The terrifying sight of Graham Clark as the dwarf Mime, deranged by power lust, staring at the audience with penetrating, unblinking eyes and wearing the dress that belonged to Siegfried’s mother, Sieglinde, is an abiding image of Richard Jones’s controversial 1995 Royal Opera production of Wagner’s Ring.
The characters of Mime and the fire god, Loge, were two of Clark’s best known roles, but the 122 performances he gave at the Bayreuth festival over 16 seasons also included David in Die Meistersinger, the Steersman in Der Fliegende Holländer and both Melot and the Young Sailor in Tristan und Isolde. In all, Clark, who has died aged 81, had 413 performances and recordings to his credit including 276 performances of Loge and Mime.
Though he made his career as a comprimario tenor, putatively subordinate to the principal roles, his incisively focused voice, hyperactive stage presence and musico-dramatic intelligence frequently conspired to make him the main attraction.
As the psychotic Mime in Jones’s Ring he was regularly acclaimed as the star of the show, while his Loge in Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth Das Rheingold (1988) secured, on at least one occasion, the biggest ovation of the evening. Preening narcissistically as the latter in black leather, with a sculpted, blond, 1980s David Bowie-style hairpiece, he deployed a pungent, edgy tone very effectively to display his contempt for Wotan and the other gods.
Given his relatively late entry into the profession – he had earned his living first as a sports teacher and then as a technical officer for the Sports Council before starting singing lessons in his mid-30s – the sheer number of performances Clark managed to clock up is remarkable. He attributed it in part to the fitness gained from his physical training, but he also believed he was lucky to have discovered such a rewarding career and thoroughly enjoyed pursuing it right through his 70s.
His last major appearance came in September 2019, shortly before the Covid-19 lockdowns, in the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s Macbeth Underworld at La Monnaie, Brussels.
Born in Littleborough, Lancashire, to Ronald, a customs and excise officer, and his wife, Annie, he sang as a treble in the local church choir. He was educated at Kirkham grammar school and Loughborough College of Education, before gaining a certificate of education, with distinction in physical education, at Nottingham University. He then became head of physical education at schools in, successively, Oxford, Braintree in Essex, and Mexborough, Yorkshire, before taking an MSc in recreation management at Loughborough University.
Deciding belatedly that he would like to try his hand at singing, he joined the festival chorus at Wexford in 1973, taking small solo roles in Prokofiev’s The Gambler and Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. He auditioned for Richard Bonynge and was invited by the conductor to sing in a gala at Covent Garden. Scottish Opera then offered him a contract and he joined the company in 1975 essentially to learn the business. Roles undertaken there included Brighella (Ariadne auf Naxos), Jaquino (Fidelio) and the Italian Singer (Der Rosenkavalier).
Roles sung for ENO included Almaviva, Hoffmann, Peter Quint, Count Ory, Hermann (The Queen of Spades), Alexey (The Gambler), Mephistopheles (Doktor Faust) and perhaps more surprisingly the central role of Rodolfo in La Bohème.
Rodney Milnes in Opera magazine commented that while Clark’s voice was notable for its reedy, almost strident quality, in the latter role “the top notes especially had a warm, bronzed quality without any loss of clarity or projection”. His acting talents also enabled him to trace the character’s development from “heedless self-obsession to an awareness heightened by tragedy with great insight”.
Despite an offer to sing the Duke of Mantua in Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto, he decided not to pursue this kind of role, being of the opinion that, Rodolfo apart, such characters tended to be “a little bit vacuous and rather two-dimensional”, though he had also concluded that “for Italian music you need red wine and sunshine in your voice and I did not have that”. The “psychologically challenging” characters he preferred to take on generally appeared in northern European music rather than southern European, he suggested.
He sang the title role in the British premiere of Ginastera’s Bomarzo at English National Opera (1976), joining the company in 1978 first as a principal and then as a guest artist, and singing a total of 215 performances for the company. He sang with all the other major British companies too, including the Royal Opera, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne, as well as the leading companies in Europe and the US. He made his Metropolitan debut as Steva (Jenůfa), returning in 1989 as Herod (Salome).
Wagner’s characters of Mime and Loge remained central to his career and enabled him to exploit both his tireless physical energy and his dramatic talents, especially as a comic actor. Loge’s part, he once pointed out, covered a wide range of registers: “At times it is loud and declamatory whilst at others it is beautifully lyrical. It is also tight, brief, mocking, ironic and sarcastic, full of mood changes, with crisp, sharp, pointed and sarcastic alliteration.”
Clark endeavoured, he continued, to reflect these differences both physically and vocally throughout the performances.
He relished such challenges and delighted in exploring endless possibilities with imaginative directors of the calibre of Kupfer, Jones and Keith Warner.
His natural exuberance and enthusiasm both on and off stage made him a favourite with colleagues and audiences alike.
Clark is survived by his wife, Joan Lawrence, whom he married in 1979, and their daughter, Sarah, and two grandchildren, Christian and Fleur.
• Graham Clark, tenor, born 10 November 1941; died 6 July 2023