Marion Lowe

Sadler's Wells soprano


Molly Wilkinson (Marion Lowe), singer: born Manchester 12 September 1921; married 1940 Steven Lowe (one son; marriage dissolved), 1960 Thomas Johnston (died 1979; one son); died Wexham, Buckinghamshire 14 February 2006.

Marion Lowe was a soprano whose operatic career was entirely bound up with Sadler's Wells Opera. An attractive woman with a beautiful voice, she was particularly effective in roles such as Madame Butterfly, Mimi in La Bohème and Marguerite in Faust where the heroine has to express suffering, either mental or physical. She was also an excellent comic actress, and one of her finest roles was Felicia in Wolf-Ferrari's I quattro rusteghi, or Lady Pinchbeck in The School for Fathers, as it became in translation.

Born Molly Wilkinson in 1921 in Manchester, she studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, as it then was. When she joined the Sadler's Wells chorus in 1943, she added Marion to the surname of her first husband, Steven Lowe, for her professional name. At that time Sadler's Wells was homeless, and toured the country, only returning to the theatre in Islington on 7 June 1945, for the premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes (in which, presumably, Lowe took part). She made her first solo appearance in 1946 as Mistress Page in Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love. Later she sang another "merry wife", Alice Ford, in Verdi's Falstaff, a characterisation in which Alice's vivacity and great good-humour were strongly in evidence.

Singers were hard worked at the Wells in those days, and Lowe usually sang at least 50 times a season. For instance, in 1951-52 she gave 56 performances, including her three Mozart roles, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Of these the Countess was probably her best interpretation; she was able to suggest the spirited girl Rosina that lay beneath the heartbreak of the married woman.

She also appeared as Micaela in Carmen and Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. Though Charlotte is usually sung by a mezzo, the part suited Lowe very well, both vocally and dramatically. After more than half a century I can still remember the effect of the "Air des larmes", when Charlotte rereads Werther's letters. Equally affecting was Lowe's perfomance of another Letter Scene, that of Tatiana in Eugene Onegin.

Lowe scored the greatest success of her career on 20 January 1958 , when she gave a bewitching account of Valencienne, the "faithful wife" of Baron Mirko Zeta, in a new production of The Merry Widow. The expiration of copyright meant that for the first time ever in Britain both the text and music of Lehar's operetta could be performed as they were originally written. The result was pure magic. June Bronhill as Hanna Glawari, Thomas Round as Danilo and William McAlpine as Camille de Rosillon were all excellent, and the romantic duet between Valencienne and Camille (during which she nearly became an unfaithful wife) elicited torrents of applause at every performance. The production was immensely popular and received a Royal Command Performance.

Marion Lowe also sang in many Promenade Concerts and oratorios, the bread and butter of all singers. She was particularly proud of taking part in a BBC concert in 1956 of Gluck's Alceste, with Kirsten Flagstad in the title role and Raoul Jobin as Admetus, which was later issued as a long-playing gramophone record by Decca. Lowe sang Ismene. Though Flagstad had retired from the stage by then, she was in magnificent voice, and everyone who participated shared in the success.

After Lowe herself retired, she moved to Amersham and taught singing to private pupils. She also joined the Chesham Light Opera Society and sang in several Gilbert & Sullivan shows as well as the musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which she was Tevye's wife Golde.

Elizabeth Forbes

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