Isobel Baillie (1895-1983)
A Scottish soprano from a modest background (and initially working as a clerk at Manchester Town Hall), she studied in Milan and sang opera but really made her name as a major figure on the oratorio circuit from the 1920s to 1950s. A regular at the Three Choirs Festival, she also taught at the RCM, in Manchester, and in the US. She was made a Dame in 1978.
Janet Baker (b.1933)
The leading British mezzo of her generation and an artist of supreme distinction, celebrated for the dramatic intensity and moral integrity of her singing, Baker began life in northern England, working in a Yorkshire bank before a transfer to London where she studied privately with Helene Isepp. Bypassing any kind of music college, she went straight into the Glyndebourne chorus, which she later called ‘the education I never had’.
In 1956 she came to public attention through the Kathleen Ferrier Competition (although only taking 2nd prize) and made her Glyndebourne debut as a soloist. In 1959 she sang Eduige in a Handel Opera Society Rodelinda. But it was from the 1960s onwards that her stage career flourished, singing baroque repertoire – Handel, Purcell, Cavalli, Monteverdi – but also Mozart, Britten, Walton, Donizetti, and (one of her signature roles) Dido in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Focused on homeland Britain, her theatre-work was largely for Scottish Opera, the Royal Opera House, ENO, EOG, and Glyndebourne – where she sang her last stage opera, Gluck’s Orfeo, in 1982.
On the concert platform she was an internationally lauded song recitalist and soloist in oratorio, famous for her Mahler, for Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures under Barbirolli, for Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody and Britten’s 1976 cantata Phaedra. With a dignity that some found impenetrable if admirable, she retired from all public singing in 1989 at the early age of 56 – still in superb voice but resolved to avoid public exposure in decline. She was appointed a Dame in 1976.
James Bowman (b.1941)
Steeped in Anglican choral tradition as a countertenor at New College and then Christ Church, Oxford, he was singing in the Westminster Abbey choir when, in 1967, the English Opera Group cast him as Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He went on to become one of the best-known voices in the emerging world of period performance, singing with David Munrow and the Early Music Consort, but also embracing new music – premiering works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Geoffrey Burgon and Michael Nyman.
With over 180 recordings to his name, made with conductors like Harnoncourt, Norrington, Hogwood, Brugge and Gardiner, he was a frequent collaborator in Purcell and Handel with the Kings Consort through the 1990s.
Winding down his career, he returned to liturgical singing as a member of the Chapel Royal, and effectively retired in 2011.
Owen Brannigan (1908-1973)
A much-loved buffo bass, he was born in Northumbria and trained initially as a mechanic before studying singing at the Guildhall School and joining Sadlers Wells Opera in 1943. Known for his Mozart, for Gilbert & Sullivan, and for a spotlit role in a 1961 Hoffnung concert (where, under the baton of William Walton he came on for what turned out to be a completely silent solo in an excerpt from Belshazzar’s Feast), he was an indispensable figure on the English oratorio circuit (especially in Adrian Boult Messiahs) but equally active in new music, involved with the premieres of Malcolm Williamson’s English Eccentrics and Violins of St Jacques.
He was also prominent as one of Britten’s voices, singing Swallow in Grimes, and creating the roles of Collatinus (Lucretia), Superintendent Budd (Herring), Noye (Noye’s Fludde), and Bottom (Dream).
Wilfed Brown (1921-1971)
An ultra-refined lyric tenor with immaculate diction and intelligent response to text, his career was cut short by illness and premature death but is remembered as a model of sensitive English concert singing. Born in Sussex, he studied at Cambridge and became a schoolmaster (teaching the sons of Gerald Finzi) before establishing himself as a professional singer.
Unsurprisingly he became a leading champion of the songs and concert works of Finzi, especially Dies Natalis. But he was also a fine Evangelist in the Bach Passions. He sang no opera.
Norma Burrowes (b.1944)
An Irish coloratura soprano skilled in light, soubrette-like roles, bel canto and baroque, she made her opera debut in 1970 singing Zerlina and Papagena for Glyndebourne, and went on to various Purcell roles with English Opera Group (marrying the Britten-specialist conductor Steuart Bedford).
Through the 70s she appeared with ENO, in Paris and New York but took an early retirement from singing in 1982, relocating to Canada to teach.
April Cantelo (b.1928)
A bright, clear lyric soprano associated with contemporary music but also accomplished in baroque and early classical, she was born in Hampshire, studied with Joan Cross, joined Glyndebourne, and made her opera debut in 1950 as Barbarina/Figaro in Edinburgh.
She sang in many premiere performances including Crosse’s Grace of Todd, Berkeley’s Ruth and Dinner Engagement, Williamson’s Violins of St Jacques, Our Man in Havana, Happy Prince, Julius Caesar Jones, and Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (as Helena). She also appears on Britten’s recordings of Albert Herring and Little Sweep.
A Proms favourite on the concert platform, she appeared in two of the Hoffnung festival programmes and was married to the conductor Colin Davis.
Edith Coates (1908-1983)
The leading mezzo at Sadlers Wells during the 1930s/40s, and a celebrated Eboli in Don Carlos, she began her career in speech theatre, performing Shakespeare at the Old Vic, and was always noted for her dramatic abilities.
She sang Auntie at the premiere of Peter Grimes that reopened the Wells in 1945. And she continued to appear there throughout her performing life. But through the 1940s, 50s, 60s her career was based at Covent Garden, taking the title role in Carmen and heavier mezzo leads like Azucena in Trovatore and Amneris in Aida before settling into smaller character roles. As such, she featured in the premieres of Bliss’s Olympians, Britten’s Gloriana and Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage before retiring from the stage in 1971.
