John Mitchinson obituary

Tenor who sang Wagner’s Tristan under Reginald Goodall, Beethoven and Mahler at the Proms, and many rarer works

A familiar figure on the concert platform and a prolific broadcaster for the BBC, the tenor John Mitchinson has died at the age of 89. Many of his broadcast performances were of relatively obscure works, leading him to quip: “I think I’ve got the biggest repertoire of useless roles of anybody in the world!”

The 38 BBC Proms appearances he made between 1959 and 1994 reflected this versatility. The first two came in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, both under Malcolm Sargent (1959, 1960) and he returned to perform the Ninth Symphony on six further occasions. In the earlier years came works by Handel (Samson, Israel in Egypt) and Purcell. He took part in the Proms premieres of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony under Charles Groves (1964) and of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict under Colin Davis (1969). Other notable appearances were in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (three times), Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, and in the title roles of Liszt’s oratorio Christus and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

His operatic debut came in 1959 with the Handel Opera Society, as Jupiter in that composer’s Semele, and he went on to sing Oedipus, Mozart’s Idomeneus, Smetana’s Dalibor and Svatopluk Cech (Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Brouček). Initially he was much better known as a concert artist, and when he was invited to sing Tristan in the Welsh National Opera Tristan und Isolde under Reginald Goodall (1979), it was only his seventh major opera.

John Mitchinson in 1971.
John Mitchinson in 1971. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

Between 1978 and 1982 he sang several other key roles with WNO, including Florestan (Fidelio), Aegisthus (in Strauss’s Elektra), Peter Grimes, Manolios (Martinů’s The Greek Passion) and Filka Morozov (Janáček’s From the House of the Dead). In the last of these, according to the critic of Opera magazine, he fashioned an “impersonation of barely suppressed violence that frightened the audience as much as it did his fellow prisoners”. Probably the chief reason he did not do more operatic work lay in the perception that he lacked the requisite stage persona, his acting ability remaining largely undeveloped.

He was born in Blackrod, Manchester. His father was a train builder for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in nearby Horwich, his mother a confectioner. At the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) he studied under Frederic Cox and Heddle Nash; later studies were with Boriska Gereb.

In 1953, while still a student, he joined the BBC Northern Singers, becoming one of its founder members. He worked briefly for Barclays Bank, but could not leave soon enough to enter the world of music. The bank manager bore no grudge and indeed followed Mitchinson’s career with interest. When he invited him to give a recital for an internal Barclays function, Mitchinson opened the event with Roger Quilter’s Fair House of Joy, with its first line “Fain would I change that note”.

One of Mitchinson’s first professional engagements was in a Chelsea Opera Group concert performance of Don Giovanni, and he also featured in Eric Robinson’s television series Music for You. He soon established himself on the concert circuit and eventually performed all over the world under such conductors as Giulini, Horenstein, Klemperer, Ozawa, Mehta and Masur. In Britain, radio listeners heard him in often relatively unfamiliar repertoire: Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, Peter Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad, Strauss’s Friedenstag and two early operas by Wagner: Die Feen and Rienzi. The last of these, a landmark project masterminded and conducted by Edward Downes in 1976, presented the most complete form of the opera heard in modern times.

The Tristan und Isolde for WNO three years later was another significant undertaking for Mitchinson and one of his greatest achievements. Mitchinson had worked with Goodall once before, in 1969, when he had taken the part of Siegmund in a BBC broadcast of Die Walküre. He had never sung Tristan previously and indeed had not performed much opera at all. Alongside the young Linda Esther Gray, cast on Goodall’s insistence as Isolde, he learned the part under the conductor’s tutelage, phrase by phrase, familiarising himself with every detail of the music in conjunction with the text.

John Mitchinson in the title role of Britten’s Peter Grimes, with Josephine Barstow as Ellen Orford, for Welsh National Opera, 1978
John Mitchinson in the title role of Britten’s Peter Grimes, with Josephine Barstow as Ellen Orford, for Welsh National Opera, 1978. Photograph: WNO

The working relationship was a good one and he proved to be a persuasive Tristan, refining his interpretation over the course of 18 months, during which he sang 16 performances. As can be witnessed in the Decca recording, made in late 1980 and early 1981, by which time his command of both text and music had matured considerably, he was able to combine a heroic tone and seamless legato with acute sensitivity to the text.

Another major role was his Peter Grimes for WNO (1978), to which he brought his signature phrasing, consistently musical in its deployment, as well as a delivery both virile and varied in tone colour. John Copley’s production cleverly disguised Mitchinson’s notoriously untheatrical stage persona by giving him plentiful props to hold and bits of scenery to clutch.

Other notable operatic appearances included his impressive singing of the title role in the ENO Oedipus Rex (1972) and his Idomeneus in the ENO Idomeneo (1976), both under Charles Mackerras. He also scored a success in the comic role of Ménélas, King of Sparta, in Scottish Opera’s La Belle Hélène (1995), playing the cuckold with a delightful air of befuddled innocence.

Further concert works included Waldemar in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, the Verdi Requiem and British music including Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. He sang his last Gerontius with the Philomusica in Tewkesbury Abbey in 2006.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde he recorded three times, and the Symphony No 8 twice. Other recordings included the Glagolitic Mass, twice, The Dream of Gerontius, Berlioz’s Lélio, Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Renard, and William Alwyn’s Miss Julie.

After teaching at the RNCM (1987-92), he was head of vocal studies at what is now the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama until his retirement in 1997.

Known for his generosity and sense of humour, he was much loved by his colleagues and students. Despite his celebrity, he remained modest about his achievements. “We’re all entertainers, really”, he maintained: “no better and no worse than the performing dog at the circus.”

His wife, the mezzo-soprano Maureen Guy, whom he married in 1958, died in 2015. They are survived by their two sons, David and Mark.

• John Leslie Mitchinson, born 31 March 1932; died 17 December 2021

• This article was amended on 9 March 2022. In the 1930s the train building works at Horwich was run by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway; British Rail did not exist at the time.


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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