Cathy Pope: The teachers of my Student Years.Below are some of the teachers who inspired me during my student years to whom I owe so much.
Else Mayer-Lismann MBE (1914 - 1990)
My teacher Ruth Packer made a habit of sending me outside the college to other courses and to work with other musicians in my third and fourth year at College. She sent me to The Else Mayer-Lismann Opera School which took place in a hall in High street Kensington on Thursday evening and Saturday mornings. I seemed to have some sort of scholarship to go there. Every year Else would take the Purcell room and give a showcase of her students. I sang Se il Padre Perdei from Mozart's Idomeneo in that showcase when I was around about 21. It was great experience.
Else's mother was a music historian. When one of Richard Strauss's operas was due to open she would sit at the piano and play parts of the score and give the pre performance lecture. Indeed she was the lecturer for the Salzburg Festival. Else could remember Richard Strauss, he was a family friend.
The first time I met Else was in a class at the Royal College of music. In walked this woman looked us all over in silence and then delivered the line 'So, you all wanted to be opera singers!' whereupon she just threw her head back and laughed. Then she asked when any of us had last gone to a gallery, an art gallery that is...was it last week or the week before? No one put their hands up and then she laughed even more. It was a performance.
There is a book called Safe Passage by Ida Cook. This is the most wonderful book for anyone to read and particularly for anyone interested in opera. Ida and her sister Louise heard the great singers of their day including the wonderful Ponselle. This book is also a true and extraordinary story of espionage. Ida and Louise rescued Jews from the heart of Nazi Germany. The first people they brought out were Else Mayer-Lismann and her mother.
My memory of Else is of a woman with such reverence for music and huge understanding of what was behind of it. Her large eyes would light up, fired with truth and humanity and imagination. She was larger-than-life. Hers was a grand notion and all encompassing view of art. I visited her in the Marston hospital not long before she died. 'I have lived longer than Mozart what more do I want' she said, but, I wish she was still here. It would be wonderful to talk to her. I would learn much more from her now than I ever did then. But I know that the way she talked about singing, opera and art enriched me and taught me to understand that which was expected of me as an artist and now as a teacher. It set a very high bar.
Ruth Packer (1910 - 2005)
Anthony Hocking who was my teacher at school recommended that I ask to go to Ruth Packer and luckily for me she took me on. Ruth Packer was my singing teacher at the Royal College of music.
She skilfully shaped my student years always making sure I sang the right repertoire at each stage of my development. She had a favourite exercise. In fact it is the only exercise I remember her giving me (There must have been others). It was 13243546564534231271. She would take this right up from the bottom right up into my head and explain the importance of having this feeling of 'uh' in my throat. (This if from Italian school and a way of explaining the laryngeal tip - the sensation that allows the vocal cords to lengthen as the pitch goes through middle voice to the upper passaggio and on). Ruth studied at the Royal Academy of Music and then went abroad to Vienna. I do not know exactly with whom, but I understood that for two years she studied with someone who only allowed her to sing one exercise and nothing else. Perhaps the one above was it.
There was always an accompanist in my lessons. Ruth used to sit on the windowsill when she was teaching. I remember once I sang a piece which I had discovered, probably a Strauss song. I had been at the College about a term I would think. She chuckled and it was obvious by her evident amusement that I overstepped. The song was too big for me. I just decided to put that aside and sing something else. The message was rather clear! Do not sing what you are not ready for and what does not suit you.
I have such a picture of her sitting on that window sill, I can see her now peering at me knowingly through her thick glasses, always in a tweed skirt, a white shirt and her white hair in a chignon.
She never made vague hand movements indicating space somewhere or other. A good thing really as that sort of thing has never helped me.
Ruth had this way of turning her head from side to side opening and shutting her mouth releasing her jaw as I sang. I used to think she looked a bit like a fish, but it was catching and pretty soon my jaw and my neck released too.
Her understanding of singing was profound and everything she did and said helped me gradually gain understanding of that which was expected of me. She had faith in me and must have put a lot of time and effort into working out the best path forward. I owe her a great deal.
Like other singers of her generation the war interrupted her career. Covent Garden was closed. She sang for Sadlers Wells and the Carl Rosa Company. She was a Verdi soprano singing the great dramatic roles in operas such as Aida, Nabucco and Trovatore.