Joan Cross (1900-1993)
A formidable lyric-dramatic soprano, remembered for her association with Britten, she was taught at St Paul’s School by Gustav Holst, attended Trinity College of Music, and through the 1920s/30s sang a bizarrely broad range of repertoire at Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden – from Mimi, Tatyana and Desdemona (opposite Lauritz Melchoir’s Otello) to Aida, Sieglinde and Brunnhilde.
A trouper, she would in the early days of her career perform one opera in the afternoon at the Old Vic and another in the evening at Sadlers Wells. And it was in character that during World War II, when the Wells theatre was closed and its singers had to go on tour, she assumed responsibility for managing the company – which is how she came to be in charge when the theatre reopened in 1945 with the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes, singing the female lead of Ellen Orford for good measure.
Thereafter she became closely involved with Britten, helping to established the English Opera Group in 1947 and creating the roles of Female Chorus (Lucretia), Lady Billows (Herring), Queen Elizabeth (Gloriana), and Mrs Grose (Turn of the Screw).
Retiring from performance in 1955, she was no longer around for most of the commercial recordings of the Britten operas and features only in the original 1955 Screw. But she is buried close to Britten in Aldeburgh churchyard. And among her enduring legacies is the fact that, with Anne Wood in 1948, she co-founded the London Opera School which metamorphosed into today’s National Opera Studio.
Alfred Deller (1912-1979)
Thanks initially to Michael Tippett, then to Britten, Deller was the first star countertenor of the modern era – though it took a while to happen. Born in Margate, he spent much of his life singing obscurely as a male alto in cathedral choirs: principally St Pauls but starting at Canterbury, which is where Tippett heard him and encouraged him toward solo concert work.
With radio appearances in the early days of the Third Programme, he helped to popularise a great deal of (then unknown) English baroque and renaissance repertoire. And in 1948 he formed the Deller Consort to give what we would now call historically informed performances of Bach, Handel and Purcell – its members including the soprano April Cantelo.
But Deller’s big break came in 1960 when Britten wrote for him the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Uncertain acting and a small voice meant that his association with the role soon ended – he wasn’t cast when the piece played Covent Garden, nor does he appear on the commercial Decca recording. But he does appear on a BBC recording of the original Aldeburgh production. And small though it was, his voice found a natural home in intimate performances with lute accompaniment.
He features on around 140 recordings of composers like Dowland, Purcell, Tallis, Blow and Bach.
Gervase Elwes (1886-1921)
By the mid-20th Century Elwes was a memory, but a significant one and the model for generations of English singers to come. Born into the Catholic landowning ascendancy, he studied at Oxford, married the daughter of an earl, and entered the diplomatic service before a late start in singing – at which point he didn’t know what voice he was and was given the strange advice that he could be an operatic baritone or a concert tenor.
Choosing the latter, he established a distinctive style of gentlemanly Englishness combined with Catholic spiritual fervour – suited to the many performances of Dream of Gerontius under the composer’s baton for which he was famous.
He also specialised in German Lied and English song: Vaughan Williams wrote On Wenlock Edge for him. Celebrated in America and well as Britain, he died on tour to the US in a train accident. Tragically young.
Geraint Evans (1922-1992)
A Welsh bass-baritone who starred at Covent Garden from the 1940s to the 1980s, he was a coal miner’s son who left school at 14, worked as a department store window-dresser, but found his true vocation singing in Methodist chapels and wartime RAF entertainments.
Known for strong if old-style acting that delivered comedy as well as tragedy with forceful character, he sang 70 or so roles (including Gilbert & Sullivan) but was known above all for two of them. One was Figaro, which propelled him to fame at Covent Garden in 1949 before he went on to sing it everywhere else, including La Scala (and on discs under Klemperer and Barenboim). The other was Falstaff, which he first sang for Glyndebourne in 1950 and went on to perform in Vienna, at the Met, and at Covent Garden (with a recording under Solti).
He also sang in the premieres of Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida. And though he wasn’t one of Britten’s Aldeburgh intimates, he sang in the premieres of Gloriana and of Billy Budd and was Ned Keene in Britten’s own recording of Peter Grimes.
Britten in fact considered him for the title role in Budd, but it proved too high (instead he sang Mr Flint and later became a distinguished Claggart). Higher baritone roles never worked for Evans, and his one brief attempt on Rigoletto failed badly. Knighted in 1969, he retired from the stage in 1984, by which time he had established a separate career as a TV personality.
Nancy Evans (1915-2000)
A smooth-voiced mezzo whose career was overshadowed by that of her friend and contemporary Kathleen Ferrier, she was a stalwart of the English Opera Group and Aldeburgh Festival, creating several Britten roles.
Born in Liverpool, she joined the Glyndebourne Chorus, sang small parts at Covent Garden in the late 1930s, and appeared on the first ever recording of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 1936.
During World War II she toured with ENSA, subsequently joining the embryonic EOG to share the lead in Britten’s Lucretia with Ferrier (1946) and create the role of Nancy in Albert Herring (1947). She also sang Polly in Britten’s realisation of Beggar’s Opera (1948), premiering his song cycle Charm of Lullabies in the same year, and featured in the 1952 EOG production of Arthur Oldham’s Love in a Village – a modern adaptation of Thomas Arne’s 18th Century ballad opera.
After a short-lived marriage to the record producer Walter Legge, she married EOG stage director and librettist Eric Crozier in 1949 and shared his status at the heart of Britten’s Aldeburgh circle (until he fell from grace and was effectively excluded).
Beyond Aldeburgh, she sang Mozart and Strauss at Glyndebourne, and joined Jennifer Vyvyan in the premiere of Malcolm Williamson’s Growing Castle (1968).
Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953)
One of the great if tragic figures of English singing, she was dead at 41 and had a career of barely ten years; but in that short while she found extraordinary fame beyond the usual boundaries of serious concert music – touching a popular nerve with the luminous, dark, velvet timbre of her voice and becoming the go-to contralto of her time.
Born in Lancashire and known for her robust, no-nonsense northern-ness, she worked as a GPO telephonist and played piano in her spare time before switching gradually to singing – encouraged by Sir Malcolm Sargent who became a mentor-figure in her life. Abandoning an ill-judged marriage to a local bank manager, she relocated to London in 1942, took vocal studies with Roy Henderson, and launched herself on the wartime oratorio circuit with instantaneous success. Britten heard her in 1943 at a Westminster Abbey Messiah, and had her in mind when he then wrote Rape of Lucretia – which she premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946.
An awkward actress, she found opera difficult but agreed to appear again at Glyndebourne the following year as Gluck’s Orfeo. And by then, with a runaway career on radio, Orfeo’s aria Che faro had effectively become her signature tune – along with the popular song Blow the wind southerly.
Almost equally famous for singing the Angel in Elgar’s Gerontius under Barbirolli, her career embraced the orchestral songs of Mahler which she toured extensively with Bruno Walther, Barbirolli and Klemperer. And there was more Britten: the premieres of his Spring Symphony and the canticle Abraham and Isaac.
But in 1951 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She struggled to keep going despite surgery and treatment, refusing some of the offered medical possibilities on the grounds that they would affect her voice. In 1953 she undertook another staging of the Gluck Orfeo – in English, at Covent Garden – but was taken into hospital as an emergency after the second performance. Later that year she died.
Sylvia Fisher (1910-1996)
A dramatic soprano of dignified if formidable demeanour, she was born in Australia and sang there in concert and on radio before relocating to Britain in 1947. The following year (after five auditions) she joined Covent Garden as a company member and sang heavier soprano roles there through the 1950s/60s – including Leonora/Fidelio and Marschallin/Rosenkavalier, which became a signature part. She also moved into the heavy Wagner roles, especially Sieglinde which she sang with distinction under Kleiber. And another speciality was the Kostelnicka/Jenufa which she sang repeatedly until the 1970s.
But in the mid-60s she made an odd career move, leaving Covent Garden and joining the English Opera Group. She had already become known for singing Ellen Orford/Grimes, and now stepped into other Britten roles that once belonged to Joan Cross, including Lady Billows/Herring and Queen Elizabeth in Gloriana. It was almost inevitable that she should be chosen to create the fearsome battleaxe Miss Wingrave for the TV premiere of Owen Wingrave. And transferred to the stage, it marked her last appearance at the Royal Opera House.
David Franklin (1908-1973)
With a high-profile but short-lived career as a bass, he studied at Cambridge and was singing the Commendatore at Glyndebourne in his 20s. From 1947 he was a principal bass at Covent Garden and appeared in the premiere of Bliss’s The Olympians in 1949. But throat problems forced his to retire in 1951. He later reinvented himself as a radio broadcaster, famous for 1960s/70s programmes like My Music and Twenty Questions.
Peter Glossop (1928-2000)
Born in Yorkshire, where he started work as a bank clerk, he was a forthright, strong, not over-subtle baritone who (rarely for a British singer) made a big career in the front-rank Italian houses like La Scala. Known for singing Verdi – whose Rigoletto became his signature role – he first established his credentials in that repertoire at Sadlers Wells during the 1950s. But a 1961 Covent Garden debut as Demetrius in Britten’s Midsummer Nights Dream brought about an ongoing relationship with the Royal Opera House, which then became his British base.
Overseas, he regularly sang at Salzburg under Karajan, and at the New York Met during the 1970s – in roles like Scarpia, Tonio (Pagliacci), Falstaff. He retired in 1986.
Joan Hammond (1912-1996)
Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, she was a junior golfing champion and might well have become a sportwoman but for the fact that, at the same time, she showed potential as a young soprano. Touchingly, it was her local golfing community who raised the money to send her to Vienna, then London, to study singing.
With a career that took her to Covent Garden, La Scala and Vienna, she found popular fame with recordings of Puccini’s O mio babbino caro and Dvorak’s Hymn to the Moon.
She retired to Australia in 1965, spending the remainder of her life as an opera company administrator and teacher. She was made a Dame in 1974.
Heather Harper (1930-2019)
Born in Belfast, and combining a sharp musical intellect with a tough, no-nonsense attitude to her art, she began as a mezzo and sang as such with the Ambrosian Chorus and BBC Singers (as they were subsequently renamed). But with bright coloratura possibilities, the voice prompted a move up to soprano. Which is how, by the 1960s, she was singing Anne Truelove/Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne.
But at the same time there was also a mezzo-ish warmth which made her an ideal Ellen Orford/Peter Grimes and superb Marschallin/Rosenkavalier. And both Britten and Strauss would prove central to her repertoire.
A constant presence in English Opera Group shows from 1956 to 1975, and Aldeburgh Festival regular, she kept her distance from Britten’s inner-circle but was nonetheless one of his chosen voices. In 1962 she sang Helena in Midsummer Night’s Dream at Covent Garden, and it marked the beginning of a Royal Opera association that continued with Micaela, Arabella, Ariadne and other roles through to her farewell in 1981 – with another Ellen Orford.
More spectacularly, she stood in at short notice for the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem in 1962, when it became clear that Galina Vishnevskaya would not be allowed by the Soviet authorities to take part. Britten needed someone to learn the demanding soprano solos in ten days. Harper, thanks to her training with the BBC Singers and track record of handling Schoenberg, was an obvious choice. And War Requiem became one of the things she was best known for – although she didn’t have the chance to record it until nearly thirty years later.
