Born in Lancashire, John Tomlinson studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and with Otakar Kraus.
He sings regularly with The Royal Opera and English National Opera and has with all the major British opera companies. He appeared at the Bayreuth Festival for eighteen consecutive seasons from 1988, as Wotan, the Wanderer, King Marke, Titurel, Gurnemanz, Hagen and Holländer. He has also appeared in Berlin (Deutsche Oper Berlin and Berlin Staatsoper), Geneva, Lisbon, Stuttgart, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Pittsburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna, Bologna, Florence, Tokyo and the Glyndebourne, Orange, Aix-en-Provence, Munich and Salzburg festivals. His repertory includes Hans Sachs, Heinrich der Vogler, Baron Ochs, Leporello, Claggart, King Fisher, Méphistophélès (Gounod's Faust), the Villains (Contes d'Hoffmann), King Philip (Don Carlos) and the title roles in Oberto (which he also directed), Attila, Mosè in Egitto, Le nozze di Figaro, Boris Godunov, Moses und Aron and Duke Bluebeard's Castle.
In 1993, he won a Grammy Award for Bartok's Cantata Profana and in February 2007 he was honoured with the Special Award at the Laurence Olivier Award Ceremony. He was awarded a CBE in 1997 and Knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 2005.