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Paying homage to a heavenly voice – Susan Chilcott

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Soprano Susan Chilcott, who died from cancer last September at the age of 40, was “possessed of a sumptuous and silvery lyric soprano, charged with a radiantly powerful top register”, who garnered “glowing reviews for her powerful acting and beautiful stage presence as well as for the technical excellence of her vocalising”.

Music director of the Royal Opera Antonio Pappano, who knew her well from his days at Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, mourned: “It seems inconceivable that I will no longer be able to make music and create characters with her. She loved to sing and audiences were mesmerised by her radiant stage presence. A real tragedy for opera.”

Indeed it is, especially since after launching her career in 1991 singing Frasquita in Scottish Opera’s Carmen she mainly sang abroad. Her triumphant Ellen Orford (Peter Grimes) at La Monnaie, barely acknowledged in this country, launched an international career which took her to Paris, Geneva, Santa Fe, the New York Met, Cincinatti, Netherlands Opera and back to Brussels to sing Desdemona (Verdi’s Otello), the Composer (Richard Strauss’ Ariadne) and Hermione in Boesman’s Winter’s Tale.

She made her ENO debut in 1995, as a memorable Helena in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then triumphed as the impassioned heroine of Dvorak’s Rusalka. In 1999, her British career really rocketed, starting with a superb Katya (Katya Kabanova) for Scottish Opera (1999), followed by Desdemona at Glyndebourne (2001), a transcendent Lisa (Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades) first for WNO (2001) then for the ROH (2002), then back to WNO to sing her first Jenufa, which The Daily Telegraph’s critic described as “nothing short of sensational”.

Early in her career, she sang Luisa for Opera North in the British première of Roberto Gerhard’s The Duenna (1992), then Penelope, Lady Rich, in the company’s riveting staging of Britten’s Gloriana (1993), her gleaming soprano defiantly riding the ledger lines, notably in the confrontation with Josephine Barstow’s unyielding Elizabeth.

Fittingly, Opera North celebrates her life and art at The Grand, Leeds, on Sunday 25th January with the aptly named A Grand Night Out. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed her in Gloriana, masterminds the evening. Many of Susan Chilcott’s friends and colleagues will sing in tribute, Josephine Barstow, Susan Bullock, Simon Keenlyside, Janis Kelly, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Joan Rodgers, Dennis O’Neill and Anne-Marie Owens among them. The evening’s proceeds will go to the Hugh Chilcott Trust to provide for the young son who survives her. Gratitude for the joy she has given people will surely triumph over gloom.

by David Blewitt

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