Being very short-sighted, she would have to learn the set so as not to bump into anything and never did see the conductor from the stage. She was a great musician as well as a great singer.
Ruth talked a lot about being on stage. I learnt a lot from her about what to do when you are not singing as much as when you are. I stayed at the College for five years. I did not go to the opera school. This would have been the logical thing to do, but for some reason I did not feel attracted to going there. I did not know why and Ruth did not press me to go. So I stayed at the College for another fifth year. Perhaps this was a bit of a headache for Ruth as she had to think what to do with me. Instead she sent me to Arthur Hammond and Else Mayer Lismann's opera school and I also sang roles for a couple of small opera companies. After I finished college I had a year out during which I auditioned and got into the National Opera studio. Soon after Ruth married again and went to live in Portugal. We lost touch.
I never did have a relationship with any other teacher that helped me technically that endured beyond a few months. I think you are very lucky if you do.
Alastair Graham was my coach at college and he was the most wonderful musician and pianist. He was short in stature with a gorgeous impish smile that lit up his whole face. When you sang something that pleased him he would leap off his piano stool and practically jump round the room and his eyes twinkled. His enthusiasm and energy were unbounded. It was with Alistair Graham and Ruth Packer that I put together recital programs. Alistair really managed to bring out the best in me. He appealed to my imagination, to find a subtext to everything that I sang and be thinking in the moment and focused on where I was going musically and emotionally. I could not get away with anything less in his lessons. I owe a lot of my early success in competitions to him.
I noticed that The Royal College of Music now have "The Alastair Graham Accompanist Prize".
Arthur Hammond (1904-1991) was another teacher that Ruth Packer sent me to outside the College. Arthur had been music director and conductor of the Carl Rosa Company. He was also a musicologist and worked for Covent Garden from around in 1965 to 1988. He had a little apartment opposite the stage door. We would go to a practice room and he would work with me. Arthur's flat and the practise rooms all disappeared in the development of Covent Garden that took place a few years later.
His knowledge was huge and he was very exact about what he wanted. At that time I couldn't really do all that he was asking of me musically but he gave me the enormous benefit of his exacting understanding of Bel Canto. He would always give me a lovely tea afterwards in his flat. There would always be these little dark chocolate biscuits which had the tower of London and Buckingham Palace painted on them in white chocolate. It was all very calming. He would talk about music and stage craft, Stanislavsky.... and so on. He used to tell me how the shows were going. Arthur was fond of saying how important it was not to get sucked into any professional pettiness and gossip. One of his favourite things to say was 'Always rise above it dear'
Denys Darlow was a professor at the Royal College of music. He was also the founder of the London Handel Festival at St George's Hanover Square and the Tilford Bach Festival. Dennis gave me so many opportunities to perform as a soloist when I was still at college at Tilford and in St George's Hanover Square and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I was a soprano soloist for him in oratorios, Bach cantatas and little known Handel cantatas.
Ruth would sometimes come and hear me perform if she was in London. At one concert at St George's Hanover Square she said to me that she thought I looked a bit pale before I started singing. It was a fiendishly difficult piece which was not in print. I had the full score in front of me on a big music stand. I had to sing many long runs one after another which I managed fine so long as I didn't take my eye off the music. I also accepted to sing other pieces very similar. Denys dug out these little-known works and was partly responsible for the Handel revival. I was lucky that he chose me to be a part of it. I was around nineteen or twenty. Singing and performing all this Bach and Handel professionally, at a young age, must have helped me in all sorts of ways. I only wish other singers to have the same opportunities that I did.
Duchy Opera and Opera Integra
I sang Pamina for Duchy opera in 1979. Everyone was so wonderfully kind to me and it was a great learning curve.
I also sang Eurydice (Gluck) for Opera Integra in 1980 for Brian Galloway - another wonderful opportunity. Both these opera companies are still going successfully, continuing to give young singers opportunities.
National Opera Studio
I went to the National Opera Studio in 1981. It was the springboard of my career. Michael Langdon was director when I was there. He was a lovely man and had such a very good sense of humour.
It was a time to consolidate and learn in a very nurturing environment with wonderful musicians and producers. It was John Copley who spotted me there. He gave me my first opportunity. I made my debut singing Sophie in John Copley's production of Werther at the ENO with Charles Mackerras conducting in 1982.