Edna Graham

Operatic soprano turned conductor
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Edna Graham, opera singer, teacher and conductor: born Christchurch, New Zealand 16 September 1925; died London 26 May 2005.

Edna Graham was a coloratura soprano from New Zealand who sang at Covent Garden and other British theatres in the 1950s and 1960s in roles such as the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann. Although her career as an opera singer was relatively short, during the last 30 years of her life she taught singing, conducted children's operas and set up a charity to provide stage experience for students and young opera singers. At the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, east London, she conducted 25 operas and a similar number of musicals.

She was born in 1925 at Christchurch, New Zealand. Her mother was a talented musician who directed a children's choir and Edna sang in the choir and also conducted it from the age of 10. She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, but because of the Second World War and its aftermath she was unable to take it up until 1947. A very successful student, she had her scholarship extended from three to four years. In 1952 she made her début in Sheffield as a leading soprano with the Carl Rosa Opera Company.

The following year Graham was chosen by Sir Thomas Beecham to sing the title role in the first performance of Irmelin, an opera by Frederick Delius originally written in the 1890s. The performance took place at the New Theatre, Oxford, on 4 May 1953, some 19 years after the death of the composer. Despite the advocacy of Beecham who, according to one critic "urged his singers and players [the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] on with great tow-path yells of encouragement", Irmelin was not a popular success, though it was undoubtedly an important musical occasion.

Graham spent the summer of 1953 at Glyndebourne, where she sang Naiad, one of the three Nymphs in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. She returned to Glyndebourne in 1957 when she appeared in the same opera, this time as Zerbinetta, the leader of the Harlequinade. The original singer of the role, Rita Streich, was taken to hospital just before the first night. Mimi Coertse was the official replacement, but two other sopranos, including Graham, also sang the role, with its immensely florid and stratospherically high music.

Graham made her Covent Garden début during the 1954/55 season as Olympia in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. She was excellent as the first of Hoffmann's three loves (who turns out to be a doll), singing with a technical ease and facility that well suited the mechanical nature of the "girl". The following season she sang the Queen of Night, probably her finest role, in which she was able to express the character's malignant emotions through the flights of coloratura. She also sang the Queen of Night in Munich and Oslo, while continuing to alternate the role with that of Olympia at Covent Garden for the following two seasons.

In 1959 Graham appeared twice at Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk. In January she sang Madame Silberklang in Mozart's The Impresario and in July she sang Fiorilla in Rossini's Il turco in Italia, an enchanting performance, by all accounts. Meanwhile, in June she took part in another premiere, singing Jenny in The Borderline by Wilfrid Mellers at the Scala Theatre in London. Graham rejoined the Carl Rosa in 1960 for a London season at the Prince's Theatre, singing Olympia. The following year she sang Lida in Verdi's La battaglia di Legnano, given by Welsh National Opera as The Battle.

Graham continued to sing for another decade, but apart from appearances with Holland Park Opera as Rosina in The Barber of Seville and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, she was absent from London. She sang with Limerick Grand Opera in Ireland, she toured with Imperial Opera, she gave concerts of Puccini arias in Rome. In 1972, the 20th anniversary of her début, she retired from the opera stage. First she taught singing at the Bush Davies School, Romford; then she became adviser to the Redbridge Music School, whose students gave annual concerts at the Albert Hall.

In 1975 Graham conducted Julius Caesar Jones, a children's opera by Malcolm Williamson at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. It was the beginning of a 30-year-long association with the theatre. A fan of Graham's left her a large house in his will. She sold the house and with the considerable sum of money thus obtained she founded a charity to foster young musicians and opera singers, providing them with stage experience before they embarked on their careers.

The Kenneth More Theatre could seat an orchestra of 26, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s Graham conducted performances of operas from the core repertory by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Kurt Weill and many others. She also conducted musicals, including seven Stephen Sondheim pieces, beginning with Sweeney Todd, as well as Gypsy, Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music and La Cage aux Folles. During this period she went twice to Vancouver to work with a similar institution for students, to conduct La Traviata and Britten's Noyes Fludde.

Graham continued working up to the end of 2004. In October she conducted a concert, "Serenade to Shakespeare" but soon afterwards a wart behind her ear was found to be cancerous. In her youth she won a number of competitions and awards, including the International Singing Competition at 's-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in 1956. She can be heard as Casilda on a recording of The Gondoliers conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.

She left strict instructions regarding her funeral: only her favourite student should be allowed to sing, and no religious music should be played.

Elizabeth Forbes