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Beginning in the early 1980s, Adams began to perform in operettas and opera. He was invited by Matthew Epstein to sing the title role in the Peter Sellars version of The Mikado in Chicago in 1983, which led to many seasons there, including as Baron Zeta in The Merry Widow and the Theatre Director and the Banker in Lulu. He sang Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady for Scottish Opera in December 1983.
He made his Covent Garden debut on 4 November 1983 as a Frontier Guard in Boris Godunov (having also prepared the role of a monk) going on to sing Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream in July 1986, and Colonel Frank, the prison governor, in Die Fledermaus, a role, said The Times, that suited his comic talents to perfection. Returning to Covent Garden in 1993, he gave "excellent performances of Badger and the Priest" in The Cunning Little Vixen.
Adams sang with English National Opera many times, beginning in 1985 as Dikoj in Katya Kabanova, Mozart's Bartolo in 1991 and 1993 ("the only truly rounded, Mozart-size performance is the Dr Bartolo of the immortal Donald Adams"), Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, Alcindoro/Benoit in La bohème in 1991, the Woodcutter in Königskinder in 1992, Mumlal in The Two Widows in 1993, Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1995, and Don Pasquale (1996). For Welsh National Opera, between 1985 and 1987, he appeared as Monterone in Rigoletto, Zeta in The Merry Widow and the Theatre Director and the Banker in Lulu. His Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier (1990) for WNO was described by The Independent as "a triumph for the singer, now 62 years of age, and no longer in his finest or freshest voice, but who made up for any vocal deficiency by the marvellously subtle way he handled the text".
At Glyndebourne Festival beginning in 1988 he sang Quince, the lawyer Swallow in Peter Grimes, and Antonio in the production of The Marriage of Figaro which opened the new opera house at Glyndebourne in May 1994. His other international work included Schigolch for Canadian Opera in 1991, Rossini's Bartolo in Amsterdam, the Sacristan in Tosca in Geneva (June 1987) and the Mikado in Los Angeles (with Dudley Moore).
He also continued to record, especially with Charles Mackerras and Welsh National Opera, appearing as Sergeant Meryll in the Welsh National Opera production of Yeomen 1994–95, the first Gilbert and Sullivan production staged at the Royal Opera House. His last appearance, only a month before his death, was with English National Opera in Don Pasquale. The Times, in its obituary of Adams, concluded: "At the time of his death Adams had a diary as packed as any leading opera singer half his age. He was particularly looking forward to a performance in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Metropolitan Opera".
Adams also composed and arranged music. In his last years, Adams was president of the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society. He died in Norwich, England, at the age of 67 of a brain tumour.