Saturday, 5 December 2009

Curtain up: Linda Esther Gray



I only had to mention the name of Linda Esther Gray at the end of the last blog entry, and within minutes Will popped up from America exclaiming 'now THERE was a voice'. I have a feeling this could trigger many more homages. In fact the reason I caught up again with Linda, who taught J for several years and took him to sing to the late, great Charles Craig (now THERE was another voice...), was because I've recently read her autobiography.

Linda published A Life Behind Curtains herself several years ago because she didn't want any editing. And I can see why: it's an incredibly daring literary experiment, blending flashbacks, dream sequences and extraordinary candour in a story unlike any other. Of course, I feel it could now be taken on by a bigger publisher and then we'd have it proofed a bit more thoroughly. But otherwise not a word needs to be changed. The unflinching honesty is painful at times. This is the tale of one extraordinary Greenock lady's journey towards being one of the greatest Isoldes ever, and the shocking aftermath of a life-saving operation which undercut an instinctive technique as well as her confidence and eventually led to a catastrophic vocal demise. It's also, which we all like, a story of battling through painfully to a greater humanity and a generosity in communicating her lessons to others.

I can't recall going backstage as a student to collect the autograph of anyone else I'd never heard of before. But back in the early 1980s I was moved to do so in Linda's case because she was the second of two Sieglindes in Scottish National Orchestra performances of Wagner's Die Walkure Act One. The first had been Jessye Norman, imposing but rather mezzoid and, as so often, occasionally flat up top. Then along came Linda, and I was knocked sideways by the vocal beauty as well as the sheer power which went hand in glove with expressive urgency. Later I saw her Isolde in the Goodall ENO Tristan. It was wonderful, but in my late teens I still hadn't 'got' the whole message of that opera (Chereau's Bayreuth centenary Ring, which we used to watch on telly an act a week, had a more immediate impact).

It's unfortunate that Linda reached her full artistic majesty at a time when operas were filmed far less frequently than now. Even on CD all we have - and it's quite a big 'all' - are her Isolde for Goodall, breathtaking, and her Ada in the Sawallisch Munich performances of Wagner's early opera Die Feen. Having now heard her Proms Wesendonck Lieder with Haitink and an affecting Desdemona Willow Song, I'm hoping BBC Legends will bite the bullet. But we'll see.

Anyway, many heartfelt exchanges passed after I'd read the book, culminating in Linda's visit to my City Lit Opera in Focus class. She joined the class Xmas lunch round the corner at PJ's in Drury Lane - this none too flattering-to-me photo kindly taken by Nick Spence is the only one in full focus -


and then held the floor for two hours. She could have talked for twice as long, and covered not only amazing chapter and verse on technique which I couldn't provide but also her current work on a biography of her teacher and close friend Dame Eva Turner.

This was apt because of course we've just finished six weeks on Turandot and Dame Eva's 'In questa reggia' had been central. The photo of her below, I'm now informed, first appeared on Lisa Hirsch's website, and is owned by her.


Linda told us how the lassie from Lancashire had been present at Toscanini's world premiere, and how well she knew Alfano, the much-maligned composer who completed the final scene, from Turin days. It's a daunting line of continuity, from contact with Nellie Melba and Rosa Ponselle to Linda's own bel canto teaching. Listen to the tracks on her singbelcanto website: they start with a stunning 'Dich teure halle'. Dame Eva's Puccini is history; but so too is Linda's Wagner. There's only Christine Brewer in the world today to match her, and we're looking forward to going together to hear her on Thursday with great Sir Charles.

23 comments:

jondrytay said...

Not being a Wagnerian, I've never heard Gray, and only know her by reputation. The book sounds fascinating though.

David said...

Well, Wagnerian or not, you could do worse than just try out the Tannhauser track by clicking on the website.

The Liebestod on the Decca Goodall set, though is transcendent. Are you telling me even the staunchest anti-Wagnerian wouldn't melt at that?

As for the book, well, it needs some adjusting to. And then it just gets more and more extraordinary. I felt punched in the stomach reading of the circumstances around the op and of Reggie's and Harewood's awfulness in the time of need.

Will said...

Charles Craig was indeed a voice, but not quite the voice for the only role in which I experienced him live--Arturo in Puritani opposite Sutherland in Boston, 1964. The top just wasn't there but he was very brave all night as the notes cracked and crashed.

Now, Dame Eva--THERE was a . . . etc. I have a recording of the big Triumphal Scene from Aida with Turner that was made in Italy--Rome, if I remember correctly. It's preceded by an excerpt from an interview in which she commented on how the recording was made. Big voices were always kept somewhat away from the microphones for fear of distortion. She said that she was placed way back--almost against the back wall of the stage, she claimed--while everybody else was up front, "but I am proud to tell you that you can hear me perfectly clearly on the recording." I thought, Honey, they could have heard you clearly back in Oldham!

David said...

Shame you caught Craig on a bad night, but at least you did catch him (I never did). Well, he did leave behind an amazing debut disc of arias ('Fame in a Night') and his ENO Otello on Chandos is very fine indeed, though your nastier compatriots may sneer.

I think that's the same voice of Dame Eva I have at the beginning of an EMI disc. She made her little speech at 97 to celebrate her reincarnation on CD, and every word is crrrrrystal clearrrr, dearrr. Linda said if she hadn't broken her hip, she would have made the century and beyond.

