Sunday, October 25, 2009

RIP Helen Watts (1927-2009)

(The Sapphic Ode by Brahms.)

A great contralto passed on recently without much fanfare. Helen Watts was a singer too unassuming to be much remembered in singer lore. Singers like her go out, night after night for decades, and attend to the serious business of artistic realization as discreetly as possible. We often remember operatic stars more for what great roles and songs bring to their personas. No doubt Pavarotti will be remembered more for the times which he assumed roles like the Duke of Mantua and Mario Cavaradossi. But it was most likely tenors such as Alfredo Kraus and Carlo Bergonzi who turned a greater number of audience members into opera lovers by deflecting their attention to the music being presented.

("Oh Man, Take Heed." Mahler gives Nietzsche a much more beautiful setting for contralto and orchestra than perhaps Nietzsche's ideas ever deserved. I like to think Mahler was much more inspired by Nietzsche the seductive prose stylist than he ever was by the protofascism of his ideas - but I'd probably be wrong. The 4th movement of Mahler's 3rd Symphony. Helen Watts sings with the London Symphony under the baton of the legendary Georg Solti.)

Watts was a singer who matured in the first generation of international opera stars from England. A Welsh contralto, even one of her capabilities, would have found herself confined to a career of amateur chorus festivals at which she would purvey Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn, all in English, to subpar orchestral accompaniment. But Watts had the good fortune to rise in an era when the contralto's role was expanding, as was the English taste for international opera. She found herself not only the darling of Georg Solti's Royal Opera, but also of Herbert von Karajan's operatic feifdoms in Vienna and Salzburg, and even one of Benjamin Britten's chosen few allowed into the fold of the "Aldburgh Mafia." Britten would tailor-compose imperishable art around the specific talents of his favorite singers, unless the singer showed insufficient regard for Britten's word as law, in which case they were summarily expelled without permit for return. But that never happened to Watts. And so for a surprisingly long period, Watts found herself the reigning contralto of European opera: constantly as in demand for Wagner, Verdi and Strauss as much as Handel and Bach. She never became one of those legendarily formidable British matriarchs among singers like Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker, but she managed all the same a career of breath and distinction which put her solidly in the top tier of British singers during the British Golden Age.

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