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Tear was born in Barry, Glamorgan, Wales, UK, the son of Thomas and Edith Tear. He attended Barry Boys' Grammar School and during this period sang in the chorus of the first Welsh National Opera's production of Cavalleria Rusticana in April 1946. He was a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge, where he studied English. He was later elected an Honorary Fellow of the College.
After Cambridge he moved to London where in 1961 he was appointed a Vicar Choral at St Paul's Cathedral. Also in 1961 he married Hilary Thomas. He and his wife had two daughters. One of the daughters, Lizzie Tear, would have a career in pop music.
In 1984 he was appointed CBE.
In 1985 he made his début as a conductor, in Minneapolis.
Tear was closely associated with the music of British composers Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. He created the role of Dov in Tippett's opera The Knot Garden. During the 1989-90 season, he made a highly successful debut with the Glyndebourne Touring Company as the tormented Aschenbach in Britten's Death in Venice. He also became well known for his duets with Benjamin Luxon, revivals of a selection of Victorian parlour songs.
Tear was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (Coleg Brenhinol Cerdd a Drama Cymru).
He gave his farewell performance at Covent Garden in 2009, taking the rôle of Emperor Altoum in Puccini's Turandot. Shortly afterwards, he commented, "the voice is still there, but the body is no longer able to follow".
Tear made over 250 records for many major recording companies. Roles he sang on disc range in diversity from Uriel in Haydn's "Creation" to the painter in Alban Berg's Lulu, and from Pitichinaccio in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann to Sir Harvey in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. His many classical recordings include performances of Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Janáček, Wagner and Messiaen. In the English canon, he also recorded songs by Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Butterworth and of course Benjamin Britten.
In 1967 he recorded for EMI a standout performance of Basil Lam's "baroque" version of Handel's "Messiah", with Elizabeth Harwood (soprano), Janet Baker (mezzo soprano), Paul Esswood (counter tenor), and Raimund Herincx (bass), with the English Chamber Orchestra, leader Emanuel Hurwitz, and the Ambrosian Singers and Maurits Sillem, harpsichord continuo, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting.