Tenor and star of Scottish Opera's first season

Born: 1926;

Died: August 3, 2017

EMILE Belcourt, the Canadian tenor who has died aged 91, was one of the first singers Sir Alexander Gibson cast at Scottish Opera in 1962 and a stalwart of English National Opera for 30 years. He not only sang the taxing role of Pelléas in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in Scottish Opera's first season but often returned for prestigious new productions and revivals. The adventurous artistic policy that Scottish Opera pursued in those early years was invigorating and Mr Belcourt was part of the new and exciting ensemble.

His career varied widely and while he started by singing tenor roles, by the mid 1960s he switched to sing more baritonal roles – receiving acclaim for Loge in the famous Reginald Goodall/English National Opera (ENO) production of the Ring Cycle and Herod in Salome.

However, his versatility was seen when he appeared in ENO’s Kiss Me Kate and the 1988 west end hit production of South Pacific. In the latter, Mr Belcourt was a suave and elegant Emile de Becque who was the character Gemma Craven’s Nellie wanted to “wash right out of my hair.”

Mr Belcourt once explained how his voice had changed. "My voice lies between the tenor and baritone range," he said. "High tenor roles have been a struggle, but on the other hand certain tenor roles sat very well. I also did the high baritone rep like Pelléas and operetta without a problem."

Emile Belcourt was born in Saskatchewan and served in the navy at the end of the Second World War. In 1949 he gained a degree in pharmacy but was persuaded to have his voice trained in London. He sang with the Glyndebourne chorus and then studied further in Vienna and Paris.

It was while in Paris that he sang Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande which Sir Alexander heard on a broadcast. The conductor immediately engaged Mr Belcourt for Scottish Opera’s prestigious first season. The opera was a courageous choice by Scottish Opera – the music was neither popular nor well known – but it proved a resounding success and established Scottish Opera as a major force in the world of opera.

Mr Belcourt was to return often to Scottish Opera – most memorably as Cassio in the second season when the company mounted a stunning production of Otello (with Charles Craig, Luisa Bosabalian and Peter Glossop) and as Shuisky in Michael Geliot’s 1965 production of Boris Godunov. Mr Belcourt (“an oily and sinister performance”) was in commanding voice opposite the Scottish bass David Ward who sang the title role with a defiant authority. He returned for the final revival of the production in 1974.

The first night of Pelléas et Mélisande made a strong impact – as indeed did Madama Butterfly, the other opera with which Scottish Opera opened their first season. Sir Alexander was conducting Pelléas et Mélisande in the pit and Mr Belcourt was in full flood on stage but Lady Veronica Gibson had other things on her mind. “I had to leave the King’s Theatre,” she recalled, “in order to have our second son. So I didn’t see the end of opera.”

Mr Belcourt was often seen in Scotland when the Sadler’s Wells Company toured and he sang the huge role of the roguish Loge in the complete Ring Cycle in 1976. The production (sung in English) made a strong impression both musically and dramatically. One critic wrote: “In Rhinegold the main honours are carried off by Emile Belcourt's plausible, witty and articulate Loge.” It rightly became the role for which he was recognised world wide.

In fact, Mr Belcourt was to sing with ENO for over three decades. His repertory varied from the heavy German roles through French operetta (Danilo in The Merry Widow and Raoul in La Vie Parisienne) to Archibald Grosvenor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.

He was meticulous in the delivery of the words he was singing and ensured they could be heard throughout the theatre – he was a keen advocate that opera should be performed in the language of the audience. He was always committed to making the text have a real relevance and to interpret the music as the composer intended. The Financial Times rightly called him “a character tenor of great accomplishment”.

Mr Belcourt, who died in Toronto, was twice married. He is survived by his second wife, the soprano Norma Burrows, and their two children and six children from a previous marriage.