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Ken Neate, The Australian Tenor

After being invited to blog on this fine website, I found myself happily harking back to memories of my youth spent behind the typewriter trying to conjure up the cleverest and silliest prose that I could. Of course, I am far too young to even know what a typewriter looks like and I doubt any of my past previous creative writing could be labeled as clever, but nonetheless I welcomed this foray back into the written word, as my time is almost exclusively spent these days with the spoken word, the sung word, the intonation-challenged-scream-in-the-audience’s-face word. Having once upon a time trained and worked as a lawyer I was fairly proficient at crafting accurate and thoroughly citation laden essays, but blogging is a different animal altogether. Gone is the formality, the requirement for carefully assembled facts and evidence, the necessity for following the rules and structure of language and prose. In its place, only the requirement to be entertaining, perhaps informative, but always honest and compelling. I humbly apologize in advance for presenting this blog in far too formal a fashion – it is my nature – but I will work on it, I assure you, and future blogs will be more irreverent, more careless, more informal and far less informative. If you are looking for hardcore facts, I suggest you look away, as the following is my stream of consciousness on a singer from last century I have recently grown to admire. I have thrown in a little researched history so If you have corrections or comments, then as all blogs worth their weight in salt have, you can comment in the appropriate box below. And now, with all seriousness aside, I present my first blog post.

As an Australian tenor myself, I am fascinated with the operatic heritage of my homeland, which for a small and very isolated country (especially back before easy commercial air travel) has produced some of the most prominent singers in opera history. Most famously Dame Nellie Melba who has the great honor of having a dessert named after her and I like to think a small toasted square of bread named after her too. The irony is that Melba is not even her name, choosing to name herself after her home city of Melbourne. And of course there is that other great Dame (not to be confused with that very large species of canine) Joan Sutherland. These two sopranos when at the height of their respective prowess were considered second to none by many in the opera world and have certainly left an indelible mark on opera history.

The current generation has many terrific Australian artists including Stuart Skelton and Daniella De Niese to name but two, but from generations past there are in fact other great Australian opera artists who sometimes fall so far under the radar one has to squint just to notice them. Tenor Donald Smith comes to mind. But also we have tenor Lionello Cecil, soprano Joan Carden, baritone Raymond Myers, soprano Frances Alda, baritone John Brownlee and the truly great tenor Albert Lance. But the focus of this blog will be on tenor Kenneth Neate, who to my mind along with Albert Lance represents a supremely high caliber of vocalism that belongs in the discussion with the great voices of the century – and who is largely forgotten by many.

Neate was a lirico-spinto tenor who regularly performed at the major houses of Europe, including Covent Garden and Bayreuth. He was born in Cessnock on July 28, 1914. I have been to Cessnock and with all due respect to the Cessnockians it is certainly not a cultural oasis. Nonetheless, from Cessnock he came and he studied in nearby Newcastle with the aforementioned Lionello Cecil. These days all strapping young Australian lads finish their schooling and backpack around the globe for years on end tirelessly befriending the local beer salesmen and charming the local ladies (or men, as they see fit).

But in Neate’s day the prudent thing to do was to get a responsible job and try to make his way in the big city of Sydney. He joined the NSW Police Force and no doubt because crime is so low in Australia (having got rid of all the criminal urges back in the convict days) there was clearly not enough police work to fill his days, so he joined the police choir. It should be noted here that the middle portion of that last sentence is entirely untrue. So beautiful was his voice that he was known throughout the city as the singing policeman. Or perhaps he was known as the singing policeman because his voice was so arresting. One or the other. These days his opera career would likely have ended right there – a record deal with some lecherous recording label would have ensued and he would have been paraded about the country as a gimmicky singing cop tingling the panties of the old ladies but remaining well divorced from true operatic art. Thank goodness he lived in an era devoid of such inanity and he set his sights for the stage overseas.

The great Met baritone, and fellow Australian, John Brownlee encouraged him to further his studies with him in New York and after successful auditions there he found himself the cover to Charles Kullman in the Met’s Magic Flute. He may very well have gone on to have a stellar Met career but WWII broke and being the courageous soldier that Neate was, he joined the Canadian Air Force to fight for world freedom (remembering that Canada and Australia were both under the British Commonwealth).

After the War his career took off, with important lead roles at Covent Garden, Paris Opera, New York City Opera, Vienna Staatsoper and indeed throughout many of the great houses of Europe. Most famous was an RAI Milan recording of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West conducted by Alfredo Simonetto and starring Gigliola Frazzoni as Minnie and Mario Petri as Rance. Video of this is readily available on youtube, but I would prefer to present his studio recordings of Italian arias which highlight the voice in a variety of repertoire and truly show off his magnificent talents.

To my mind his voice is an example of exceptional balance of registers, following a more laryngeal approach, reminiscent technically of Aureliano Pertile, although with a very different timbre. The squillo he generates in his top is truly world class and although he may lack the Italianate flair and slancio that is requisite to truly master this repertoire, he surely does demonstrate an impossibly good technique and a voice of pure fire and brimstone. In the 1960s Neate performed many heldentenor roles in Vienna, Zurich and Germany and it is fascinating to note that he studied with Max Lorenz during this time to assist him in his transition into this repertoire – both stylistically and vocally. In fact, Neate was not exclusive in who he studied with, and would seek out appropriate tuition throughout his career from the most valuable of sources; in addition to Lorenz, Cecil and Brownlee, with the great Lucien Muratore, Giovanni Inghilleri and Rino Castagnino.

He was also fortunate to perform in many important productions, singing Alfredo opposite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Edgardo alongside Joan Sutherland in the famous Zefirelli production that launched Sutherland’s career and later Tristan in Stockholm opposite Birgit Nilsson. He also created the role of Danforth in The Crucible in New York. The list of amazing colleagues of Neate is also very impressive, including: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gabriella Tucci, Carlo Tagliabue, Cesare Siepi, Ettore Bastianini, Gigliola Frazzoni, Antonietta Stella, Ebe Stignani, Birgit Nilsson, Sir Thomas Beecham, Tullio Serafin, Rudolf Kempe, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Alfredo Simonetto and Carlo Maria Giulini. When I was reading up on the career of Neate what I found truly amazing was that he sang Arnold in Paris, Raoul in Bordeaux, and then the heaviest Wagner roles throughout Germany — from high heroic French to low dramatic German in the same decade. Not to mention that he was so highly regarded in Italy for his Faust and Calaf;  a style so completely different. I can’t think of another tenor who was able to do this with aplomb. He makes me proud to be an Australian.

Please enjoy the following youtube links of Neate:

[Pictures courtesy of Martin Cooke. From top to bottom: 1. as Alfredo in 1948 at Covent Garden alongside Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; 2. as Rodolfo in 1962 alongside Lily Stanley; 3. as an RCAF Officer in 1944; 4. as Edgardo in 1959 at Covent Garden]

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