Opera Scotland

William McAlpine Suggest updates

Born Stenhousemuir, 3 December 1922.

Died Surrey, 2 February 2004.

Scottish tenor.

William McAlpine was the first Scot in the postwar period to achieve an international career as a principal tenor in leading roles of the romantic repertory. On leaving school at Larbert, he failed his medical to join the RAF, so became an apprentice bricklayer and moved to London. The anecdote was often recounted that a lady heard him singing on a building site, and introduced him to the well known Scottish baritone Roy Henderson, who started to give him lessons. He then trained with the tenors Walter Hyde and Joseph Hislop.

He auditioned at the Royal Opera House in 1951 and was immediately offered a cluster of small roles, making his debut as the First Jew in Salome. He made around eighty appearances in each of his first two seasons - most importantly as the Novice in the first performances of Billy Budd. He also created the Spirit of the Masque in Gloriana (1953) and the roles of Lechery and Mistrust in The Pilgrim's Progress. Other roles during this period included Andres in Wozzeck, the Idiot in Boris Godunov, and Jaquino, Don Basilio and Borsa.

After four seasons at Covent Garden he transferred to Sadler's Wells where he was offered leading tenor roles. His debut in 1955 was as Alfredo, and he quickly took on Rodolfo, Don Ottavio, Belmonte, Tamino, and Lensky, as well as Boris in Kátya Kabanová. Even as his voice grew in strength and gained a dramatic quality, allowing him to sing Hermann, Bacchus, Erik, and Don José, it retained its essential sweetness and he continued to sing lighter parts such as Rinuccio and Fenton. He appeared with the company in London and on tour for many years, and sang his last new production with them, The Tales of Hoffmann, in 1970.

In 1960 he returned to Covent Garden to sing Alfredo opposite Joan Sutherland, and his later roles at the Royal Opera House included Tamino, Pinkerton, Hoffmann, Grigory, and Walther in Tannhäuser.  Guest appearances as tenor soloist with the Royal Ballet included Sir Kenneth MacMillan's version of Mahler's Song of the Earth. He had also appeared at Glyndebourne in three seasons, Idamante in 1956, the Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier in 1959, and Bacchus in 1962.

He first sang with Scottish Opera in 1965 as Grigory in Boris Godunov, and repeated the role at each of its revivals. His other roles for the company were Faust, Cassio and Bob Boles, and the last two, at least, were repeated at subsequent performances right up to his retirement.

From 1960 his international career developed. He appeared most frequently at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin, where he sang Cavaradossi, Pinkerton, Bacchus, Don José, Riccardo, Fenton and Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani. In Hamburg he sang Jephtha, and he appeared as Don José in Paris (1961) and Tamino and Idamante at Aix-en-Provence (1963). He also sang Pinkerton in Vancouver, while tours took him to festivals in Prague, Florence, Bergen, Besançon and Palo Alto as well as Edinburgh.

His recorded legacy is not representative of his career. He sings the High Priest in the 1956 Glyndebourne Idomeneo, and Villars in Donizetti's Emilia di Liverpool, a recording made in Liverpool with a young Joan Sutherland. Both those recordings are conducted by John Pritchard. He also appears in two operetta recordings - as Camille in excerpts from the Sadler's Wells production of The Merry Widow, and as Raleigh in a studio version of German's Merrie England. A live recording has also been released of a Covent Garden performance of Traviata from 1960. We have heard of a recording of Hoffmann made by Deutsche Grammophon with colleagues including Rita Streich and Ruth Siewert, but have no further information other than that it was in French and may only have been of highlights. Can anyone help?

After he retired from performance, he devoted himself to teaching at the Guildhall for many years. Students included Justin Lavender and Ashley Catling. It was while returning home on the train after a teaching session that he collapsed and died.

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