The internationally acclaimed dramatic soprano Elizabeth Connell has died in London, aged 65. Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1946, she took part in student performances of Dido and Aeneas while reading for a music degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and then, while visiting Australia when she was 19, sang with Joan Sutherland in Les contes d'Hoffmann.
After a spell as a schoolteacher, teaching geography ‘to prove to my parents that I could cope with a “proper job”’, she came to Britain in 1970 on a scholarship and studied at the London Opera Centre with Otakar Kraus, in 1972 winning the Maggie Teyte Prize. But, facing union objections as a white South African in London during the apartheid era, she struggled to find work. She eventually made her professional debut – as Varvara (Kát'a Kabanová) – at Wexford in 1972, launching a career which was to last almost 40 years, initially as a mezzo-soprano.
In 1973 the conductor Edward Downes took her to Australia where, in the start of a close relationship with Opera Australia that was to last the rest of her life, she sang Princess Marya in Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Sydney Opera House a month before it was formally opened by the Queen.
In Britain, her real breakthrough came with the attention she received for her performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, under Pierre Boulez, at the First Night of the 1975 Proms. Two months later, she took her portrayal of Princess Marya to the London Coliseum for English National Opera, making her Covent Garden debut the following summer as Viclinda in Verdi’s I Lombardi.
She sang regularly for ENO between 1975 and 1980, where she made her mark in the great Wagnerian mezzo roles – Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung – while her repertoire also included Eboli in Don Carlos, Azucena in Il trovatore, Judith in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. Her Bayreuth debut came in 1980, where, during a three-year spell, she played Ortrud in Lohengrin and Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde. ‘Wagner was the biggest anti-Semite, the biggest womaniser, and he just took money from everybody,’ she was to tell the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997. ‘But his music…puts you on a totally different plane. It’s a drug for me. I just love it.’
Connell made the switch from mezzo to soprano in 1983, following which her repertoire included Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Marie (Wozzeck), Leonore (Fidelio), Norma, Ariadne and, returning to Wagner, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Senta in Der fliegende Holländer. Performing in the world’s major opera houses, she was acclaimed wherever she went.
She sang Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for the opening of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and, in 2004, made a rare return to South Africa to mark the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid in an emotional performance of Fidelio in front of Nelson Mandela at Robben Island. In 2008, she returned to Covent Garden, as the Mother in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel with Thomas Allen and then, stepping in for an indisposed Iréne Theorin, was widely praised for her Turandot, which she went on to perform in Sydney, Hamburg and Prague.
Her final performance was at a concert in Hastings in November where her farewell encore was Ernest Charles’s ‘When I Have Sung my Songs’.
Her many recordings include Rossini's William Tell under Riccardo Chailly, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with Klaus Tennstedt, which won a Gramophone Award in the orchestral category in 1987, Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony with Abbado, Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten (Lothar Zagrosek), Donizetti’s Poliuto and Verdi’s I due Foscari under Lamberto Gardelli, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (Eliahu Inbal), Isolde under Eve Queler, Britten’s Owen Wingrave, conducted by Richard Hickox, and Schubert Lieder with Graham Johnson, as part of Hyperion’s Complete Schubert Edition.