This English bass moved in his early forties from a diet of basso cantante roles into the rigors of Wagner's Wotan, becoming, in the process, one of the late twentieth century's most imposing exponents of the role. Although he dealt initially with the higher stretches of the Rheingold and Walküre Wotans by a sort of crooning, he eventually grew into the part vocally, though at a cost in terms of vocal steadiness.
After pursuing his studies in Manchester, Tomlinson was engaged by the Glyndebourne Festival Touring Company when he was 25. With the Kent Opera during the same early period, he sang Seneca and Leporello. When not yet 30, the promising young bass was engaged by the English National Opera, quickly making himself invaluable in a variety of French, Italian, and German (Wagnerian) roles. A contemporary production of Gounod's Faust with Arthur Davies in the title role afforded Tomlinson the chance to display both vocal power and histrionic suavity.
Covent Garden, too, summoned Tomlinson beginning in 1979. There, he won positive reviews for his Mozart roles, but raves for his menacing portrayal of the Green Knight in Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain. The opera was recorded in performance at the Royal Opera House; its subsequent release underscored the bass' stature as a singing actor. Other roles at the theater have included King Fisher in Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage and a depraved Claggart in Peter Grimes. He also offered for London his tortured Wotan, first displayed at Bayreuth in the late '80s. Germany, Munich, and Berlin were also witness to his developing Wotan, while elsewhere in England, his Boris Godunov at Opera North was acclaimed as a penetrating study, powerfully sung.
In America, Tomlinson sang earlier with the San Francisco Opera, but did not appear at the Metropolitan Opera until he was in his mid-fifties. There, he made a strong impression in the Sprechstimme role of Schoenberg's Moses. Subsequently, his Gurnemanz, though showing signs of unsteadiness, was profoundly moving in performances conducted by James Levine.
Tomlinson's Wotan was recorded at Bayreuth in all three manifestations. For Chandos, Tomlinson has made two riveting discs of bass arias sung in English, while his Claggart for the same label is tension-filled in confrontations with Simon Keenlyside's handsomely sung Billy Budd.