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David Wilson-Johnson

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Biography

Variously described as a bass, baritone, or bass-baritone, David Wilson-Johnson is most comfortable in the latter range. A burly voiced singer, he has succeeded in a wide-ranging repertory in both opera and concert work. In addition, he is a capable artist in the realm of song, in both the songs of his native Britain and those of other countries. With a prominent vibrato in the middle and lower registers and a quickening one on top, Wilson-Johnson's voice exudes a weightiness that lends authority to his performances, even if these strong pulsations occasionally threaten to overwhelm the vocal line. Wilson-Johnson read modern languages at Cambridge University before entering London's Royal Academy of Music to study singing. After having sung in student productions, he made his debut at Covent Garden in Henze's We Come to the River. Subsequent appearances presented him in Russian, French, German, Italian, and English repertories, advancing the singer's reputation as a versatile artist. For the record-buying public, Wilson-Johnson's performance of Choregos in Harrison Birtwistle's astringent Punch and Judy brought international attention; the recording has remained in the catalog since 1979. Wilson-Johnson's performances of Eight Songs for a Mad King led to further collaborations with composer Peter Maxwell Davies, notably a role in the first performance of The Lighthouse at the 1980 Edinburgh Festival (the Paris performance of the Songs also resulted in additional collaborations with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain). His ability to master difficult music made him a favored artist among other composers such as Alexander Goehr (he sang dual roles in the 1995 premiere of Arianna) and Michael Tippett. For a Thames Television film of Tippett's A Midsummer Marriage, Wilson-Johnson sang the role of King Fisher. To mark the 80th birthday of Olivier Messiaen in 1988, the bass baritone sang the title role in the composer's Saint François d'Assise in both London and Paris, a performance that won the London Evening Standard Opera Award. He retired from the opera stage in 2006, but continues to perform elsewhere. Wilson-Johnson has sung in concert with many of the world's leading orchestras in Europe and America and has appeared frequently in recital, especially in England and on the Continent. Among the singer's many recordings, his Lawrence in Dame Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers, his Lev in Tippett's The Knot Garden, and his assumption of the bass solo part in Elgar's The Kingdom are especially noteworthy.

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