Turning Tortures into Triumphs: In a New Biographical Study, Author James Neufeld Recounts Soprano Lois Marshall's Operatic Encounters with Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham

Article excerpt

IN 1956, Lois Marshall got the break that eventually introduced her to European audiences and propelled her career onto the worldwide stage. Sir Thomas Beecham was one of the most flamboyant and popular British conductors of the 20th century, famous for his wealthy background (he was the heir to the Beecham Pills fortune), his wit and the women in his life. A 1935 Beecham recording of the final act of La boheme had moved Lois so deeply when she was a young student. At the time of that recording, Beecham was estranged from his first wife, in a long-standing relationship with Lady Cunard, who raised funds for some of his musical ventures, and conducting an affair with his Mimi in the recording, Ria Perli, who had a son by him. The Lady Beecham whom Lois would meet in 1956 was yet another woman, a pianist named Betty Humby, whom Beecham had married in 1943 after both he and Humby had obtained divorces from their uncooperative spouses in Idaho City, Idaho, outside British jurisdiction.


Beecham had a prolific recording career, and by early 1956 had nearly completed a recording of Handel's oratorio, Solomon, with the beloved British singer Elsie Morrison as one of the two sopranos. He had omitted the other soprano part, claiming to be unsatisfied with any of the singers at his disposal in Europe at the time. (According to Maureen Forrester, Beecham delighted in leaving major recording projects unfinished in this way, part of an ongoing vendetta with his recording company.) While on a North American tour in the first months of 1956, he contacted Lois and invited her to come to Cleveland to audition for the role in Solomon. She squeezed the trip into her touring schedule and won the recording contract. Then, in March 1956, Beecham came to Toronto to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It is likely on this visit that he contacted Lois a second time and invited her to audition for another of his projects, a recording of Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. He had been looking, he said, for a soprano for the part of Konstanze, the dramatic heroine, for 25 years. Lois had major bookings in San Francisco and Minneapolis at the end of the month, but again, she shoehorned the audition into her schedule.

It took place at a Toronto church, with Weldon Kilburn [her coach, accompanist and, later, her husband] providing accompaniment. Lois had been singing one of Konstanze's big arias, "Martern aller Arten," since at least 1948, when she performed it at Massey Hall in the Royal Conservatory's annual closing concert, an audacious choice for a 23-year-old student. The title translates freely as "Tortures of All Sorts," and for all but the most accomplished singers it can be pure torture to sing. Lois didn't know the rest of the opera, however, so she swotted up another of Konstanze's arias and went to the audition with two of the three major solos under her belt, memorized as usual. After taking her through her prepared material, Beecham asked her to sing the third aria as well, brushing over her objections that she had never looked at it. "Never mind. Sing it anyway. We'll then find out what kind of a sight-reader you are." With only one score between them, Lois had to peer awkwardly over Weldon's shoulder while they both sight-read the aria. Beecham offered her the recording contract at the conclusion of the audition.

With two recording projects for Beecham lined up, Lois took her first trip to Europe in the spring and summer of 1956. Most of May was spent in recording sessions with Sir Thomas. In the case of Solomon, it was simply a matter of recording Lois's solo tracks with the orchestra, since the rest of the work had already been recorded in two separate sessions in November and December 1955. Lois was somewhat surprised by Beecham's casual informality. Time did not seem to be an issue, and he was always ready to digress for a joke or an anecdote. However, for the Abduction recording sessions the opera's full forces assembled in London's Kingsway Hall--the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Beecham Choral Society, Sir Thomas accompanied by Lady Beecham, and the vocal soloists, Lois, Ilse Hollweg, fellow Canadian Leopold Simoneau (already acknowledged as one of the supreme Mozart interpreters of his day), Gerhard Unger and Gottlob Frick. …


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