Sir Geraint Evans

Sir Geraint Evans

How many baritones would turn down the chance to sing what is arguably Mozart's greatest role - Don Giovanni - at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden? Geraint Evans did.

Professional suicide, some might say, for a man of 36 who should be just at the right point in his career to take on the challenge of this complex role.

But he knew where his strengths lay. He knew that his combination of voice, musicianship, stage presence and acting ability was more suited to the comic role of the servant Leporello in that opera.

Born in Cilfynydd near Pontypridd - in the same street as Stuart Burrows 11 years later - Geraint Evans was surrounded by music from birth. He became a talented pianist and violinist, and also sang in local productions. A major turning point came when a local opera singer recommended that he should take singing lessons.

He performed as an amateur while working as a window-dresser, until the next major life-changing event came along - the outbreak of World War Two.

Evans started in the RAF but ended up in the music department of the British Forces Network, performing regularly on the radio. The Austrian bass Theo Hermann heard him and gave him lessons.

It was through Hermann's contacts that Geraint Evans got an audition at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on his return.

And so it began. He joined the company, and after starting in smaller roles he quickly progressed to perform Figaro in only his second season. Many other character baritone roles soon followed, and with them his increasing fame particularly in the roles of Falstaff, Don Pasquale, Figaro, Beckmesser, Leporello and Dulcamara. His achievements were acknowledged with a knighthood in 1969.

Another defining moment came in 1960 when Evans was asked to perform Figaro at La Scala in Milan, under the baton of the great Herbert von Karajan. In doing so, he became the first British singer to perform at La Scala in 35 years.

Engagements soon followed in Vienna and Salzburg, with New York, San Francisco and Buenos Aires following on.

It's common enough now, and a lot easier, for opera stars to jet around the world, but Geraint Evans was one of the very first international opera star jet-setters.

At a time when as a rule great acting was not high on the list of requirements for a successful career in opera, perhaps it was Geraint Evans' unique talent for characterisation that led to his international success, and directors such as Tyrone Guthrie and Franco Zeffirelli loved to work with him. His dramatic talent also led him to regularly stage produce operas in which he was performing.

Geraint Evans started to retire in 1982 - and during the extended period of farewell performances he was diagnosed as diabetic. This forced him to make major changes to his lifestyle, although he continued to perform occasionally until around 1984.

He spent his retirement in Aberaeron in Cardiganshire, devoting his considerable energies to writing his autobiography (A Knight at the Opera, 1984), charity work, being a director of HTV, giving masterclasses and sailing. He became High Sheriff of Cardiganshire - a ceremonial role complete with a costume that could have come straight out of the costume department of one of his beloved opera houses.

Sir Geraint Evans died in 1992.

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