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Neate, Kenneth James (Ken) (1914–1997)

by Martin Cooke

This article was published online in 2021

Ken Neate, as Othello, 1975

Ken Neate, as Othello, 1975

image from Neate's archive

Kenneth James Neate (1914–1997), tenor, was born on 28 July 1914 at Cessnock, New South Wales, youngest of four children of New South Wales-born parents Stephen James Neate, miner, and his wife Elsie May, née Withers. Ken attended Cessnock High School, where he became captain in 1932, qualifying for matriculation at that year’s Leaving certificate examination and gaining a Teachers’ College scholarship, which he decided not to pursue. During his school years he was awarded Blues in athletics, football, cricket, and swimming; he was captain of the athletics team and vice-captain of the cricket and Rugby League football teams, as well as representing his school as a swimmer.

Discovering an ambition to become a singer, Neate began his piano and vocal studies with Kezie Frazer in Newcastle. Having worked as a salesman during the Depression, in 1936 he joined the New South Wales Police Force, which provided secure employment with the added attraction of the force financing his vocal lessons if he agreed to sing in its choir. During his years with the police he served in the inner-city regions of Sydney, and became a soloist in the choir. With ‘a strong, lyric tenor voice’ (Forbes 1997, 22), he was soon a local celebrity known as the ‘singing policeman.’ While in Sydney he began serious vocal and repertoire studies with Lute Drummond and learned Italian operatic roles with Lionello Cecil.

In 1937 Neate performed as Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in a production by the Knight-Corkran Operatic Society in Brisbane. The year 1939 was a decisive year in his life and career. In March he met the German soprano Lotte Lehmann during her tour for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). That November, he auditioned for the baritone John Brownlee, then touring Australia from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, who saw his potential. In March 1940 Neate sang the role of Lohengrin in Wagner’s opera of that name for the ABC’s broadcast under the baton of Joseph Post. Engaged for the ABC’s Celebrity Orchestral Concert series under the Hungarian-American conductor Antal Doráti in 1940, Neate also performed with the Australian artists Peter Dawson and Gladys Moncrieff. The same year he was chosen as assisting artist to the Icelandic soprano Maria Markan on her tour for the ABC.

Following a recital tour of New Zealand with the New Zealand bass Oscar Natzke, in 1941 Neate sailed for Los Angeles, United States of America, where he again met Brownlee and Lehmann. He continued vocal lessons and coaching with them, especially of German lieder and Wagnerian repertoire, and studied with Brownlee’s own teacher, Emilio de Gogorza. Through Brownlee and Lehmann, he met the conductor Bruno Walter, who recommended him as understudy to Charles Kullman in the role of Tamino for the forthcoming production of Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. With the entry of the United States into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and unable to return to Australia, in 1942 he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force; he was later commissioned. While in uniform, he performed under Sir Thomas Beecham in Montreal and participated in entertainments for service personnel in Canada and Britain.

Returning to Canada for demobilisation after the war, Neate travelled back to the Metropolitan Opera, where he auditioned for the first postwar season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. He would become a major international operatic tenor. Following his performance as Don José in Carmen at Covent Garden in 1947, he spent four seasons with the company, singing major roles such as Alfredo, Faust, and Tamino. Between 1950 and 1953 he sang the roles of Pinkerton (Madame Butterfly), Rodolfo (La Bohème), and Cavaradossi (Tosca) for British Broadcasting Corporation televised productions. On 3 September 1954 at the Register Office in north-western Surrey, he married Phoebe Bissell Samson, née Miller, a ladies outfitter; they would later divorce.

Moving to Paris, Neate met and studied with the tenor Lucien Muratore. A close friendship developed between them, and Muratore presented Neate with his costumes and theatrical props. Neate made his Paris debut at the Opéra Comique in 1954 in the role of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. His debut at the Paris Opera as Romeo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette came in 1956. He performed at the major opera houses of France, singing the role of Faust in Gounod’s opera of the same name and Hoffmann in Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann. The role of Faust was his calling card throughout Europe; he sang it in French, English, and Italian. He created the title role of Sampiero Corso by Henri Tomasi in 1956 at the Bordeaux Festival in May and at De Nederlandse Opera’s Holland Festival in June. Later he created the role of Danforth in Robert Ward’s The Crucible at the New York City Opera in 1961.

