Sunday, February 19, 2012

ELIZABETH CONNELL MEMORIES


She was one of the few singers with whom I felt a relationship. She filled the stage or concert platform with a compelling presence and the most beautiful voice of seemingly unlimited reserves. She radiated warmth, sincerity, commitment, and a trust in herself. There wasn't ever arrogance or airs and graces or pretense, but an awareness of her gift and an honesty that came though in all she delivered. And for what she delivered to me, and to the world, I can only resort to the obvious - gratitude.

Her agent's biography and this 2008 London interview with Jim Pritchard give good insight into the woman, the singer, and the career. Obituaries in the Telegraph here and The Australian/The Times here. And another from The Sydney Morning Herald /Guardian Arts and Media where one could be forgiven for thinking they are quoting your humble blogger!

Having left her native South Africa and debuted in Wexford Ireland, she came to Australia guided by (Sir) Edward Downes (tossed in the deep end as she notes above) and sang in Prokofiev's War and Peace, the opera that opened the Sydney Opera House on September 28 1973.


I was at the third night of the run. I do remember Raymond Myers, a perfectly type cast Napolean and Eileen Hannan's lovely Natasha. I was young and in awe of it all. There was a buckling crack as the second scene ball room set got jammed dropping down from the flies while the guests danced on. It was a brilliant Tom Lingwood designed Sam Wanamaker extravaganza. But I can't say I remember Princess Marya Bolkonskya in scene three, the first time I saw and heard Elizabeth Connell.

In that opening season she next sang Venus. That I do remember. Vividly. The Venusberg was an introitus, two large wide labial folds (some said they were welcoming female thighs but I think they were being bashful) onto which female genitalia images were projected and which met at the centre top of the proscenium, from which apex Venus (the young mezzo Ms Connell) in a bright dazzling afro wig appeared suspended on a swing. If you aren't getting the picture, then check your anatomy. It was startling and provocative, and very effective. And now her voice was on the record -people were talking. I mostly remember the visuals and the naughty bits. And the (pilgrim's) chorus - coming up from underground, as if from nowhere, at the very back of the stage, hearing before seeing them with the most wonderful crescendo of sound as they appeared and came downstage on a stage utterly bare except for grass green carpet completely covering the floor.

Next year came another Lingwood triumph - the turning of the Concert Hall (the meant-to-be Opera Theatre hi-jacked by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) into a stunning piece of Egypt for the first of several enormously successful fully staged operas in that venue (Salome, Tristan, Merry Widow, Otello, Lucia, Lucretzia Borgia - the last four for Our Joan). The whole affair was quite the talk of the town (should anyone open that link, there's an amusing letter from one Ruth Campbell of Greenwich about what appears to have been electricity shortages and the time given for blackout warnings). I'm just setting the mid-70s scene here. The sand coloured set dwarfed and blended into the hall such that the whole space became the theatre.


And Elizabeth Connell sang Amneris. Now I remember the voice, the voice that sang the Immenso ftha (Connell, arms outstretched, atop a giant stone slowly lowered over the lovers) was a force to be reckoned with. It looks like a recording exists.


Following the success of her Venus, she was cast in a role usually given to older dramatic sopranos: Kostelnika in Jenufa. I don't know if it was pivotal for her, but it was for me. It was the Australian premier, and with an incredible cast (Lone Koppel Winther, Ron Stevens, Robert Gard, Rosina Raisbeck, Copley designed, Downes conducted) it is still regarded as one the company's finest achievements.

Everyone was caught off-guard, and the response was huge and fast. Word of mouth ticket sales took off for a performance of such power as not to be seen again by me till the overwhelming Peter Grimes of just a few years ago. I was delayed at work and missed act 1, only to arrive to meet dropped jaws and warnings to be prepared. I wasn't. I would be stunned, by the work, by the team, and most of all by Elizabeth Connell. It was a penetrating portrayal of enormous emotional depth and incredible vocalism. It was in fact the last night and her last opera performance before she would return to the UK at the end of her two year contract. By now Elizabeth had a following, both inside the company and out. As she took her final bows, foot stamping rumbling through the theatre, from the upper loges either side of the stage great floods of shredded white paper snowed down.

Afterwards at supper at the Bennelong (restaurant) the gossipy waiter whispered with a nod of the head that Ms Connell was celebrating her birthday at that table over there. A bottle of champagne was ordered and sent, all our heads turned to watch its reception, which was 'the star' asking its origin, the waiter's head now nodding toward us, whence up she stood, bottle in hand and mouthed a hearty thank you with that unmistakeable Elizabeth Connell smile, genuine and warm. By now Happy Birthday (dear Elizabeth) had started, with the whole restaurant joining in a grand acclamation of recognition, acknowledgment and thanks.

