British opera star who conquered the world stage
Few singers possessed a more complete and masterful vocal technique than Josephine Veasey, who died at the age of 91. and an instinctive sense of characterization – all qualities that combined to impress conductors, audiences, impresarios and record companies alike throughout the second half of the 20th century.
While one of Covent Garden’s leading singers for almost three decades, she was also in demand at major opera houses around the world. Later, his fame as a teacher and vocal coach would equal his reputation as a performer.
Almost from birth, Veasey had a burning ambition to become an opera singer. His voice tutor, Audrey Langford, was instrumental in helping him achieve this goal. Locally educated, Veasey first joined the Royal Opera House as a member of the choir at the age of 18 in 1949. Between then and her retirement in 1982, she graced the Covent Garden stage 780 times. She also spent a year touring Britain for the Arts Council with Opera For All. Unlike many of her fellows, she remained a contented yet versatile mezzo who was happy to embrace all aspects of the operatic repertoire.
While serving in the ranks under Karl Rankl, she was able to learn a lot by observing artists such as Ludwig Weber. She then moved into small roles during the Kubelik era, with her solo debut in 1956. She played the Shepherd Boy in the Royal Opera’s Tannhauser, the one thing most critics take away from this staging. However, her career was radically transformed by the arrival of Georg Solti as musical director in 1961. She described him as her “musical father”, and his often outrageous charm seemed to set her on fire on all cylinders. He immediately chose her as Preziosilla in Verdi The force of fate, while successfully expanding his Wagnerian repertoire. With his successor, Colin Davis, it is above all the music of Hector Berlioz that imposes itself.
Veasey had previously worked with Davis and his Chelsea Opera Group in 1963, appearing at Oxford as Cassandra in Berlioz’s opera. The fall of Troy. For many followers of the composer, she remains one of his best performers. Between 1957 and 1969 her roles for Glyndebourne Festival Opera included Zulma in An Italian in Algierscherub in Figaro’s weddingClarice in The Pietra del Paragoneoctavia in The Rider of the Rose and Charlotte in Wether.
After appearing in The Barber of Seville at the 1961 Edinburgh International Festival, she returned two years later to perform in The Damnation of Faust, led by Solti. She also shone brightly at the Buxton Festival in 1980 playing Gertrude opposite Thomas Allen’s Hamlet, helping to breathe life into the long-neglected work of Ambroise Thomas.
After embarking on two hugely successful tours of Israel with Solti, Veasey began to inhabit a much more international landscape. In 1972, she sang Marguerite in The Damnation of Faust in Chicago and New York, the maestro supporting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also worked frequently with Herbert von Karajan, singing the role of Fricka in his staging of the ring which was seen in Salzburg, then at La Scala and the Met in New York.
At Tanglewood, she sang in Eugene Onegin, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Twelve months later, it was his first role as Kundry at the Paris Opera, before moving to Geneva. She also appeared alongside Montserrat Caballe and Jon Vickers in the acclaimed 1974 outdoor production of norma at the Roman Theater of Orange.
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While she reveled in the stimulus of the stage, solo song recitals held little appeal for her. It has, however, become an exemplary pillar of the tradition of English choral society. Here his vision took all of Handel Messiah with Sir Malcolm Sargent at Verdi performances Requiem with Leonard Bernstein.
In concert halls, both in Britain and across Europe, his well-known and articulate defense of the music of Hector Berlioz helped revive interest in his sadly neglected oratorio, The Childhood of Christ. Elgar also, particularly The Dream of Geronte, got the best out of her. No less impressive were his interpretations of Rossini Small Solemn Mass and his Stabat Mater. Between 1958 and 1973 she also appeared regularly as a soloist at Sir Henry Wood’s promenade concerts, closing the 1965 season in a typically exuberant style.
Although usually associated with the greatest classical roles, such as Gluck’s lyrical tragedy Iphigenia in Taurideoften overlooked is his contribution to two world premieres of new operas by Sir Michael Tippett and Hans Werner Henze. King Priamaccording to Homer Iliadwas composed by Tippett for an arts festival held in conjunction with the 1962 rededication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.
In this Veasey was cast as Hector’s wife, Andromache. Created the day before Benjamin Britten requiem of war, it was quickly taken back to Covent Garden. Fourteen years later, she had a leading role in the very allegorical and extremely difficult film We come to the river by Henze. Requiring a cast of 126, three separate orchestras and three performance areas, it is set in a nation ruled by an indolent and oppressive emperor, played by Veasey.
Fortunately, many of his performances survive on both record and film. Alongside the now legendary Berlioz recordings with Colin Davis, the Wagnerian recreations of Herbert von Karajan, the Salome and Benjamin Britten’s Shakespearian Odyssey remain two versions of the Verdi Requiem.
Early productions include the 1965 recording with John Shirley-Quirk of Debussy Pelléas and Mélisande, all supervised by Ernest Ansermet. Shirley-Quirk is also a beautiful Aenea for Dido de Veasey, in one of two recordings she made of Henry Purcell’s outstanding miniature masterpiece. However, his contribution to Bellini Beatrice di Tenda remains unjustly neglected. Here, his sensitivity to nuance and color allows him to take great pleasure in the occasional grand gesture.
Appointed CBE in 1970, she left the operatic stage playing the role of Herodias in the 1982 production of Covent Garden. Salome. Subsequently, while teaching privately and at the Royal Academy of Music, she also helped shape the creative personalities of many of this country’s leading practitioners as a vocal consultant for English National Opera. These included Sally Burgess, Phyllis Cannan, Adrian Clarke, Anne Evans, Felicity Palmer, Ethna Robinson, Peter Sidhom, Vivian Tierney and Alan Woodrow. Along with an unparalleled body of classical recordings, her many legacies include an approach to her art and craft that will long continue to influence all who came in contact with her.
Her marriage to opera producer Alan “Ande” Anderson, whom she married in 1951, was dissolved in 1969. She is survived by one son and one daughter.
Josephine Veasey CBE, singer and teacher, born July 10, 1930, died February 22, 2022
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