She also regularly sang Spring Symphony, Les Illuminations, Our Hunting Fathers, and took part in the premiere of Owen Wingrave.
Beyond Britten, she had an international career with companies like the New York Met, the Teatro Colon Buenos Aires and Bayreuth; and she featured in the premieres of Tippett’s Ice Break and 3rd Symphony.
Thomas Hemsley (1927-2013)
A distinguished baritone whose book Singing and Imagination had biblical status for several generations of singers, he was born in Leicestershire, studied at Oxford, and sang at St Paul’s Cathedral until an unusual event propelled him to prominence in 1951.
The event was a performance of Dido and Aeneas in the St John’s Wood garden of Bernard Miles, which launched Miles’s Mermaid Theatre and paired the 24yr-old Hemsley with the 56 year-old Kirsten Flagstad. Later recorded, it led to a series of roles at Glyndebourne in the 1950s/60s, including the UK premiere of Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers.
Through the 1960s/70s he became a regular at Aldeburgh, creating the role of Demetrius in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960. He also starred as Mangus in the Covent Garden premiere of Tippett’s Knot Garden in 1970.
But beyond the UK he based his career in German and Swiss opera houses, excelling in Germanic repertoire and scoring a marked success as Beckmesser at Bayreuth in the late 1960s.
Roy Henderson (1899-2000)
Remembered these days as a teacher, he had considerable success in the early years of his life as a concert baritone – known especially as a soloist in large-scale Delius choral works like Sea Drift, Mass of Life and Song of Sunset.
He also championed modern British music on the oratorio circuit; Elgar, Moeran, Constant Lambert, Bliss, and Vaughan Williams (he was one of the sixteen solo voices in the first performance of VW’s Serenade to Music).
Through the 1930s he was a favourite Mozart singer at Glyndebourne, there from the opening night in 1934 until the house closed for the War. And when the War was over he tended to focus on song recitals. But in 1940 he became a professor at the Royal Academy, where his students included Kathleen Ferrier, Jennifer Vyvyan and Norma Proctor.
He lived to be 100.
Raimund Herincx (1927-2018)
A larger-than-life bass-baritone of helden strength and imposing physical stature, he was born in London to parents of Flemish origin, and studied in Belgium before returning to the UK as his home base.
His career launched in the 1950s at Welsh National Opera and Sadlers Wells, developed in the 1960s when he was singing Escamillo, Alfio and Macbeth at Covent Garden, and climaxed in the 1970s when he sang Wotan in the celebrated ENO Ring Cycle under Reginald Goodall – going on to become a internationally active Wagner star at Salzburg, the New York Met, and other American houses.
Besides the Wagner, and a slew of villainous roles like Mephistopheles in which he had conspicuous success, he was up for the challenge of new repertoire, including the premieres of Tippett’s Knot Garden, Henze’s We Come to the River, Williamson’s Our Man in Havana, and Maxwell Davies’ Taverner.
A strange detail of his life was a long-running feud with the pianist John Ogden, in the course of which both men threatened to sue each other for harassment.
Alfreda Hodgson (1940-1992)
A renowned contralto/heavy mezzo whose career was cut short by early death, she was born in Morecambe, studied in Manchester, and emerged in the 1960s as prominent oratorio singer. Opera followed in the 1970s/80s at ENO and Covent Garden but there was never very much, although she did record Sosostris in Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage. Her focus was on concert performance – notably in Mahler, Elgar and Bach (appearing on Britten’s recording of the John Passion).
Gwyneth Jones (b.1936)
A Welsh dramatic soprano, she began as a mezzo at the Zurich Opera but established herself in higher roles during the 1960s, singing Aida, Butterfly, Lady Macbeth, Tosca and Leonora/Trovatore (which launched her Covent Garden career in 1964).
From heavier Strauss roles like Salome she moved into Wagner, becoming a star of Bayreuth from the late ’60s to early ’70s – not least as Brunnhilde in the 1976 Centenary Ring. And with a strong if hard-edged voice that delivered excitement rather than beauty, she sang throughout the world, acquiring legendary status at the Met and Munich, and resisting retirement – taking on the Countess/Queen of Spades at the age of 79, as well as speaking roles in feature films like Dustin Hoffman’s 2012 Quartet. She was made a Dame in 1986.
Otakar Kraus (1909-1980)
An opera baritone born in Czechoslovakia but later taking British citizenship, he established a career in Brno and Bratislava before moving in 1940 to London – where he joined the Carl Rosa touring company and, from the 1950s to 1970s, became a fixture at Covent Garden.
He specialised in villains like Scarpia, Iago, Pizarro, Alberich, and created more of their kind in the premieres of Rake’s Progress (Nick Shadow), Rape of Lucretia (Tarquinius) and Midsummer Marriage (King Fisher). Famous thereafter as a teacher of dark voices, he helped develop the careers of singers like John Tomlinson and Willard White.
Michael Langdon (1920 -1991)
A true basso profundo with the darkest of vocal colouring, he was born in Wolverhampton and became a regular figure on the Covent Garden stage during the 1950s – famous for his Baron Ochs/Rosenkavalier and, as time progressed, for Wagner roles.
He also sang a lot of new English repertoire, including the first performances of Billy Budd (as Mr Flint), Gloriana, Bliss’s The Olympians, and Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage. Certainly his finest achievement on disc was an unforgettable Claggart in the 1967 Britten recording of Budd. He retired from the stage in 1977.
