British tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson was among the best known operatic stars in the world. He had a high, brilliant voice and was known for his very wide repertory in opera, oratorio and other works with orchestra, and art song. He appeared with every major British opera company, and most of the world's leading houses, and had an extensive catalog of recordings.
His professional operatic debut was at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the role of Fenton in Verdi's Falstaff. The beginning of his notable career as a singer of the great tenor roles by Benjamin Britten began with a performance of Albert Herring with the English Opera Group. He sang the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia for the English National Opera. In 1983, he sang his first performance as Aschenbach in Death in Venice, a co-production of the Geneva Opera and Scottish Opera, and has also performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He was Peter Quint at the Brussels Opéra La Monnaie in The Turn of the Screw and sang his first Peter Grimes in 1994 with the Scottish Opera, repeating the role at the Glyndebourne Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, Munich, Tokyo, and the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland. In a London revival of Gloriana he sang the role of Essex. He recorded Grimes under the direction of Bernard Haitink on an EMI CD set, and with Kent Nagano conducting sang the role of Captain Vere in Billy Budd in Erato's premiere recording of the opera's original four-act version. In addition, he participated in the Teldec Recording of the War Requiem with Kurt Masur conducting.
He was also known for his interpretations of Bach, Handel, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Mozart. He frequently sang the Bach Passions, masses, Magnificat, and many of the Cantatas, and most of the great Handel oratorios.
He sang major Mozart operatic roles, including Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) with the English National Opera and the Royal Opera; the title role of Lucio Silla (La Scala Milan); Tamino in The Magic Flute (London); Tito (La Clemenza da Tito) at the Metropolitan; and Idomeneo (Opéra de Paris). His Handelian operas included Semele and Alcina at Covent Garden.
Some of his other roles included Florestan (Beethoven's Fidelio); Ulysses (Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria); Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Tom Rakewell (The Rake's Progress); and Debussy's Pelléas at La Monnaie. He created the role of Polixenes in the world premiere of Philippe Boesman's The Winter's Tale.
He appeared in concert with the greatest orchestras including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Solti, the New York Philharmonic under Rostropovich, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by James Levine, the Cleveland Orchestra under Simon Rattle, and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Other conductors he has worked with include Rozhdestvensky, Masur, Haitink, Abbado, Tennstedt, Mackerras, Gardiner, Giulini, and Harnoncourt.
His many recordings include Oedipus Rex, Peter Grimes, The Rake's Progress, Billy Budd, Fidelio, Samson, Die Zauberflöte, Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, Haydn's Creation and The Seasons, several Handel oratorios, and the Evangelist parts in both Bach Passions, as well as numerous song recitals (including entries in Graham Johnson's Hyperion series of complete Schubert songs).