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.
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Not being a Wagnerian, I've never heard Gray, and only know her by reputation. The book sounds fascinating though.
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.
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!
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
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.
Spot on, Will. She wasn't exactly a sex kitten. But what she does, no-one can match for solidity and security.
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.
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.
Thanks very much!
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.
Aha, yes, although I have a non-blogging friend who bought the Padmore and hated hated hated it! We are not alone!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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...
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Goodall's Tristan is available through ArkivMusic:
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.
I was in the audience the night she stepped in for Elizabeth Harwood in Glasgow halfway through the performance of Die Meistersinger. It was sensational.
I went back 3 nights later for the next performance - still the same.
Her later Isolde's in Cardiff and London were the best I had heard for a long time and are still as anyone since. What a shame the voice did not last.
Her Tatiana in Onegin was exquisite - in fact I am listening to it as I write.
I have posted a little of the Scottish Meistersinger on YouTube.
just type in her name.
Thanks, slarty. And I see that Eloquence has just reissued the Goodall Tristan on CD (it had one outing some time back). The Liebestod remains the most overwhelming I know, and that includes Flagstad and Nilsson.
This thread appears to have been going on for years - a matter for congratulation, I think! But, as you're still here, perhaps I can mention that Linda Esther Gray and Ian Partridge have produced a book called 'Thoughts Around Great Singing' and it's being launched tomorrow (28 November 2019). There's a complementary website here: https://www.singingtags.com/
The book is intended to elicit discussion. I think it will!
Thanks, Garry. Linda and Ian sent an invitaion so I'll be there.
David, I have recently received a recording of Linda Esther Gray as Isolde in Paris in a concert where she is partnered by Arley Reece and conducted by Matthias Kuntzsch. She is perhaps even more assured in the German text here than on the wonderful Goodall Decca set. And as it's 'live' she is on fire. It's also interesting to hear her working with slightly faster tempi. It's 1983 so at the peak of Linda's career. I was lucky enough to hear her as Kundry and in concert as Sieglinde (Act 1, with Kenneth Woolam). She was completely committed and involved and the voice was radiant and shining. I've never heard the Wesendonck songs with her. They must be gorgeous.
I don't know the other names, and what I especially love about the Goodall is the oceanic quality of the Liebestod. But yes, 'live' was something else for Linda. She sang the Wesendoncks with Haitink at the Proms, and I keep canvassing for that recording to reappear. We were possibly at the same Valyrie Act 1, with Gibson conducting the SNO in Scotland? I remember she outclassed Jessye Norman, who'd done it earlier, in the main season.
Yes, we were at the same concert in the Usher Hall! The Hunding was Roderick Kennedy, and the SNO was in great form under Sir Alex. My first ever exposure to this music live! It's amazing, in the 'Tristan', in Act 1, the violence with which Linda uses the voice when cursing Tristan at the end of the Narration and Curse! She barks! It may have been that the bottom of her voice didn't speak as easily or as openly as some other Wagnerian sopranos - thinking of Flagstad and Varnay, mainly, of course.... but the youthful Irish maiden stands there before us vividly. Of Jessye N, I remember , in the same Usher Hall, hearing an astonishing concert with her and Boulez doing the Berg songs - one of the greatest things I ever heard.
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