Tuesday, April 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Richard Svare, 1930-2004: Seattle singer and actor devoted his life to the arts

Seattle Times art critic

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Richard Svare was an accomplished vocalist, teacher and actor, but gave up his own work during a formative decade to live and travel with charismatic Northwest artist Morris Graves.

Mr. Svare died Saturday of lung cancer at his Seattle home, after a lifetime of involvement in the arts. With his trained voice, crop of snowy hair and courteous manner, Mr. Svare was known for his kindness, wit and intelligent conversation, as well as his generous support of other artists. Last month, Mr. Svare celebrated his 74th birthday with a small gathering of friends. I was among them.

I met Richard Svare five years ago through our friend Jan Thompson, also a close friend of Graves. After Graves' death in 2001, the three of us drove together to Graves' estate, The Lake, in Northern California to pay our last respects. I wrote about the experience in a cover story for The Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest magazine.

Mr. Svare spent the last decade of his life in Seattle, in the Ravenna area house he shared with his sister, Betty Parrott. But for most of his adult years, Mr. Svare lived in Europe, often in the company of accomplished people, including movie director John Huston, and actors Alan Bates, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Lawrence Olivier. He worked for two years as administrator of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, traveling with the troupe. He and Graves once spent Thanksgiving in Paris with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Mr. Svare grew up in Tacoma and got some preparation for his international lifestyle early-on. His father, pastor Trygve Svare of Trinity Lutheran in Tacoma, served as cultural attaché to Norway and Mr. Svare attended the University of Norway at Oslo for post-graduate work in theater, specializing in the plays of Ibsen. Before that, he studied at University of Washington and Pacific Lutheran University, where he graduated in 1950. Mr. Svare studied voice at PLU and privately in Oslo, where he trained with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen, known for teaching the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. He worked in Oslo as a translator and currier for the 1952 Winter Olympics ski-jumping teams.

Languages came easily to Mr. Svare. Besides English, he spoke Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, French, German and Greek. "It helps to be musical," he explained. Growing up, Mr. Svare sang with the church choir at Trinity Lutheran. He was a soloist at the PLU choir and in 1952 joined the Compline Choir at Seattle's St. Mark's Cathedral, where he sang for two years. He also taught drama and English at Cleveland High School during that time.

Mr. Svare met Graves in 1951, when the artist was living in Woodway Park, near Edmonds. Through him, Mr. Svare got to know artist Mark Tobey. Tobey and Graves had a famously competitive relationship, but Mr. Svare said he never witnessed any strife. Graves would occasionally invite Tobey to dinner, then drive down to Seattle to get him (Tobey didn't drive).

In 1954, Mr. Svare left the Northwest art scene behind to move to Ireland with Graves. Increasingly frustrated by the post-World War II development around his Edmonds property, Graves wanted to escape to a quieter place. His "Machine Age Noise" paintings of the early '50s express his rage at the encroaching bulldozers and chainsaws.

Mr. Svare and Graves moved to County Cork, where they bought and restored Woodtown Manor (near Dublin), a 35-acre country estate with an imposing stone house built in 1750. "They lived a very exciting life: traveling, meeting people," said their friend, Thompson. "They had a special bond."

Movie director Huston also had a house in Ireland, and Mr. Svare and Graves spent much time with the Huston family during those years. They often visited Paris, including a 1961 trip for Tobey's show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre.

In recent months, during his illness, Mr. Svare reminisced to me about important events in his life. He loved to recall the time, in 1957, when he and Graves were bidden to Paris for Thanksgiving with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They arrived at the opulent house by cab an hour late. Mr. Svare remembered the scene vividly and described it to me: "The Duke came running down this great staircase with all the pugs running after him, saying 'I'm so sorry — we have the most impossible place to find!' " Mr. Svare said. "It was the height of noblesse oblige. He was incredibly polite."

The meal, of course, was incredible, too, served on table linens as sheer as handkerchiefs. The turkey arrived at the table already carved and perfectly reassembled. Ten people attended the dinner, mostly Americans, and Mr. Svare sat near the Duchess, to her left. "She kept a little gold notebook and gold pencil at her place and each time something went wrong or she didn't like something, she'd make a little note," he said. "She picked her teeth with a gold toothpick."

In 1963, Mr. Svare left Ireland and Graves to found the Scandinavian Theatre Company, a professional English language repertory theatre based in Stockholm. Among the actors who performed with the touring company were Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, E.G. Marshall, Sada Thompson and Esther Rolle. Mr. Svare didn't like to talk about what prompted his move, but said he felt he needed to be doing his own work again. He and Graves remained close friends.

In 1969, Mr. Svare acted in the Russian film "One Life" and later moved to the Greek island of Corfu, where he helped organize an annual arts festival. He appeared in a number of European feature films and Euro Television productions, including "Drifting Cities." In 1976-78, Mr. Svare worked for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He lived primarily in Athens until returning to Seattle in the early 1990s. In recent years, Mr. Svare has worked on a book manuscript about the gardens of Morris Graves.

Mr. Svare is survived by his sister, Betty Parrott of Seattle. A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. May 8 at Queen Anne Lutheran Church, 2400 Eighth Ave. W., Seattle. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Trygve and Hulda Svare Chair of Scandinavian Studies at PLU or the memorial fund at Queen Anne Lutheran Church.

Sheila Farr:

Information in this article, originally published April 27, was corrected June 7. A previous version of this story contained an error. Richard Svare and Morris Graves moved to County Cork, Ireland, in 1954 and later purchased the 18th-century estate Woodtown Manor, near Dublin. An April 27 obituary for Mr. Svare incorrectly located Woodtown Manor in County Cork.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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