While too much versatility can sometimes be a curse in forging a singing identity, Welsh tenor Robert Tear established a significant career by being able to master numerous areas of the tenor repertory. A similarity in vocal quality to Benjamin Britten's companion and singer of choice, Peter Pears, permitted Tear to perform the same works with authenticity and he worked often with the composer during Britten's later years. In fact, in two of Britten's "church operas, or parables," Tear appeared with Pears in the premieres, performing roles written particularly for him. Tear's voice is serviceable rather than sensuous, but his keen intelligence and sophistication in matters of style and stage deportment made him an invaluable artist in a wide range of settings. In addition to leading roles, Tear built a gallery of well-considered portraits in the character tenor category. He performed extensively in oratorio, as well, and appeared often in recitals covering territory from English song to Tchaikovsky.
Trained as a choral scholar at Kings College, Cambridge, Tear made his operatic debut as the Male Chorus in Britten's Rape of Lucretia in 1963 with the English Opera Group. This began an association with Britten leading next to roles in the second and third of the composer's church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). Subsequently, both of these works were recorded by Decca. Other significant premieres followed, including: Todd in Gordon Crosse's Grace of Todd (1969); the homosexual Dov in Michael Tippett's Knot Garden (1970); the Deserter in Hans Werner Henze's We Come to the River (1976); Rimbaud in John Tavener's poorly-received Therese at Covent Garden (1976); the Painter and the Negro in the Paris premiere of Friedrich Cerha's completion of the three-act version of Berg's Lulu (1979); and Ubu Rex in Krzysztof Penderecki's opera of the same name (1991).
Tear sang memorable performances of leading roles, parts as diverse as Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress; the title role in Peter Grimes; Aschenbach in Death in Venice; Captain Vere in Billy Budd; Lensky in Yevgeny Onegin; Jack in Tippett's Midsummer Marriage; and Paris in the same composer's King Priam; the eponymous hero in Handel's Samson; and (on record) Sali in Delius' A Village Romeo and Juliet. Character roles encompassed Wagner (Loge, Froh, and David), Mozart (Don Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro and Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte), Strauss' Herod, Emperor Altoum in Turandot, Shuisky in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (a singularly cunning and treacherous portrayal) and the Director in Lucio Berio's Un re in ascolto. Tear continued to include both Captain Vere and Don Basilio in his 21st century repertory.
In the concert realm, Tear performed live and recorded his distinguished reading of the tenor part in Britten's War Requiem. He embraced works as early as those of Monteverdi to compositions of the late 20th century, such as Tippett's Mask of Time. His performances of music by J.S. Bach and his Handel singing were liberally praised, and many samples of both were recorded. In earlier years, he included Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in his active repertory.
Robert Tear's discography is extensive. Among his outstanding recordings are Delius' Mass of Life, a solo disc of Tchaikovsky songs, Bach's St. John Passion (sung in English and conducted by Benjamin Britten), Tippett's Knot Garden and the Britten church parables.
In 1984, Tear was made a Commander of the British Empire.