A familiar character on the concert platform and a prolific broadcaster for the BBC, tenor John Mitchinson has died aged 89. Many of his broadcast performances were of relatively obscure works, leading her to joke, “I think I have the biggest repertoire of useless roles in the world!”
The 38 BBC Proms appearances he made between 1959 and 1964 reflected this versatility. The first two came in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, both conducted by Malcolm Sargent (1959, 1960) and he returned to perform the Ninth Symphony six more times. In the early years, works by Handel (Samson, Israel in Egypt) and Purcell. He participated in the premieres of the Proms of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony conducted by Charles Groves (1964) and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict conducted by 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.
He made his operatic debut in 1959 with the Handel Opera Society, in the role of Jupiter in Semele by this composer, and then sang Oedipus, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Dalibor by Smetana and Svatopluk Cech (Les Excursions de M. Brouček of Janáček). Initially he was much better known as a concert performer, and when he was invited to sing Tristan at the Welsh National Opera Tristan und Isolde under Reginald Goodall (1979), it was only his seventh major opera.
Between 1978 and 1982 he sang several other key roles with WNO, including Florestan (Fidelio), Aegisthus (in Strauss’ Elektra), Peter Grimes, Manolios (Martinů’s The Greek Passion) and Filka Morozov (Janáček’s From the House of the Dead ). In the last of them, according to the critic of Opera magazine, he fashioned an “imitation of a barely suppressed violence which frightened the public as much as his fellow prisoners”. The main reason why he has not done more operatic work probably lies in the perception that he lacks the required stage persona, his acting ability remaining largely underdeveloped.
He was born in Blackrod, Manchester. His father was a train builder for British Rail in 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, of which he became one of the founding members. He worked briefly for Barclays Bank, but couldn’t leave early enough to enter the music business. The bank manager did not hold a grudge against him and indeed followed Mitchinson’s career with interest. When invited to give a recital for an internal Barclays function, Mitchinson opened the event with Roger Quilter’s Fair House of Joy, with his opening line “Fain would I change that note”.
One of Mitchinson’s first professional engagements was in a concert of Chelsea Opera Group’s Don Giovanni, and he also performed in Eric Robinson’s Music for You television series. He quickly established himself on the concert circuit and eventually performed worldwide under conductors such as Giulini, Horenstein, Klemperer, Ozawa, Mehta and Masur. In Britain, radio listeners heard him in often relatively unknown repertoire: Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, Peter Cornelius’ Der Barbier von Bagdad, Strauss’ Friedenstag and Wagner’s two early operas: Die Feen and Rienzi. The last of them, a historical project orchestrated and led by Edward Downes in 1976, presented the fullest form of opera heard in modern times.
The Tristan und Isolde for WNO three years later was another significant endeavor for Mitchinson and one of his greatest accomplishments. Mitchinson had worked with Goodall once before, in 1969, when he played the role of Siegmund in a BBC broadcast of Die Walküre. He had never sung Tristan before and hadn’t even done much opera. Alongside the young Linda Esther Gray, chosen at Goodall’s insistence as Isolde, he learned the role under the tutelage of the conductor, phrase by phrase, familiarizing himself with every detail of the music in relation to the text. .
The working relationship was good and he proved to be a persuasive Tristan, honing his interpretation over the course of 18 months, during which he sang 16 performances. As evidenced by the Decca recording, made in late 1980 and early 1981, by which time his mastery of text and music had matured considerably, he was able to combine heroic tone and seamless legato with a sensibility sharp to the text.
Another major role, his Peter Grimes for WNO (1978), to which he brings his signature phrasing, always musical in its deployment, as well as a performance that is both virile and with varied tones. John Copley’s production cleverly disguised Mitchinson’s notoriously untheatrical stage persona by giving him plenty of props to hold and set pieces to grab.
Other notable opera appearances include her impressive singing of the title role in the ENO Oedipus Rex (1972) and her Idomeneus in the ENO Idomeneo (1976), both conducted by Charles Mackerras. He also scored success in the comic role of Menelaus, King of Sparta, in Scottish Opera’s La Belle Hélène (1995), playing the cuckold with a delightful air of confused innocence.
Other concert works include Waldemar in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Verdi’s Requiem and British music including On Wenlock Edge by Vaughan Williams and Dream of Gerontius by Elgar. He sang his last Gerontius with the Philomusica at Tewkesbury Abbey in 2006.
He recorded Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde three times and Symphony No. 8 twice. Julie by William Alwyn.
After teaching at the RNCM (1987-92), he headed vocal studies at what is now the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama until his retirement in 1997.
Recognized for his generosity and sense of humor, he was much loved by his colleagues and students. Despite his fame, he remained modest about his accomplishments. “We are all artists, really“, he said: “neither better nor worse than the show dog at the circus”.
His wife, mezzo-soprano Maureen Guy, whom he married in 1958, died in 2015. They are survived by their two sons, David and Mark.