20th Century SIngers and Musicians

Sir Peter Neville Luard Pears (1910 - 86)

Sir Peter Pears, born in Farnham, Surrey was a singer of outstanding skill and subtlety who was closely associated with the works of Sir Benjamin Britten. He received a knighthood in 1977.

Pears studied at the University of Oxford, at the Royal College of Music, and then with Elena Gerhardt and Dawson Freer. In 1936 he met Britten, and in 1938 he gave the first of many song recitals with Britten as accompanist. The two men became lifelong companions. In 1942 Pears made his opera debut in London in Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.  He then joined the Sadler’s Wells Opera, where he created the title role in Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945). In 1946 Pears helped Britten found the English Opera Group, and in 1947 they were instrumental in founding the Aldeburgh Festival.

Pears sang in the first performances of all of Britten’s operas, including Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave, and Death in Venice. He also performed notably in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, and much of the Italian operatic repertory as well as in the song cycles of Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert and the Passions of J.S. Bach.

Pears died ar Aldeburgh in 1986.

[Text draws on a biography written by The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica]


Peter Pears (1910 - 86)  ca.1959 Photographer : Lotte Meitner-Graf, London  Original in the Britten-Pears Library.     magnify

Elizabeth Connell (1946 - 2012}

Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, she studied in Britain at the London Opera Centre after studying music in Johannesburg (at the University of Witwatersrand) before becoming a schoolteacher for several years. She continued to study singing, and in 1970 won a scholarship to train at the London Opera Centre. Her coach there was the baritone Otakar Kraus, better known for the succession of great British basses he taught during those years.  After winning the Maggie Teyte prize in 1972 she made her professional debut at the Wexford Festival as Varvara in Kátya Kabanová, a famously effective staging by David Pountney.

The next phase of her career took place in Sydney, where the new Opera House opened in 1973 with a memorable staging of Prokofiev's War and Peace, in which she sang Marya Bolkonskaya. Back in London, she spent several years building up her repertoire of mezzo roles with ENO; a golden period for both her and her many London fans. Particularly outstanding in these years were her girlish, almost flirtatious Sieglinde (Die Walküre), an intensely moving Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) and a stunning Eboli, while the youthfulness of her tone offered new insights into the roles of Amneris (Aida) and the Kostelnicka, the churchwarden's widow (Jenufa). In the Italian Girl in Algiers she displayed impressive coloratura and an unexpected comic gift.

She also made her Covent Garden debut at this time as Viclina in I Lombardi (1976). It was during her three-year stint at Bayreuth at the start of the 1980s that she began to realise that low-lying roles such as Kundry (a part she was covering) were not suitable for her. Reinventing herself as a dramatic soprano, she graced the major international stages – including La Scala, the Metropolitan, Munich, Hamburg, Glyndebourne, Vienna and San Franciso – with a succession of roles in which she demonstrated flawless diction, a dynamic stage personality that verged on the hyperactive and above all an engaging vocal quality.

Between 1975 and 1980 she sang regularly at English National Opera, tackling major roles such as Eboli in Don Carlos, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Judith in Duke Bluebeard's Castle. After singing Ortrud in Lohengrin and Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth (1980-82), she made the switch from mezzo to soprano in 1983, following which she took on a wide range of challenging roles including Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Marie in Wozzeck, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Leonore in Fidelio, Norma, Senta in The Flying Dutchman and Ariadne. Then, just as she might have been expected to begin to wind down, she blossomed in her 60s in immensely taxing roles such as Turandot and Elektra, her voice sounding as youthful as ever.

Over a decade later, by which time she was 62, Connell delighted audiences yet again with her Turandot at Covent Garden (a role she had taken previously in Hamburg, Prague and with Opera Australia). Here once more her voice sounded astonishingly youthful, yet was also notable for its warmth and generosity – a welcome change from the steely tone traditionally evinced by the ice princess. The character she projected was still formidable but also touchingly vulnerable.

[Text based, in part, on an obituary published by The Guardian and material in Opera Scotland.]


Elizabeth Connell (1946 - 2012} 2009. ©Clive Barda   magnify

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