kind and mentioned that he hadn't been very well, but if this was in fact a serious illness he gave no indication of the fact. My thoughts today are very much with Hilary and their two daughters.
Here is some Youtube of him singing the composer with whom so many of us associated him more than any other: Benjamin Britten. This is from the Glyndebourne Touring Opera's production of Death in Venice.
And here is his official biography from his agent's website.