Among thousands of opera colleagues and friends who were devastated by the sudden death of Robert Poulton, the Scottish counter-tenor Christopher Robson did not work with him often. But even occasional encounters left an enduring impact. Here are Chris’s impressions:
Norman Lebrecht asked me whether I would like to write a tribute to Robert Poulton, who sadly died in a car accident in Sussex on Tuesday night. My first reaction was to ask myself whether I was close enough a friend and colleague to write a tribute. Many names instantly came to mind when I thought about Rob’s career; the people who had shared his student days at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the National Opera Studio, those who had worked with him through his early years in the chorus at Glyndebourne, and those who had performed with him many more times than I had over the last 30 years or so.
Then I realised that it didn’t really matter how well I knew Rob. What counted was that I did know him, and had seen at close hand why he was so respected, admired, loved and cherished by not only his wife Phillipa and his children, but by all those with who had come in contact with him and had worked with him.
I first met Rob in the early 80’s, mostly brief hellos and chats on various “in and out” oratorio gigs around the country. But I first really got to know Rob in 1985 when we were both engaged as soloists by the Harlow Chorus (conducted by Michael Kibblewhite) for a 6 concert tour of Italy singing Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”. In those days if you mentioned at a party “Robert Poulton” and “Israel in Egypt” in the same breath you were bound to be inundated with stories of recent performances of the bass duet “The Lord is a man of War” by the two Robs – Robert Poulton and Robert Hayward. The word was that they gave the loudest and most exciting performances of that particular duet in then living memory! As they both had been students together and were close friends, I suppose they felt obliged to give it some stick and attempt (fruitlessly, I should think) to outdo each other!
On this particular tour Rob’s dueting partner (who shall remain nameless as he is someone I like and respect very much) was not really in the same league as Robert Hayward when it came to heft and volume, but he was a very musical singer and certainly deserved respect. And indeed, true to form, this is exactly what Rob Poulton gave to him. He scaled back his weight and volume just enough to make sure that his duet partner would not be overshadowed or drowned out. This was typically generous of him, as it would have been easy to show off under such circumstances. But Rob decided that the music came first, and the dignity of his colleague equally so. He showed this musical and professional generosity at every performance, no matter how small or large the cathedral we were singing in. And I suppose that he felt free to let his hair down a tad on tour as he had only the duet to sing each night. Throughout the tour, usually sitting near the front of the coach, he was full of wit, fun, telling wonderful stories and anecdotes, arguing politics (a solid anti-Thatcherite), bemoaning the fact that Italian beer was so boring, and at the same time missing being at home.
I would bump in to Rob 3 or 4 times a year after that, singing together in concerts in the UK and other European countries. I would also see him performing when I ventured out to the opera house of an evening. His career blossomed steadily through the 80’s and 90’s. He was one of a group of singers in those days that really left their mark on the opera scene in London and the rest of the UK through their versatility as both actors and singers. His commitment to a character was always there in his performances, and he just seemed to live what he was playing on stage. But as time went by and my own work began to take me abroad most of the time I saw less and less of him
In 1999 I moved to live in Maynards Green in East Sussex, and Rob became a neighbour of sorts. He lived with his wife and children just a mile or so away from me, in Heathfield. Every once in a while I would bump into him in Budgens supermarket, or at the petrol station, or at Glyndebourne. And as luck would have it I had the privilege of working with him again in February and March 2002 when I was asked to jump, at extremely short notice, in to the run of Jonathan Dove’s “FLIGHT” at the Flanders Opera in Antwerp and Ghent. I arrived by car from Munich late in the day of the second performance, and he came over to the theatre early in order to say hello and wish me luck as I walked around the stage reminding myself of the staging. He walked across the set and grabbed me in his arms, whispering in my ear, “Thanks, Chris! Thanks mate!”. Then he strode off to the café in the foyer for his tea. It was a simple gesture, but said with such glaring honesty that it touched me deeply.
For the next few weeks we spent a lot of spare time together. In the week off between the Antwerp and Ghent runs of “Flight ”we met up for a pint at the pub in Old Heathfield. And we drove back to Belgium in his Land Rover Discovery for the Ghent run, a journey filled with long discussions about singing, singers, music and staging. Underneath his down to earth image Rob was deeply intellectual and passionate, and I often imagined what a wonderful teacher, coach, or mentor he would be for any young professional singer who might study with him. He also gave me reams of advice on how to deal with broken down washing machines, burst boilers, dirty spark plugs, noisy wheel bearings, temperamental fuse boxes. It was clear he loved anything to do with DIY, mechanics or engineering; a man who wasn’t afraid of getting his hands covered in grease or oil.
I never had the chance to work with Rob again after Belgium, but I did keep on bumping in to him here and there, and managed to catch several of his performances over the years. Since moving to live in Munich five years ago, I only saw him three times, relatively briefly, a hasty catch up over a drink after a performance.
When I read what the many friends and colleagues who knew Rob better than I are saying online, the love and respect we all had for Rob burns so blindingly bright that it seems almost pointless to say any more. What we all know is that we have lost a friend who loved his work, who loved the people he worked with, who always gave of his best no matter what the circumstances, who always performed with honesty and truthful integrity, who always considered it a privilege to be able to work as a musician. He was a man of many talents and fine gifts, devoted to his wife and family who will miss him more than any of us.
Thanks, Rob! Thanks, mate!