Adele Leigh (1928-2004)
A light soprano vocally and temperamentally ideal in bright, vivacious soubrette roles, she was born in London, studied at RADA, and seemed destined for a career in musical theatre when Covent Garden offered her a contract in 1948. She was just 19, and launched into a succession of effervescent Mozart roles like Barbarina, Pamina and Susanna – with a notable Sophie/Rosenkavalier under Erich Kleiber. In 1953 she featured in the premiere cast of Britten’s Gloriana.
But the lure of light entertainment persisted – so she also sang with Victor Sylvester’s dance band and in variety shows, sharing 1950s platforms at the London Palladium with Harry Secombe and Bruce Forsyth. At the same time she developed a speciality in Viennese operetta – not least in Vienna, where she met and married a diplomat who later became Austrian ambassador to the UK.
In 1987 she rounded off her diverse career as one of the veteran singers in a London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
Richard Lewis (1914-1990)
From humble beginnings as the factory-working son of a Welsh railway signaller, he became one of the leading tenors of his time: a big name in the 1950s/60s and a mainstay of the Glyndebourne season, where he regularly sang for more than thirty years in classic productions of the core Mozart operas. He also starred in what was then uncommon repertoire, like Return of Ulysses and Rake’s Progress (appearing as Tom Rakewell in the UK stage premiere).
It was at Glyndebourne that he came into the ambit of Britten, singing the Male Chorus in the 1947 revival of Lucretia; and for the two following seasons he sang in the English Opera Group, leaving after issues that probably concerned unwelcome rivalry with Peter Pears. He had a stronger upper register than Pears, and it caused tensions in the Group – although in later years this didn’t stop him sharing some of Pears’s roles in larger contexts, including Peter Grimes and Captain Vere in Billy Budd. He also recorded the Spring Symphony alongside Jennifer Vyvyan, though under Bernstein not Britten.
At Covent Garden he sang quantities of modern repertory, from Walton’s Troilus and Cressida to Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage and King Priam. Game for challenges, he also tackled Aron in the notorious 1965 Solti account of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.
More conventionally he was a favourite on the oratorio circuit, noted as a tenor soloist in Messiah and Dream of Gerontius.
Arnold Matters (1901-1990)
An Australian baritone whose career began in Nellie Melba’s touring company there, he moved to London, sang initially in the Westminster Abbey choir, but then flourished at both Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden, singing Figaro, Alfonso, Falstaff and assorted Wagner roles including Hans Sachs (for which he was particularly known).
In 1951 he created the title role in Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress at Covent Garden, and in 1953 sang in the the premiere of Britten’s Gloriana.
Walter Midgley (1912-1980)
A popular tenor through the 1930s-60s, he was born in Rotherham and worked in a steel factory until joining the Carl Rosa company, progressing from the chorus to star as Rodolfo/Boheme. After a while with Sadlers Wells he became a principal tenor at Covent Garden in the 1950s, singing Calaf/Turandot and the Duke/Rigoletto – a role that brought him unsought fame when he swallowed half his false moustache in the middle of Questo o quella. It took an operation to remove the fur but he built an alternative career from the misfortune and became a celebrated light entertainer on radio and TV – latterly with his children Vernon and Maryetta who both became singers.
Elsie Morison (1924-2016)
An Australian soprano who came to London in 1947, she was celebrated for the clean, pure brightness of her voice, starring at Sadlers Wells, Glyndebourne (as Anne Trulove in the company’s UK stage premiere of Rake’s Progress) and Covent Garden (a noted Mimi and Pamina, as well as taking the lead in the 1958 UK stage premiere of Poulenc’s Carmelites).
It was at Covent Garden that she met the conductor Rafael Kubelik, who marked his debut as the company’s music director with a production of Bartered Bride in which Morison san Marenka (with Peter Pears as Vasek). Some years later, in 1963, she married Kubelik and lived with him in Switzerland, gradually reducing her vocal career to the point where she effectively retired in 1968.
Heddle Nash (1894-1961)
A light but stylish lyric tenor with an elegant Italian sound developed out of studies in Milan (where he made his stage debut as a stand-in Almaviva), he initially trained at the Blackheath Conservatoire and had his first work as an offstage singer in puppet operas.
After engagements with the British National Opera Company and at the Old Vic, he came to prominence in the 1930s as a regular at Covent Garden (Almaviva, Pinkerton, Rodolfo and Ottavio – stretching to David in Meistersinger) and Glyndebourne (as a consummately clear-voiced Mozart tenor with good diction). During World War II he toured with the Carl Rosa company and retired from the stage in 1958 (with Arthur Benjamin’s Tale of Two Cities at Sadlers Wells).
A celebrated oratorio singer, he was the Gerontius tenor of choice at Three Choirs Festivals during the 1930s/40s and one of the original sixteen singers in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music in 1938. His last performance was a Messiah shortly before he died in 1961.
Dennis Noble (1898-1966)
Schooled in church music as a boy chorister at Bristol Cathedral, then a back-row baritone at Westminster Abbey, he had nothing in the way of stage training when he was drafted into a Covent Garden Pagliacci (singing Silvio). But it proved successful, and he continued to appear there regularly through the 1920s/30s (notably as Germont/Traviata).
On the concert stage he was the soloist for the premiere of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in 1931 and maintained a close association with that piece.
In a lighter vein, he spent World War II entertaining the troupes with Gracie Fields. And he appeared in musicals with Ivor Novello, as well as an ill-fated 1930s film called Spanish Eyes.
John Noble (1931-2008)
Singing with St John’s Cambridge as a student, he was still an amateur baritone when he took the title role in a famous 1954 Cambridge production of Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrims Progress; and years later, in 1970, he would record the role under Boult.
After Cambridge he joined the BBC Singers, graduating to the solo concert roles for which he was principally known, including Christ in the Bach Passions. Tall and dignified in appearance, he was also the baritone soloist for the premiere of Tippett’s challenging Vision of St Augustine alongside his former BBC colleagues.