Then comes a beauty of a Leonora (Act 4 of Trov) aria, the final piano top floated beautifully with such a portamento downwards

Will said...

I have the Covent Garden Turandot excerpts and a disc of arias from Dame Eva. It's tremendously impressive but a bit monumental for some roles. Listening to her Un bel di, I thought that if HER Cio-cio-san discovered Pinkerton had cheated on her, she could probably have sent him flying all the way back to his ship with one whack from the back of her hand. Impressively sung, though--she had the goods in abundance.

David said...

Spot on, Will. She wasn't exactly a sex kitten. But what she does, no-one can match for solidity and security.

Lisa Hirsch said...

A request: if you're going to use photos from my personal web site - like the signed Turner photo above - please link directly to them and credit me as the owner of the original. Thanks.

-- Lisa
Lisa Hirsch

David said...

Apologies if I didn't check the source, Lisa (this is one of several Turner pics I'd saved, and I think I meant to use another), but I'm happy to link.

Even so, a friendly word from a fellow blogger never goes amiss.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks very much!

David said...

You're welcome, Lisa - a colleague in Apollo, to be sure, as I think we're rare in taking issue with the Padmore Winterreise; nearly everyone else has gone crazy about it. I even have a problem with the watery playing of Paul Lewis.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Aha, yes, although I have a non-blogging friend who bought the Padmore and hated hated hated it! We are not alone!

Paul Casey said...

Linda Esther Gray recorded the best Isolde after the classic Furtwangler set with Ms. Flagstad. Ms. Gray's liebstod is by far the most visceral performance on disc. Indeed after hearing Ms. Gray all other divas pale. Nilsson is too shrill I find. Thank God we have Goodall's recording og Ms. Gray's amazing Isolde.

David said...

I agree with every word, Paul - especially the more I hear it (and I've listened to it a lot since I finally got hold of the recording).

gervaise said...

What a lovely piece.And please lobby the BBC to release her recordings including her last appearance at the Proms when she sang a wild and possessed 'Luonnotar'.I was trying to explain to my companion at the Philarmonia's Tristan that I have heard many good Isolde's including Nilsson,but only one truly great one-by Linda Esther Gray.Her beautiful sound and her passionate involvement made me think of Willa Cather's description of her sublime Wagnerian heroine in 'The Song of the Lark'.Gray was potentially one of the most remarkable singers of our time.

David said...

I would argue more than potential, Gervaise, since the more I hear it, the more I'm convinced that she fulfilled the conditions of an ideal Isolde on that Goodall recording. Not normally a Reggie fan myself, but the way he peaks the Liebestod makes it the greatest.

gervaise said...

Yes,of course you are right.She fulfilled that potential superbly as Isolde.What I wanted to say was if she had continued in that vein she would have greater recognition throughout the world.I expressed myself badly.What she did was great and she is part of history,and the BBC Legends should take note and spread the word.

Arachne said...

I have just finished "Curtain Up". It is a brave and moving account. It would have benefited from a few cuts and some copy-editing and proofreading, but its author's sheer honesty and her courage in documenting her voice loss, in detail, where others might have glossed over those parts and dwelt longer on the good times, make it fascinating to read and possibly unique among divas' autobiographies. I look forward to reading her biography of Eva Turner.

David, I don't know if you remember, but I copyedited your book on opera for Marshall Cavendish many years ago!

David said...

So you must be Corinne, rather than Arachne - and very glad I am that you have expanded to diva status rather than shrivelled to a spider, as did that unfortunate Greek lady, if I remember rightly.

Linda's book on Dame Eva is due out imminently. I insisted on my own, I hope thorough, copy-editing this time...

Arachne said...

Indeed I am Corinne. Well remembered! (my blogging pseudonym of Arachne chosen only because of the many networks and strange connections that the web in general and blogging in particular are apt to weave.)

What a coincidence about your input into Linda's biography of Dame Eva. I shall look forward to reading it even more. Do let us know here when it comes out.

Luis Marquez said...

Hi everybody! I heard the astonishing Linda Esther Grey in Mexico City singing Fidelio. She was by far THE MOST IMPRESSIVE VOICE WE HAD HEARD IN YEARS IN MY COUNTRY. And believe me, we had the greatest all over the century! I am very happy to know that she is well and alive! If anyone has recordings of her I would love to hear them!
Many thanks in advance! Luis Marquez marqster@gmail.com

David said...

Luis (if I may), you can hear a good few tracks of Linda's greatest hits on her website, Sing Bel Canto - http://www.singbelcanto.com/ - and I'm sure she would help you with any further enquiries.

I've been campaigning for years to get her Proms Wesendonck Lieder with Haitink transferred commercially to CD, so far without success. And I believe her Isolde for Goodall Tristan is no longer in the catalogues, but you may well find a secondhand copy of the CD set somewhere.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Goodall's Tristan is available through ArkivMusic:

http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Name/Linda-Esther-Gray/Performer/49351-2

David said...

Thanks, Lisa - shame we only ever meet over Dame Eva and Linda. I do drop in to admire your site from time to time.

And now, of course, Linda's book on her mentor has long been out and is a mine of useful information. Bumped into LEG and husband Peter at Glyndebourne - private faces in a public place especially welcome. But we haven't been at each other's homes for ages - Linda took up Dame Eva's former teaching post in Oklahoma and was then in Cyprus with Peter for a while. Time to drop her a line.