Obituary: Thomas Hemsley CBE, baritone
THOMAS Hemsley was a renowned baritone for more than 40 years, both on the concert platform and the opera stage. His fine, resonant voice was remarkably flexible and his repertoire ranged with ease from English cathedral music to Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival. At the latter, he sang the role of Beckmesser in the centenary production of Wagner’s Meistersinger.
Thomas Jeffrey Hemsley attended Ashby de la Zouch Grammar School and then read physics at Brasenose College, Oxford. He joined the choir at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and first made his mark professionally aged 24 when he sang Aeneas to Kirsten Flagstad’s Dido in Purcell’s opera that opened the Mermaid Theatre, directed by Bernard Miles. That success led to offers from Glyndebourne, where he appeared throughout his career.
It was during the 1950s that he became a regular visitor to Scotland. He came to the 1955 Edinburgh Festival to sing Mozart serenades and invitations to appear with both the Scottish National Orchestra and Scottish Opera soon followed.
He first appeared with SO in 1971 in the fondly remembered Anthony Besch production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (he was to return to the production for three revivals) and later appearances included Dr Malatesta in Don Pasquale, Balstrode in Peter Grimes and Falke in Die Fledermaus.
He graced the production of Meistersinger on three occasions in the Seventies. The cast was superb and Sir Alexander Gibson (“swift and delicately detailed handling of the music” commented The Scotsman) ensured David Pountney’s production was one of the milestone’s in SO’s history. Hemsley’s Beckmesser was singled out by The Scotsman as being “precise and intelligent”.
Other roles with SO included Germont in La Traviata and a joyous Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe in 1986. He was in two of the company’s important world premières – The Catiline Conspiracy and The Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
Hemsley is also fondly remembered at SNO, where he was a regular guest at some memorable concerts. He first was involved in a thrilling account of Britten’s War Requiem in 1966 under Sir Alexander Gibson: thereafter he sang in Mahler concerts and he joined the SNO for an outstanding account of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in 1977 at a Scottish Prom in the Usher Hall. Hemsley last appeared with the SNO in an emotional performance of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ in 1982.
In all, Hemsley made five appearances at the Festival. A concert with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1962, a concert performance of Schubert’s rarely heard Alfonso und Estrella with Gibson and the SNO in 1968 and finally Hemsley joined Kent Opera in its Jonathan Miller production of La Traviata, delivering a fine reading of Germont .
For15 years from 1953, Hemsley sang in German opera houses, where he built up a fine command of the repertory and conductors such as Otto Klemperer booked him often. Indeed, it was Klemperer who recommended Hemsley to the Bayreuth authorities in 1968 to audition for the taxing role of Beckmesser. He was to return to Bayreuth for three revivals and later repeated it for many other companies. His exceptional care with the words can be heard in a highly praised recording of the opera under Rafael Kubelík.
Other notable recordings included Demetrius in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which he created and recorded at Aldeburgh under the composer. For Colin Davis, he recorded Mangus in Tippett’s The Knot Garden; again a role he created at Covent Garden. At Glyndebourne, he sang Dr Reischmann in the English premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers.
Hemsley remained a fine recitalist and gave, at his 35th anniversary recital in 1986, an exceptional account of Schubert’s Winterreise. His impeccable diction made him a fine Lieder singer and, apart from Schubert, he displayed a fine sense of feeling and artistry when he sang the cycles of Schumanm.
Because of the wide experience he had gained throughout his career, he was a valuable judge at such international competitions as the Kathleen Ferrier Award.
In 1998, Hemsley published Singing and Imagination in which he maintained that the essential principles underlying good singing were in themselves rather few, and very simple. “All singing,” Hemsley suggested, “in all its aspects – physical, emotional and spiritual – must be initiated in the singer’s imagination”.
Hemsley was a great raconteur with a wealth of stories about opera mishaps and was an enthusiastic grower of vegetables on his allotment near his north London home. His daily updates on how his tomato plants were progressing enlightened many coffee breaks in an opera studio.
Hemsley, who was made a CBE in 2000, married his wife Gwen in 1960 and they had three sons.