Among his (less luminous) stage roles was the Vicar in Britten’s Albert Herring, which he sang with the EOG and recorded under the composer in 1964. In 1974 he sang the title role in Alan Bush’s opera Wat Tyler at Sadlers Wells. On retirement he taught at Trinity, London and the Royal Northern, Manchester.
Ian Partridge (b.1938)
A refined, light lyric tenor whose career was focused on the concert platform and almost never ventured into opera, he was an Oxford choral scholar and had the classic, self-effacing, slightly diffident English manner associated with that kind of background.
After a while with Westminster Cathedral Choir, his solo singing began in 1960 and excelled in recitals of intimate song repertoire with his pianist/sister Jennifer Partridge – with whom he appeared regularly over fifty years and established a reputation for integrity and style. He retired in 1980, to teach and adjudicate.
Peter Pears (1910 – 1986)
Remembered largely for his lifelong on- and offstage partnership with Britten, Pears had a distinctive tenor voice whose mannerisms lent themselves to parody. The instrument itself was thin and wiry, sometimes shaky, with a nasal twang that wasn’t beautiful. But he knew how to make the best of it, with an exquisite, cultivated (sometimes over-cultivated) artistry that was intense, expressive, influential, leaving an enduring mark on all the opera roles and other music Britten wrote for him across a period of nearly forty years. It was a case of triumph over limitations, and encompassed repertoire beyond the Aldeburgh scores for which he’s best known.
Born into a family of prosperous businessmen, he was educated at Lancing and Oxford (where he left after a year with no degree: he wasn’t naturally drawn to scholarship) before moving on the Royal College of Music (where he didn’t last long either).
Joining the BBC Singers, he met Britten in 1937. A relationship blossomed. And early expressions of it were Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, written in 1940 as a barely disguised declaration of love, followed by the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in 1943.
Throughout his life Pears had an international career, independent of his work with Britten, and in the 1940s it included lyric tenor leads with Sadlers Wells: Tamino, Rodolfo, Alfredo, Ferrando, Vasek, and the Duke in Rigoletto.
He made his name, though, with the title role in Peter Grimes when it re-opened Sadlers Wells after the War in 1945. From then on, almost everything that Britten wrote for solo voices had a part for Pears: Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, St Nicolas, Billy Budd, Gloriana, Turn of the Screw, Little Sweep, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Church Parables, War Requiem, Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice – as well as his realisations of Beggar’s Opera and Purcell’s Fairy Queen.
Critically involved in founding both the English Opera Group and Aldeburgh Festival, Pears wasn’t always ideal for the roles that Britten (blinded by loyalty) wrote for him. But he was always memorable, capable and artful, with a gift for text. His artistry was never better than in song recitals. He excelled in Schubert, usually with Britten at the piano. And he ranked among the leading Bach Evangelists of modern times.
Surviving Britten by almost a decade, he was knighted in 1978. The last years of his life were inhibited by a stroke, but he continued to perform in speaking roles. With dignity and eloquence.
Anna Pollak (1912-1996)
A tall, slim mezzo known for looking good in trouser roles, she was born in Manchester to Austrian emigre parents and first began to perform in musical comedy and revues.
With no formal musical training and no experience of opera, she nonetheless joined Sadlers Wells immediately after the end of World War II, and was singing Dorabella/Cosi in 1945.
She stayed with the company until the 1960s, ending up in character roles like the Countess/Queen of Spades. But by then she had also established a career on other platforms including Covent Garden (a noted Cherubino), Glyndebourne and the English Opera Group. The EOG brought her into contact with new music; and she sang in the premieres of Britten’s Lucretia (Bianca) and Berkeley’s Nelson (Lady Nelson).
Norma Proctor (1928-2017)
A leading contralto on the oratorio circuit in post-war years, with a slightly old-school sound that bore comparison with Clara Butt, she was born in Cleethorpes, the daughter of businessman whose wealth increased overnight when he won a bet on the Grand National at colossal odds. Coming to London, she studied with Roy Henderson, and made her debut in a 1948 Messiah at Southwark Cathedral. Many more Messiahs would follow with choral societies throughout Britain, as well as a key contribution to the landmark Adrian Boult recording of 1953.
Best-known for alto roles in Mahler’s concert works for voice and orchestra, she was a regular figure at the Proms. By contrast, there was relatively little opera – although Britten cast her in the Lucretia he revived at Aldeburgh in 1958, and she made a Covent Garden debut in 1961 as Gluck’s Orfeo, opposite Elsie Morison’s Euridice.
Other Britten engagements included what was meant to be the first commercial recording of Abraham and Isaac, although the release was held back after Britten decided that Proctor’s role, Isaac, would better suit a boy treble. Unassuming by nature, Proctor bowed to his judgement.
A lifelong pacifist, one of her last performances was in a 1984 concert for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. She died, back in Cleethorpes, after years of struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Margaret Ritchie (1903-1969)
A soprano who, like Jennifer Vyvyan, sang modern British and baroque, she studied at the RCM and began her career with Intimate Opera before graduating to Mozart roles at Sadlers Wells. She was an early recruit into the English Opera Group at Glyndebourne, singing Lucia at the 1946 premiere of Lucretia and Miss Wordsworth at the 1947 premiere of Herring. She also appeared in 1950s performances of Handel operas, and with keyboard-player George Malcolm in recitals of songs by Purcell and Arne.
A regular figure on the English oratorio platform, she was the wordless soprano soloist at the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica; and VW’s Three Vocalises were written for her in 1958.
In 1945 she took the lead role in a film about the life of singer Adelina Patti, Pink String and Sealing Wax.
