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English Tenor Peter Pears Dies at Age 75

Times Staff Writer

Tenor Peter Pears, considered the foremost interpreter of the works of his lifelong friend Benjamin Britten, died Thursday at the home he shared for years with the famed British composer.

Pears was 75 and a colleague, Kenneth Baird, said “he had enjoyed very good health and indeed was teaching yesterday. His death was very sudden.”

He died at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast in eastern England where he and Britten--who died in 1976--started a music school and annual festival in 1948.

Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer once described Pears as “a singer who capitalized on extraordinary taste and intelligence . . . a tenor who made memorable poetry with a voice of modest decibels and limited color.”

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Although his repertoire ranged from the lieder of Schubert and Schumann to the concert arias of Mozart, Pears remained steadfast in the public perception as the essential voice of Britten.

He created the title roles in Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in 1945 and “Albert Herring” in 1947 and probably performed more contemporary music than any other English singer of his century.

Born Peter Neville Lurad Pears in Surrey to parents not particularly involved with the arts, he showed a proclivity at the piano at age 5 that demonstrated he should become--if not a singer--at the very least an instrumentalist.

He was sent to study and live at the Grange School, Lancing College and Oxford’s Keble College, where he became so proficient on the piano and organ that he was well into his 20s before he began to think of a career in voice.

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He sang in school productions while at the Royal College of Music and although coached by a succession of well-known instructors, was considered largely self-taught in the area of contemporary songs for which he became world famous.

By 1936 he was appearing with the New English Singers and made his American debut with that group shortly thereafter. His Metropolitan Opera debut was not to come until 1974, however, when at age 64 he sang Gustav Aschenbach in Britten’s demanding “Death in Venice.”

It was also in 1936 that he first met Britten and within a year they were traveling together staging benefits for the refugees of the Spanish Civil War.

They went to live in the United States in 1939, settling in Brooklyn in a house owned by the editor of Harper’s magazine. British poets W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice also lived there, as did Gypsy Rose Lee.

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Both men returned to Britain in 1942 on a freighter in a wartime convoy, and it was on that ship that Britten first began to compose “Peter Grimes,” the story of a man alienated by society.

In 1943 Pears joined Sadler’s Wells Opera Company singing Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville,” Rodolfo in “La Boheme” and the Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto.” Concurrently he was concertizing Britten’s Michelangelo sonnets and “Serenade” for tenor, horn and strings.

When the Sadler’s Wells Theatre reopened at war’s end Britten’s new opera “Peter Grimes” was chosen to mark the occasion and Pears became the first to perform the title role that his friend had fashioned for him.

Pears next helped found the English Opera Group, which was dedicated to the works of contemporary British composers, and sang the male chorus in the premiere of “The Rape of Lucretia.” His next premiere was in 1947 in the title role in “Albert Herring.”

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Pears’ reedy voice was frequently likened to a musical instrument and his flexibility permitted his variety of repertoire. By the 1950s he had created Pandarus in William Walton’s “Troilus and Cressida,” sung Mozart’s “Idomeneus” and was heard on record as the Evangelist in Bach’s “Passions.”

Pears, knighted in 1958, stopped performing in 1980 after suffering a stroke but continued to teach.

He will be buried next to Britten in Aldeburgh Church.


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