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Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Late Blooming Tenor

Getty Images / Corbis / Robbie Jack

Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Late Blooming Tenor

Susan Boyle wasn’t the first British singing sensation to blossom relatively late in life. Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who died earlier this month in London, became an opera star despite having no formal training until he was 30 years old.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang in church choirs as a boy, but decided to take up farming as a vocation. He went to agricultural school and had been working the fields in West Sussex for nearly ten years when, looking for a way to relax, he decided to join a local choir.

To his great surprise, he was told by a fellow singer with London music world connections that he had the potential to sing professionally. Despite being unable to read music, he enrolled at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music.

He made his major role debut only three years later to critical acclaim, appearing in a 1973 production of Iolanthe. Soon was performing at the world’s leading opera houses, including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala, the Paris Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera.

Kathryn Harries and Anthony Rolfe Johnson perform in an English National Opera production of Fidelio, April 1996. 

In addition to his opera work, he sang in concert with many of the world’s best symphonies, including the New York Philharmonic and Boston Philharmonic, and was conducted by greats like Mstislav Rostropovich and Seiji Ozawa. He also became the favored tenor of recording artists Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Graham Johnson.

His late-start career was cut prematurely short when he began suffering from Alzheimer’s around 2000. The disease finally claimed him July 21, 2010.