Constance Shacklock (1913-1999)
A big contralto voice with big personality, wide vocal range and strong chest register, she was born in Nottinghamshire, studied with Roy Henderson, and began her career singing the deep female comedy roles in Gilbert & Sullivan. But immediately after World War II she was recruited to the new Covent Garden company, singing in its opening production of Fairy Queen in 1946.
She stayed with the company for the next ten years, singing Octavian, Azucena, Brangaene and (ill-advisedly) Carmen. She also shared the lead with Joan Cross in the first production of Britten’s Gloriana, and was a noted Mrs Sedley/Grimes. Internationally she worked in Vienna, Berlin and at the Moscow Bolshoi (the first British singer to appear there in thirty years).
But with a sense of fun that made her a favourite at the Last Night of the Proms (where she frequently and famously sang Rule Britannia) she shifted her focus to the West End. And there, in the 1960s, she became still better known for singing Climb Every Mountain as the Mother Abbess in Sound of Music.
John Shirley-Quirk (1931-2014)
Celebrated for intelligently nuanced singing, clean-cut diction, and a streak of grey in his otherwise dark hair that became a visual trademark, Shirley-Quirk was a key figure in Britten’s circle of singers from the 1960s onwards and prominent in wide range of lower-lying baritone roles. Born in Liverpool and trained as a scientist, he taught chemistry in the 1950s but with a persisting desire to sing – which meant that he took lessons with Roy Henderson and served as a lay clerk at St Paul’s Cathedral in the early 60s.
Small roles at Glyndebourne followed. And after hearing him in an Ipswich Christmas Oratorio in 1963, Britten asked him to the join the English Opera Group. He went on to sing in first performances of the Curlew River (as the Ferryman), Journey of the Magi, Owen Wingrave, and above all Death in Venice (where his virtuoso handling of the assorted baritones who hasten Aschenbach’s destruction rivalled Pears’s claim to be the opera’s central voice).
A master of English song, outstanding in Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, he also sang Gerontius under Britten’s direction, Mozart roles for Scottish Opera, and was standardly booked for Belshazzar’s Feast.
A frequent visitor to the New York Met in the 70s and 80s, he relocated to America in 1991 to teach at the Peabody Institute – returning to Britain shortly before he died.
Amy Shuard (1924-1975)
A capacious dramatic soprano who studied with Eva Turner and carried her mantle in the heavy female opera roles, she was born in London and established her career there in the 1950s – initially at Sadlers Wells then Covent Garden where she remained an ongoing presence. Known in the 1950s for singing the title roles in the UK premieres of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova and Jenufa, her core roles were Tosca, Elektra, Turandot and as time passed) the female leads in Wagner – which she sang frequently in San Francisco as well as Bayreuth.
She was the first English soprano to sing Brunnhilde at the Royal Opera House.
Monica Sinclair (1925-2002)
A characterful mezzo, good at comedy and trouser roles, she had a significant career at Covent Garden in the 1950s/60s as well taking lead roles for the Handel Opera Society and Aldeburgh Festival. Born in Somerset, she studied at both the Royal Academy and Royal College, joined the Carl Rosa company in 1948, and was taken up by Covent Garden the following year – where she would become a regular figure in roles like Maddalena/Rigoletto, Azucena and Cherubino, as well as singing in the premieres of Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress, Britten’s Gloriana, Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, and Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage.
Engaged by Glyndebourne from the mid-1950s onwards, she developed a gift for comedy that would take her into Gilbert & Sullivan but also guaranteed success as Madam Popova in the 1967 Aldeburgh premiere of Walton’s The Bear.
Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010)
One of the legendary voices of her time, she initially considered herself a dramatic soprano with ambitions toward the heavy Wagner roles but switched (encouraged by her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge) to bel canto coloratura – where her voice was arguably oversized and unexpressive but was nevertheless agile, with a pristine accuracy in its placement of the notes (although the diction could be loose), and brilliantly exciting.
Born in Australia, where she made her stage debut in Goossens’ Judith, 1951, she came to London to study at the RCM and was quickly taken up by Covent Garden, singing First Lady/Magic Flute and other small roles in 1952. Progressing to Amelia/Ballo in Maschera and Eva/Meistersinger, she found herself edging into new English repertoire – taking over from Jennifer Vyvyan as Lady Rich/Gloriana on a Royal Opera House tour to Southern Africa in 1953, and starring as another Jennifer in the premiere of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage,1955.
But the previous year, 1954, she had married Bonynge; and the process of redirection toward bel canto had begun. In 1957 she sang Alcina for the Handel Opera Society. And in 1959 she made her name with a landmark ROH performance as Lucia di Lammermoor – a role she would repeat throughout the 1960s in Paris, Milan and New York to international acclaim (although Britten saw fit to parody it in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene of his Midsummer Night’s Dream).
From then on she become one of the world’s most sought-after voices in Donizetti, Handel, Rossini, Bellini and Meyerbeer – in whose Les Huguenots she made her final full-length appearance, at the Sydney Opera House in 1990 (singing Home Sweet Home as an encore).
She was made a Dame in 1979. Unusually for a singer she was also admitted to the elite Order of Merit in 1991. And in 1994 her official biography was published by Norma Major, wife of the Prime Minister.
Robert Tear (1939-2011)
A Welsh lyric tenor whose voice became bigger over time and reached into Wagner, he had a career that was effectively made by Britten but then dropped by Britten. For much the same reasons.
Born the son of a Glamorgan railway clerk, he won a choral scholarship to Kings’ Cambridge in the golden era of David Willcocks, and launched himself in London as an ensemble voice – at St Paul’s Cathedral and with the Ambrosian Singers.
