Neil Howlett, who has died aged 85, was a singer of lustrous tone and keen musical intelligence, regarded as the most accomplished Verdian baritone in Britain in the late 1970s and 80s. He excelled in a huge range of roles for English National Opera over a period of nearly 20 years.
ENO’s managing director, Lord Harewood, once described him as “a most versatile singer and a fine musician, who could learn any role in a week”. Also well informed about the historical development of vocal technique, he wrote and lectured widely on the subject (a number of his articles are available on his website, neilhowlett.com), his performances undoubtedly benefiting from that specialist knowledge.
He joined Sadler’s Wells Opera (later ENO) in 1966, appearing first as Agamemnon in La Belle Hélène. He went on to sing virtually every leading baritone role with the company, enjoying particular success as John the Baptist in Salome (1975), Amonasro in Aida (1979), Iago in Jonathan Miller’s production of Otello (1981) and Scarpia in the same director’s Tosca (1987).
The Verdi roles (which also included Guy de Montfort in The Sicilian Vespers, Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra), may have demonstrated his Italianate tone and controlled legato to greatest effect, but that lyrical quality, combined with firm delivery, also informed his Wagner performances. These encompassed an impressive account of the title role in The Flying Dutchman (ENO, 1984), a dark-toned, impassioned Amfortas in Act 3 of Parsifal at the 1987 BBC Proms (memorable as Reginald Goodall’s final stage performance), and finally, late in his career, a few incarnations as Wotan/Wanderer in the late 80s and 90s.
Born in Mitcham, Surrey, to Terence Howlett, a salesman with the London Telephone Service, and his wife, Margaret (nee Baillie), Neil began his singing career at St Paul’s Cathedral choir school, winning a choral scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. After graduating there in English, archaeology and anthropology, he had vocal tuition with Otakar Kraus in London, with Tino Pattiera in Vienna, and in Stuttgart and Milan.
He appeared with the English Opera Group and Glyndebourne Touring Opera before taking the appointment at Sadler’s Wells/ENO, where he further distinguished himself as a formidable Pizarro in Fidelio (1980) and Pharaoh in Rossini’s Moses (1986). In the field of contemporary opera he sang with the company the role of the Mirador in Gordon Crosse’s The Story of Vasco (1974), the title role in David Blake’s Toussaint (1977), the Commander in Blake’s The Plumber’s Gift (1989) as well as King Fisher in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage with Scottish Opera (1968).
He made only a handful of appearances with the Royal Opera, including the role of Hector in Tippett’s King Priam in Athens in 1985. European houses at which he sang included Hamburg, Toulouse and Nice.
Colleagues considered him “an absolute treasure in ENO’s golden age”. Bringing his own deep knowledge of musical and dramatic principles to bear, he was rewarding, if demanding, to work with. Keith Warner, on the ENO staff at the same time, recalled Howlett as “intelligent enough to keep up and challenge directors and conductors with his own considered approach to the character and all the attendant musical concerns. Knowledgable and witty, he could be formidable in the rehearsal room, but always to get the show better.”
John Tomlinson, who trod the Coliseum boards with Howlett, recalled his “professionalism, intelligence, vocal consistency and reliability – the sort of stalwart you need in a company ensemble”.
His articles on singing were characteristically trenchant. One on the contemporary performance of baroque music gave short shrift to renderings, misleadingly described as “authentic”, that paid “little or no attention to the standards of vocal technique expected of baroque singers in their own period”. The “effete, feeble sound” produced by many early music singers of his day was light years away from 18th-century practice, he maintained. He also decried the performance of such music without a “solid, regular trill” as anathema.
He was illuminating too on the performance of Wagner’s music, believing that the composer’s desire for legato and nuance had been lost sight of in the “inexorable quest for more and more volume”. Wagner’s legacy, Howlett maintained, was one of perfect natural diction, easily audible, and sitting firmly on a beautiful, musical legato line. The full range of colours and nuances of the drama were essential, he said, “from the heroic to the intimate, from anger to despair, from regret to reflection”. These too were the qualities he sought to bring to all the big dramatic roles he undertook.
He was an inspirational teacher, holding appointments as professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1974-92) and then at the Royal Northern College of Music (1992-2000), first as head of vocal studies and later director of repertoire studies.
Well aware of the lack of opportunities for emerging professionals in the UK and the expense of performances, he bemoaned society’s indifference to outstanding latent talent: “There are probably several nascent Wotans walking on the pavements of any city at this moment, whose voices will remain undiscovered, unheard and unrecognised,” he lamented.
He was a voracious reader, possessed of a wide range of interests outside opera. Typical of his probing intellect was his penchant, while acting as resident custodian of Charles Darwin’s Down House, in south-east London, for dilating knowledgeably on the artefacts on display, on evolutionary science and the misapplication of Darwin’s theories.
His first marriage, to the soprano and Conservative party politician Elizabeth Robson in 1962, was dissolved. In 1988 he married the mezzosoprano Carolyn Hawthorn, who survives him, as do two daughters from his first marriage.
• Neil Howlett, operatic baritone, born 24 July 1934; died 21 May 2020