A new web-site has been set up by the singer’s son, Jonathan Crown, and edited by the music-critic Michael White. And there she is: Jennifer Vyvyan, dates, career, photographs, voice. It’s a rather attenuated version of the voice that comes from the computer screen, but it’s unmistakably hers. She’s there all right, and I, to whom this is still all something of a miracle, can report the wonder of it.
Her voice was one of the most distinctive. "Beautiful" is not the first word that comes to mind though a kind of beauty was certainly an element. Clear, even, true, fluid, secure: it was all of those. And something more elusive. It was a voice with knowledge in it. Contrast it with Joan Sutherland’s – they were contemporaries, careers and repertoire sometimes overlapping. If Sutherland’s tone was warm and easeful, a voice for a major key, Vyvyan’s rather discouraged relaxation; it was bright, with a slight edge to it, a squeeze of lemon-juice rather than sugar and cream. And – but this may have come by association – there was a touch of anxiety: not, emphatically not, arising from any uncertainty about voice or technique but a token of humanity.
The association is, of course, with The Turn of the Screw. The role of the Governess was her part: she "created" it in the world-premiere at Venice, she sang it again in the first British performances and in the first recording. For all who know that recording (1955, Britten conducting) hers is the voice "heard" whenever the Governess’s phrases come to mind, no matter who may be singing them at the time. “Very soon I shall know”, “Who is it, who?”, “Lost in my labyrinth”, “What have we done between us?”: from first to last, the phrases are inseparable from this one voice.
That is there on the web-site too, along with photographs (Peter Pears in his unbecoming red wig, David Hemmings perhaps not everybody’s idea of the lovely boy). Reviews of the first night (the Italians, critics and public, not knowing quite what to make of it), early British press cuttings (the popular press, which took some interest in such things in those days, seized on rumours of a jinx on the ghost-haunted opera): these too. From the early days of her career, when she first joined the English Opera Group, it was clear that Vyvyan had the kind of soprano voice (and musical background) that best suited Britten. He would say that he normally disliked what people called “a beautiful voice”, and hers was a voice which, while possessing certain beautiful qualities, was essentially a voice of character, a voice for the mind.
He cast her first as Jenny Driver in his adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera and then as the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia. In Gloriana she was the original Lady Rich, a remarkable study in edgy pride. Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream was designed for her (and Britten’s letter inviting her to sing in the premiere is on view), while roles in Albert Herring (Miss Wordsworth and later Lady Billows) appealed to her sense of humour. In the television opera Owen Wingrave her part was Mrs Julian, probably allotted with an oblique reference to her upbringing (West country gentry, father an army officer, dying gallantly after completing his innings in a cricket match). And there were the non-operatic works, most notably the Spring Symphony, from which we also hear an except.
So, we have to ask, is this the future? The desire to commemorate an artist is now to lead not to the publishing-house but to the internet? Certainly there would have been plenty of material here for a book, and the book need not have been silent for several biographies have been published in recent years with a CD attached. Many of the older generation will feel uncomfortable with such a notion of things to come: for one thing, they (and I hope not only they) will say, it discourages the concept of literature and reduces reading to fact-finding and casual skimming. But there’s no doubt about its usefulness in research. I gained access to jennifervyvan.org on a friend’s computer, and, as I watched the owner coping like a saint with spasms of exasperation where the thing suddenly went crazy or refused to move at all, I reflected that, doing it the traditional way, I would probably be at that moment on a bus to the newspaper library at Colindale or twiddling my thumbs as I waited for the required volume to be retrieved from the bowels. I’m grateful.
Back to firmer ground. The Jennifer Vyvyan site has 17 "chapters" or sections. One, for instance, is headed "Cold War Diplomacy" and refers to the visit organised by Sir Arthur Bliss to the Soviet Union in 1956. There is another on films and another on the scholarships endowed in her name. A full chronology of engagements has been supplied largely by reference to the singer’s extremely full diaries. Record reviews (some from Gramophone) are selectively reproduced. Among personal information is some relating to the asthmatic, bronchial illnesses which eventually led to her death at the age of 49. And – another strength of this form of publication – an open invitation to provide additional information is extended.
And, at regular intervals, we hear the sound of that strangely haunting voice, in Handel, Mozart, Britten, sending us back to the "real" records, which we can still hold in our hands, put on the turntable and listen to on as good a system of reproduction as we have managed to acquire. Her voice – and the irreplaceable human being it represents – enters our head, where its existence becomes part of the most mysterious virtual reality of all.
Jennifer Vyvyan website: jennifervyvan.org