William McAlpine

Born: 3 December, 1922, in Stenhousemuir

Died: 2 February, 2004, in Surrey, aged 81

BILL McAlpine was a singer of distinction and elegance whose wide vocal range allowed him to undertake a wide variety of operatic and concert work. He appeared with Britain’s leading opera companies and in many European houses, and was as comfortable with intimate recitals as with big orchestral pieces. He was often asked by Alexander Gibson to appear under his baton at both Sadler’s Wells and Scottish Opera.

He enjoyed giving solo recitals and frequently ended with a selection of Burns’ songs. He had a fine lyric tenor voice that was well suited to Mozart at the beginning of his career and later, as the voice got heavier, to more dramatic roles.

After leaving school in Stenhousemuir, McAlpine became a bricklayer in Stirling. He went to London in 1945 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and attended an open audition at Covent Garden in 1951. He was immediately engaged to sing small roles, which, in itself, reflected his vocal ability: he was, after all, nearly 30.

McAlpine’s debut was as the third Jew in a revival of Richard Strauss’s Salome that autumn. But the Royal Opera had two world premires by Benjamin Britten to produce and McAlpine played a memorable part in both. First came the hugely complex Billy Budd, conducted by the composer, that December. McAlpine was a Novice and sang his character’s haunting music superbly - ideally echoing the eerie saxophone playing in the orchestra. This success led Britten to cast McAlpine as the Spirit of the Masque in his Coronation opera, Gloriana. The role was short, but not at all easy. It necessitated much unaccompanied singing and McAlpine delivered the music with much style and conviction.

He sang in the UK premire at Covent Garden of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1952, under Erich Kleiber, and slowly was given important roles: Jacquino in Fidelio (under Rudolf Kempe) and Don Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro.

In 1956, McAlpine was invited to join the Sadler’s Wells Company and assume the principal tenor roles. Over the next decade he sang Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Tchaikovsky and was part of a memorable cast in one of the first British performances of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova.

In 1957, Alexander Gibson cast McAlpine in a production at Sadler’s Wells of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. The two enjoyed a happy working relationship and had another success in 1966 when Gibson conducted the same company in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. McAlpine sang the central tenor role and was warmly received. So it was not surprising when Gibson invited him to sing in the epic production of Boris Godunov he had scheduled for Scottish Opera’s 1966 season.

It was a brave undertaking for SO. Boris was neither well known nor popular, but Gibson cast another Scot, David Ward, in the title role and the production was a triumph. McAlpine delivered a riveting interpretation of Grigory. This was followed by the title role in Faust, for which he received warm reviews. In 1967 he was a subtle Cassio opposite Charles Craig’s dramatic Otello, and at the Edinburgh Festival of 1968 he was in the impressive new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, delivering a suitably oily and nasty Bob Boles.

McAlpine made appearances at Glyndebourne in Idomeneo (opposite Sena Jurinac) and in Ariadne auf Naxos in the early 1960s. He also sang in Paris, Hamburg, Berlin and Florence, and was heard in works as varied as Handel’s oratorios, Verdi’s Requiem and Britten’s War Requiem.

He can be heard on disc in the Glyndebourne recording of the Idomeneo and in a delightful rarity, Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool alongside Joan Sutherland. McAlpine also made a recording of Burns’ songs, which captures the romance of the Bard’s poems to perfection.

McAlpine last sang with SO in 1974 and retired from singing professionally in the early 1980s. He devoted himself to teaching singing at his alma mater, the Guildhall, and was on his way home after a class when he collapsed and died.