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.