Baritone who became a star of Scottish opera

Born: August 3, 1949;

Died: December 3, 2018

THE eminent Scottish baritone Gordon Sandison, who has died aged 69, was one of the youngest Scots to join the fledgling Scottish Opera and then have a distinguished career in London and internationally. His rich mellow voice was suited to many of the lighter roles in opera – from Mozart and Puccini to Gilbert and Sullivan – and he was in much demand by the leading conductors of the world, including Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Guilini and Claudio Abbado.

One of Sandison’s most memorable experiences was singing the smallish but vital role of El Dancarro in the famous 1977 Edinburgh Festival production of Carmen under Abbado. The outstanding cast was led by Placido Domingo and Tereza Berganza and the production has passed into Festival folklore as one of the highlights in its history. Sandison returned the following year to repeat the role and is on the recording of the production.

In all, Sandison appeared with Scottish Opera in over 30 productions confirming his sure vocal technique and dramatic flair. With Scottish Opera he sang with much distinction in operas by Berlioz, Mozart, Britten and Puccini.

He made his debut in the epic production (the cast was led by Janet Baker and Helga Dernesch) of Berlioz’s The Trojans at the 1972 Edinburgh Festival. He is particularly remembered for his strong interpretations of such roles as Figaro (both Mozart and Rossini), Dr Malatesta in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Dand in Hermiston at the 1975 Festival.

The last was a particular challenge. Not only was it a new opera, based on an unfinished story by Robert Louis Stevenson, by Robin Orr (who when he was chairman of Scottish Opera also wrote the food and drink column in The Herald), the subject matter did not lend itself easily to the stage. It was bleak and forbidding. There was a hanging (that often went wrong during rehearsals and caused much tension with those on stage), a rape and a suicide. Sandison gave a committed reading of the heroine’s poetic brother.

There were two roles with which Sandison will be forever associated at Scottish Opera. He first sang Schuanard in La Boheme in 1974 and was to return to the role on four occasions until the 1979 revival. He then returned to sing Marcello in 1993 in Elijah Moshinsky’s new production of the opera. He also made a wonderfully sympathetic Papageno, the Bird-catcher, in The Magic Flute in Jonathan Miller’s production - carefully not overdoing the comic element of the character and giving a fine vocal performance.

Colleagues at Scottish Opera remember him with great pleasure – his enthusiasm and support for everyone contributed to the harmonious company spirit. He often diffused difficult situations in rehearsal with a joke – he had, one friend recalled, “an infectious cackle” – and is warmly remembered as a longstanding friend of the company.

Gordon Sandison (known widely by colleagues as Donnie) was born in Aberdeen and firstly studied drama at the College of Dramatic Art in Glasgow and received his diploma in speech and drama. He then won a Caird Scholarship to study music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music. He took part in a master class on BBC2 with Sir Geraint Evans, and was awarded a bursary which enabled him to study abroad.

Sir Alexander Gibson, the founder and musical director of Scottish Opera, spotted a real talent and undoubtedly nurtured Sandison’s voice early in his career. He went on to have a major international career singing in major venues all over Europe, the USA and Japan. Notable international productions included performances in Jenufa with Simon Rattle, Pelleas et Melisandre with Abbado, La Traviata with Solti, Cherubin with John Eliot Gardiner, ‘Tosca’ and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg with Bernard Haitink.

In 1984 he made his debut at the Royal Opera House in 1984 in Andrea Chenier (conducted by Richard Armstrong) and in Carmen (with Berganza), Der Rosenkavalier (under Solti), Don Giovanni (under Colin Davis with Kiri te Kanwa and Thomas Allen), Fedora (with Jose Carreras) and Tosca (with Domingo).

He made many appearances at Glyndebourne and was a regular for many years on their autumn tour. Sandison was seen in the BBC TV series of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas – notably a joyous Pish-Tush in The Mikado.

After retiring from the stage, Sandison took up an appointment as a vocal tutor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He was an assiduous teacher who encouraged his pupils with his gentle but informed coaching manner. He had the ability to bring out the best of students with a calming reassurance.

He is survived by his wife Yvonne and their family.