Jenufa is about judgement (fear and guilt driven of course) and forgiveness. What isn't? Here's a hint:


I need to stop here.

More later.

14 comments:

Herringbone said...

I was hesitant to comment. Your memories seem personal. I thought that it might be helpful to know,that although I don't listen to much opera, I listened to the Jenufa piece and her last song. Both powerful and passionate. She struck me as down to earth in the Pritchard interview. I liked the story about Lady Macbeth in Rome,"...a musical love affair...why else would they give me some magic dust?.." When she spoke of the evolution and the "elasticity and beauty of opera", I thought it very free and progressive. Almost as if art can't be shackled and controlled. She seemed like a thoughtful,nice person. Take care Wanderer.

wanderer said...

Yes H-bone, I'm really just making notes for (my) later while publicly acknowledging a debt for want of a better word. I find these people extraordinary - not that they can sing so much, lots of people can sing, but I mean the few who seem to rise above the need for fame and fortune and commit their lives to 'art' which as you say, can't be shackled, as they can't, except by death, maybe. I find it deeply affecting, otherworldly.

Herringbone said...

Right on.

Susan Scheid said...

Part I of your tribute is so affecting, so lovely. I've not yet seen (or heard) Jenufa, but having just listened to Elizabeth Connell's performance, it's hard to imagine how anyone could improve on this. I am off now to read/listen to Part II.

Michael said...

What a great blog, capturing the essence of a great person (and performer).

Brings back memories....it was my parents who took Liza to dinner at the Bennelong after the last Jenufa. Over the decades, I've heard the story about the bottle of champagne being delivered to their table many times.

wanderer said...

Oh my goodness - what a lovely surprise, and a little bit sad of course, to be brought back to this again, and to think that the story exists beyond me I find very moving. I thought I might be the only one left.

I send you and your family very best wishes, and thank you for taking the time to comment.

Michael said...

Delighted to share the memory.

Michael Barnes said...

Such a pity you're anonymous...I guess that's part of the appeal of this sort of blogging.

I'm sure our paths, or my parents' path and yours have crossed.

Alan Sinclair said...

I came across your blog while searching Eileen Hannan today, upon hearing or her death. She shared the stage at the same time as the remarkable Elizabeth Connell. My most memorable moment in opera was Elizabeth's curtain call at the end of Jenufa - I was bursting in anticipation to shout bravo's and, of course, the whole opera theatre erupted when she appeared. Considering that at that time there were no surtitles and it was performed in an unfamiliar language shows the power of the emotion in her delivery. I treasure the memory of all her different roles she could thrill us with in Sydney

wanderer said...

Hello Alan - I too have been searching for Eileen Hannan yesterday and today and all I get is my own blog! A sad loss at such a young age.

It's wonderful to hear from people who have shared experiences as emotional as that, as it was the 'joining' at the time that made it even more significant. I had a similar (and similarly rare) experience with the recent Peter Grimes in Sydney.

David Morgan said...

So you have a copy of the original War and Peace programme? We had one - my parents were there at the first night at the Sydney Opera House - but it's since gone missing! I remember it being very detailed, with essays not only about the opera but its historical background. Edward Downes wrote that the opera assumes that the original Russian audience would know the history, so 'these notes have been made more than usually comprehensive.'

Other Australian Opera programmes were lavish affairs too - a week after W&P, the Queen attended a production of The Magic Flute (2 weeks before the official opening on 20 October 1973) and my parents were also there. The program included a small vinyl record of Anna Russell, also at the SOH, giving her take on The Magic Flute. It can't have been recorded more than few days earlier. Amazingly, I've found it online: the part from 4:24 to 15:35 was on the record. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh-SlBcTE2k

wanderer said...

Hello David. I do have a copy, but just where it is is another matter! The pic above is from the internet if I remember correctly. It was an A4 size (I think) extravanganza.

That Magic Flute youtube is priceless, thanks for taking the time to share it and your memories.

Season's Greeting and Happy New Year

David Morgan said...

And here is the Magic Flute program (later version from 1977):
http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/Australian-Opera-The-Magic-Flute-Sydney-Opera-House-1977-Program-Booklet-/221433088118?hash=item338e70c876:g:MI0AAMXQNo5TZwIF

Our one had a slip cover over the top of this, with the same design, but instead of the picture of Papageno it had the Royal Coat of Arms and an inscription saying it was in the presence of HMQ!

wanderer said...

That Papageno! It is all but identical to the Fred Willams Papageno (litho) which was part of a series of outstanding Australians commissioned by the (then) Australian Opera --- French 'Boris'; Brack 'Traviata'; Nolan 'Salome', et al.