Gwynne Howell

Gwynne Howell

Last updated: 07 February 2011

Although not a household name in the manner of some international opera stars, Gwynne Howell is a highly respected singer who has consistently worked at the highest level throughout the world, both on the opera stage and the concert platform.

Photo by Guy Gravett

Perhaps he would have been better known had his talents been more overtly dramatic or comedic, but he has always been at his best playing noble, dignified, paternal 'cantante' roles, which combine the sonorous warmth and smoothness of his vocal production with an intelligent musical approach and modest personality. As well as the beauty of his sound and his innate musicality, Gwynne is also known for his fine diction, a talent shared by another deep-voiced Welsh speaker - Bryn Terfel.

As with many singers, in particular baritones or basses whose voices develop more slowly, Gwynne Howell turned professional relatively late - at the age of 30. He was born in Gorseinon in 1938 and grew up first in the Rhondda valley and then in Gwaencaegurwen, near Ammanford. Gwynne's interest in singing really started aged 11, when he joined the choir at Pontardawe Grammar School.

It seemed that his singing would remain at an amateur level - although he started singing lessons in his late teens, he went on to study geography at university with a view to working in town planning. It was whilst he was studying for his planning diploma in Manchester that Gwynne took singing lessons with fellow Welshman, Gwilym Jones, at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music). Jones was to put Gwynne on the road to professional success.

Gwynne continued with his vocal studies after he received his diploma, and appeared with the Hallé Orchestra and in student productions whilst working in Manchester's planning department. One of his student appearances so impressed a talent scout from Sadler's Wells Opera in London that he was invited to audition there, and passed, joining the company shortly after his 30th birthday.

He also had a new teacher, the legendary bass Otakar Kraus, who also nurtured the talents of such singers as Willard White, John Tomlinson and Robert Lloyd.

The next few years were incredibly busy, as Gwynne learned his trade and built up his repertoire. Within two years, he was to make his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and before long was performing all over the world - including the Met in New York, in Chicago, San Francisco, Hamburg, Paris, Munich, Brussels and Cologne as well as maintaining a busy career in Britain, mostly at Covent Garden and English National Opera but also at Welsh National Opera.

A sought-after concert artist, his many performances have included Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Handel's Messiah and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, and he has made many recordings.

Roles for which Gwynne Howell is best known include King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlos, Hans Sachs in Meistersinger and Gurnemanz in Parsifal, both by Wagner, Gremin in Tchakovsky's Eugene Onegin and the title role in Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle.

His huge repertoire is drawn from five centuries, from Monteverdi (he appeared as Seneca in David Alden's L'incoronazione di Poppea for WNO) through to contemporary work, including Peter Maxwell Davies' WNO commission, The Doctor of Myddfai, Mark Anthony Turnage's The Silver Tassie and Thomas Adès' The Tempest.

He was awarded the CBE in 1998.

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