But in the early 1960s he was spotted by Britten and swept into the English Opera Group , initially to understudy Peter Pears in the 1964 premiere of Curlew River but then with roles of his own in the premieres of the other two Church Parables, Burning Fiery Furnace and Prodigal Son. He also took the title role in the EOG-commissioned opera Grace of Todd by Gordon Crosse.
With a voice that fitted neatly into Pears’s mould, it was inevitable that Tear would find himself singing Pears’s roles – but also inevitable that this would generate tensions within Britten’s circle. Throughout the rest of his life he would be cast as Vere, Grimes, Aschenbach (the latter notably at Glyndebourne in 1989, his belated debut there). But the initial closeness of relationship with Britten ended – partly thanks to Tear’s irreverent nature (details of which are documented in his entertaining if indiscreet autobiography Tear Here) but also because of a decision in 1970 to sing the premiere of Tippett’s Knot Garden at the Royal Opera House rather than record the TV premiere of Britten’s Owen Wingrave at Snape Maltings (they clashed).
Fortunately for Tear, Knot Garden led to a continuing relationship with the ROH that brought him successive roles there in the 1970s/80s – generally in German, Russian or British repertoire rather than the classic Italian, which Tear avoided.
Inia Te Wiata (1915-1971)
A Maori bass-baritone, born in New Zealand, he came to London to study at Trinity College of Music, started singing with Sadlers Wells, but was then claimed by Covent Garden where he sang in the 1951 premiere of Billy Budd and 1953 premiere of Gloriana. He also had a career in film and TV during the 1950s.
Eva Turner (1892-1990)
Born (like her near-contemporary William Walton) in Oldham, and following a similar path from northern bluntness to southern gentility, she studied at the RAM and began singing with the Carl Rosa company – in standard rep that ranged from Micaela and Eva to Aida and Brunnhilde.
But the heavier roles won through and led to a career of truly international stature: something rare among English-born voices of her time.
In 1924 Toscanini hired her for his Ring Cycle at La Scala, Milan, singing Sieglinde and Freia. And she then became one of the first Turandots – a role she sang everywhere throughout the 1920s/30s, including Covent Garden.
She retired from the stage in 1948 but worked on as an influential singing teacher through the 1950s/60s – not least, at the Royal Academy where she was known to be forthright with her students.
A legendary figure around whom legends multiplied, she was said to have been the original ‘bouncing Tosca’ – a much-repeated story that concerns what happened when Puccini’s heroine leapt from the battlements, suposedly in a Chicago Lyric Opera show, and landed not as she expected on a mattress but a trampoline. Making unscheduled reappearances before her death. One only hopes that this was true.
Josephine Veasey (b.1930)
A strong, ringing mezzo with good projection, she was born in South London and maintained an international career during the 1950s, 60s, 70s – extending to Vienna, Salzburg and the New York Met but grounded at Covent Garden where she established herself in roles like Cherubino, Dorabella, Eboli. Amneris, Carmen. At Glyndebourne she was a noted Charlotte/Werther and Octavian. And she sang in the 1962 Coventry premiere of Tippett’s King Priam.
Two kinds of repertoire stand out in her CV. Encouraged by Solti, she sang increasing amounts of Wagner, including Fricka, Brangaene and Kundry. But encouraged by Colin Davis she also sang Berlioz: Dido in Les Troyens and Marguerite in Damnation of Faust.
She retired in 1982.
Ian Wallace (1919-2009)
A bass-baritone most comfortable at the higher end of what would be the normal vocal range, he had a gift for comedy that reached beyond opera and concert singing to a wider audience, thanks largely to his success with popular songs like Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud.
The son of an MP, he went to Charterhouse and studied law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge before taking up singing as a career. From the 1940s onwards he was accepting buffo roles for Glyndebourne, then for Sadlers Wells and Scottish Opera – classically in Mozart (Leporello, Bartolo), Rossini (Don Magnifico), and Donizetti (Dulcamara, Don Pasquale).
At the same time he was singing in variety and comedy revue, with one-man shows that flourished from the 1960s. His fame spread with Flanders & Swann numbers like the aforementioned Hippopotamus Song and appearances in the satirical Hoffnung Music Festivals. He crossed over into spoken theatre, as Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream. And there were film roles (Tom Thumb, Porterhouse Blue) as well as regular appearances on TV, singing popular opera arias.
But it was radio that truly made him a household name, with appearances over 27 years on the then very popular My Music programme, never missing a show in the entire output of 520.
Helen Watts (1927-2009)
A Welsh contralto, she became known as a concert singer in the 1950s through radio and the Proms, establishing herself as a calm, rocklike presence in Mahler symphonies, Handel oratorios (as well as stageworks with the Handel Opera Society), and Bach cantatas – especially the more than 40 she recorded under Helmut Rilling with his Stuttgart Bach Collegium.
In 1964 she sang Britten’s Lucretia on an English Opera Group tour of the USSR. And the following year she started singing at Covent Garden, notably in Strauss and Wagner, and making enough of an impression in the famous Solti Ring Cycle recordings to be taken up by Karajan at Salzburg. She retired in 1985.
Walter Widdop (1892-1949)
A Yorkshire-born heldentenor who began life working in a wool-mill, his career-ascent was rapid – making his opera debut as Radames/Aida with the British National company in Leeds in 1923, and singing Siegfried at Covent Garden the following year. Throughout the 1920s/30s he was a mainstay of Wagnerian and other heavy tenor roles at the Garden. In 1936 he sang the UK premiere of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. And he was a presence on the oratorio circuit, singing Handel and Elgar.
He toured internationally, though not to the US. And he was still singing Wagner to the day before his sudden death.