“You wrote a letter to my wife”.
He was standing on my parents’ doorstep, a short, tubby man who must have been about 40. I had opened the door, not knowing him from Adam, and was – well – a bit taken aback by his opening line. I’d never been in the habit of writing to other men’s wives and don’t suppose I ever will be.
But his tone was not hostile, suspicious, threatening or worried. He suppressed a mild giggle as he held out a plastic carrier bag, promptly explaining that his wife was Rita Hunter, a dramatic soprano whose fame was rapidly growing through her performance as Brünnhilde in the production of Wagner’s cycle The Ring of the Nibelung which the nascent English National Opera company was building over a period of years.
This was 1972 and, a starstruck student aged 19, I had attended a performance of Twilight of the Gods, the climactic final opera in the cycle. She was so good that I’d done what I virtually never do and written an extravagant fan letter, addressing it to her at the London Coliseum where the production was on. Her husband John Darnley was the man now standing, a few days later, on my parents’ doorstep, while I gawped awkwardly with my jaw on the floor. I didn’t even invite him in, though I think I might have remembered to say thank you.
The package contained two signed photographs, one of which now hangs in my apartment, with a chatty letter inviting me to tea – it turned out they lived about five minutes from the house I’d grown up in, in the unprepossessing west London suburb of Northolt. “Never had a fan who lived so close”.
I never knew. Funny, really. Rita was not the kind of lady you would easily miss in the street. Built on the traditional Wagnerian scale, she conformed to all the stereotypes of a substantial soprano, but never stretched credibility by taking on roles where she would be expected to run round the stage, wear trousers or die of a wasting disease. All the stereotypes – apart from the grandeur. Homely and agreeable, she was the easiest person to approach – just as well when I nervously phoned her (“Miss Hunter? I’m … um …um …”) to fix the tea date. Tea consisted of the three of us wading into a huge pile of cream cakes. We chatted amiably about opera and stuff, and they extended an open invitation to meet them at the Stage Door when I went to the Coliseum in future, for a lift home which was hardly out of their way.
Of course I took them up on that several times, defying the sceptical doormen and wedging myself into the back of the tiny VW Beetle driven by John – himself not one of Nature’s lightweights but an all round good bloke. Alongside me would be their small daughter Mairwyn, pleased I think to have company on the 40 minute journey. When we got back to their house John would cook his wife a substantial plate of steak and chips, offer some critical comments on the evening’s performance, then take me off for a pint in The Plough, a few doors away.
They were happy nights. I went back for tea and once she presented me with two copies of her first recorded LP – Wagner scenes with her stage partner, fellow Liverpudlian Alberto Remedios. Eventually, as Rita’s career developed, they moved to a big house in Thames Ditton. No more lifts from then on, and the last time I saw them was at their New Year’s Eve party in 1974, when they invited me to bring down friends from the Gallery at the Coliseum. We had a laugh spotting the various species of florid opera follower, and the odd lyric tenor, who had attached themselves to her over the years. Mairwyn banged the gong at midnight, huge trays of homemade pasta went round, and Rita treated us to typically vivacious performances of On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep and a favourite of hers, Smilin’ Through.
Rita and family later moved to Australia, where her larger-than-life personality made her popular on TV while she continued her stage career across the world – though not, sadly, very much in the UK, where the opera establishment may have been more aware of her social than her musical class. She died in 2001 aged 67, having lost John suddenly seven years earlier.
How would I describe her voice? Strong lyric, with a cast iron technique mirrored by an edge of metal in the sound, enabling her to cut effortlessly through the vast Wagnerian orchestra, riding the huge waves of sound from the brass. What made it different from your average heroic soprano was the solid grounding in, and absolute commitment to, the Italian bel canto style. So she, and the other singers recruited for that legendary Ring production by the Wagner specialist Reginald Goodall, produced a unique beauty of sound and style which must have been close to that originally envisaged by the composer himself – who had after all (by definition) heard only Italian-type singers, Wagner specialists having not yet been invented.
Rita was as round as the globe but not a tall woman. Even so she had a commanding stage presence. She never overdid the theatricals, but like many larger-than-average people she was amazingly light on her feet. She lacked the stature conventionally expected of a goddess or a queen on stage, but she had the requisite grace and – dare I say it? – nobility. I don’t think any films exist of those Wagner performances but you can easily hear them on Spotify or find the CDs on Amazon. There’s also a good selection of videos on YouTube. Try them. I hope you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
A bit of a story. I don’t generally meet famous people, still less get to call them friends. But there’s a theme here to which I will return in other posts: ‘classical’ music is usually performed with little or no direct contact between the performers and their audience. They come on, bow, settle, perform, get up, shake hands with each other, bow, wave and disappear. My lovely partner complains about this quite rightly, unable to see what the harm would be in their just saying hi, or thank you, or even (heavens!) saying a few words about the music.
Yes, they speak only through their music, and may have a point – but they don’t speak any the less when some kind of connection is made. Maybe a performer speaks from the stage and engages the audience. Maybe you make polite conversation with them at the Stage Door. Maybe you get to climb into their VW Beetle, wolf their cream cakes and join in a rendition of On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep.
Every little helps. And I have some truly happy memories.