During the 1950s Neate performed the major tenor roles of the French and Italian repertoires in many leading houses. In 1956 he released his first solo recording. His career in Italy culminated in film recordings for Radiotelevisione Italiana of La Fanciulla del West by Puccini and Loreley by Alfredo Catalani. In 1959 he sang Edgardo, one of his finest roles, in Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden, replacing the indisposed João Gibin. This occasion was the legendary debut in the role of Lucia of (Dame) Joan Sutherland.

Neate’s first German performance had taken place in 1958 when he sang the role of Lohengrin to great acclaim at the State Theatre of Baden in Karlsruhe. He also successfully sang the roles of Tannhäuser—160 performances—and Florestan. His other major Wagnerian roles included Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Eric in Der fliegende Höllander, and Siegmund in Die Walküre. Invited by Wolfgang Wagner and Rudolph Kempe, he performed the role of Loge in Das Rheingold at the Bayreuth Festival in 1963. The peak of his Wagnerian career occurred in 1966 and 1967, when he appeared as Tristan in a new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm with the soprano Birgit Nilsson; further performances with the same cast took place at Expo ‘67 in Montreal. On several occasions he toured Australia, including under the aegis of the ABC, with the J. C. Williamson Italian Grand Opera Company in 1955, and with the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company in 1960 and 1968. His final operatic appearances in Australia were as Florestan in Fidelio for the Australian Opera in 1970. At the Munich Registry Office No. II on 20 March 1970 he married the German-born mezzo soprano Gertrude Vollath.

Before concluding his career, Neate added to his repertoire the Richard Strauss roles of Aegisthus in Elektra, Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos, and Apollo in Daphne. With an extensive concert repertoire comprising the Italian, French, Spanish, and German song literature, he was much in demand. He was guest soloist at many festivals in Europe, Britain, and North America. Late in his career he was successful as a producer: between 1977 and 1980 he staged several operas for the Dublin Grand Opera Society, Ireland. In the early 1980s he helped found Cork City Opera, where he produced Il Trovatore; he would also produce that opera for the Tyrolean State Theatre, Innsbruck, Austria, the same theatre in which he gave his farewell performances as Otello in 1975.

A humble, dignified, and kind man, Neate was a ‘warm and loyal’ friend with a ‘terrific sense of humor and fun’ (Cooke 1997, 236.4). In 1972 he had been invited to become lecturer in voice and operatic studies at the Richard Strauss Conservatory, Munich. He held this position until his retirement from full-time teaching in 1979, continuing part time until 1981. In retirement he conducted a private vocal studio at Munich. During the 1990s he wrote Great Singing: Common Sense in Singing, which was published posthumously in 2001. Survived by his wife, he died on 27 June 1997 at his Munich residence and was cremated. The Australian composer Alison Bauld is his niece and the tenor Jon Weaving was his second cousin.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Blyth, Alan, and Alison Bauld. ‘Full of Warmth in Tone and Teaching.’ Guardian, 24 July 1997, 15
  • Brook, Donald. Singers of Today. London: Rockliff, 1949
  • Cooke, Martin. ‘Death of Tenor, Teacher Ken Neate, Aged 82.’ Opera-Opera, no. 236 (August 1997): 236.1, 236.4
  • Cunningham, James. ‘World Was Opera Singer’s Stage.’ Age (Melbourne), 31 July 1997, C2
  • Forbes, Elizabeth. ‘Kenneth Neate.’ Independent, 1 July 1997, 22
  • Lindsay, Patrick. True Blue: 150 Years of Service and Sacrifice of the NSW Police Force. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012
  • Mackenzie, Barbara, and Findlay Mackenzie. Singers of Australia from Melba to Sutherland. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1967
  • Neate Papers. Private collection
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Thomas, Patrick. ‘A Great Australian Tenor: Kenneth Neate—“The Singing Policeman.”’ Fine Music 40, no. 4 (April 2013): 9

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martin Cooke, 'Neate, Kenneth James (Ken) (1914–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/neate-kenneth-james-ken-27072/text34546, published online 2021, accessed online 29 May 2022.

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Ken Neate, as Othello, 1975

Ken Neate, as Othello, 1975

image from Neate's archive

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