Obituary: Helen Watts, contralto

Gramophone23rd Oct 2009
Helen Watts, contraltoHelen Watts, contralto

Helen Watts was a singer of that best British school which, with the initial gift of a fine voice, learns the business and does the job, is hardly ever known to miss a beat or fluff an entry, and ends up being taken for granted. To the record-buying public she was a regular and reliable part of the LP scene, and when given a chance – as in the premier recording of Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea – she rose to the occasion nobly.

She was 81 at the time of her death, born in Wales at Milford Haven on December 7, 1927. From an early age she played the piano and was fond of music, but her professional ambition was to qualify as a psychotherapist. Instead, she enrolled at the Royal Academy, studied with Caroline Hatchard and joined the BBC Singers. She first became known as a soloist in association with Bach, first in broadcasts, then, in 1955, appearing at a Promenade concert conducted by Sargent.

Another early success on radio was won when she sang the role of Orpheus in the opera by Gluck. Regular appearances with the newly formed Handel Opera Society led to guest performances in Berlin and Halle. She also sang in the USSR in the title role of The Rape of Lucretia in the English Opera Group’s tour of 1964, Britten himself conducting. She sang Mozart and Richard Strauss in Salzburg, and in New York Delius and Mahler. At Covent Garden her roles included Erda in the Ring, Mrs Sedley in Peter Grimes and Madame Sosostris in Midsummer Marriage. To these she added Mistress Quickly in Falstaff with the Welsh National Opera, singing with the Company till 1983. In all of this time she was a sought-after soloist in performances of oratorio throughout Britain and sustained a busy schedule of other concert work. Official recognition came with her award of a CBE in 1978.

Of her recordings, Gramophone’s critics (like most others) invariably wrote with admiration and respect – and they had plenty to be respectful about. Nearly 20 volumes of Bach cantatas are enriched by her participation; she was a stalwart principal in the early Handel opera recordings on L’Oiseau-Lyre, and her Sorceress was generally considered worthy of a better setting than the Vanguard recording of Dido and Aeneas under Deller. She was the “dependable, sympathetic” Ursula in both of the early versions in Béatrice et Bénédict (David Cairns’ words in Opera on Record Vol 2) and sings “nobly” (mine in Vol 3) as the bereaved mother in Riders to the Sea.

There was much else, including a fine performance as the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius, which in the 1976 recording under Boult does find a worthy setting. A notable absence is a representative solo recital, and it must be admitted that the Frauenliebe und Leben on L’Oiseau-Lyre does not recommend her as a particularly responsive Lieder singer. One returns to that death-haunted old woman in what is surely Vaughan Williams’ operatic masterpiece. As long as the waves continue to wash against the desolate Arran coastline, listeners who come to know the opera in that still unequalled recording will hear in their minds the voice of Helen Watts.

John Steane

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