Artist Profile: Peter Pears, One of Britain’s Most Renowned Tenors

By David Salazar

Sir Peter Neville Luard Pears was one of England’s leading tenors in the early twentieth century due, in part, to his close relationship with Benjamin Britten. Pears premiered nearly all of Britten’s most notable works.

Pears was born June 22, 1910, to a religious family in Farnham, Surrey. The youngest of seven children, he grew up performing in amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Pears went on to study music at Oxford before dropping out after a poor performance on his first-year exams. By this time, Pears had tentatively decided to pursue a career in music.

He studied Mozart and Puccini under Sir Thomas Beecham and later joined the BBC Singers. By 1936, however, tragedy struck, as one of his close friends was tragically killed in a plane crash. Pears, and the young composer Benjamin Britten, volunteered to clean out his friend’s house. It was then that the two musicians became close. Within weeks, Britten composed his first work with Pears’ voice in mind.

In 1939, Pears and Britten traveled to New York and fell in love, electing to stay in the United States together for three years. Britten continued to compose music for Pears. While in the United States, the men read a collection of poems by the poet George Crabbe, which eventually blossomed into the opera Peter Grimes. Pears sang the title character of the opera at its premiere in 1945.

Upon return to England, Pears joined the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. Because of an unwelcoming and homophobic culture within Sadler’s Wells, Pears and Britten, along with soprano Joan Cross, elected to start their own organization, the English Opera Group. After World War II, Pears starred in “The Rape of Lucretia” and “Albert Herring.”

Pears and Britten went on to found the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk as well as the Britten-Pears School. The two musicians remained together until Britten’s death in 1976. Pears continued his career in teaching until his own death on April 3, 1986. Pears is buried beside Britten in Aldeburgh.

Signature Roles

Pears is remembered for his extremely distinctive voice that left opera fans divided. Today, his legacy is closely tied with premiering major roles in nearly all of Britten’s operas—including “Billy Budd,” “Gloriana,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Death in Venice.” Pears’ voice also inspired Britten to write the “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings” in 1943 and the “War Requiem” in 1962.

While an employee at Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, Pears’ roles ranged from Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville,” to Alfredo in “La Traviata,” to David in “Die Meistersinger.” Pears also frequently performed the lieder works of Schubert and Schumann, usually accompanied with Britten on the piano.

Listen

“Libera me” from “War Requiem,” in a performance following Britten’s death.

Britten and Pears in an informal recital from 1964.

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