Obituary : Gwen Catley

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Gwen Catley, a high soprano with quite exceptional facility for coloratura, was for 20 years a great public favourite. She sang in opera, on the concert platform, in revue, on radio and television; she made countless records of songs and arias, and appeared in two films, giving a great many people a great deal of pleasure. Her voice was small, but crystal clear and firmly projected, while its legendary agility was balanced by style, delicacy and excellent English diction. She was a fine musician.

She was born Gwendoline Florence Catley in 1906, in London, and privately educated. She studied at the Guildhall School of Music at the time when Sir Landon Ronald was its Principal; her chief singing teacher was the tenor Walter Hyde. Catley won the Gold Medal - in fact she won it twice, but was not allowed by her father to accept it on the first occasion. By the time she won it again, she was married to the cellist Allen Ford.

On leaving the GSM she joined the BBC chorus. In 1937 she sang the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and Nannetta in Falstaff for Sadler's Wells Opera, and the following year gave her debut recital at the Wigmore Hall. She was soon immersed in a busy career as a concert singer, working with all the leading British orchestras as well as with the BBC.

During the Second World War Catley scored a huge success in the revue Hi-de-Hi, presented by Jack Hylton at the Palace Theatre, which opened in June 1943 and ran for 340 performances. Catley sang Gilda's aria "Caro nome" from Rigoletto, with full orchestra. After the war she sang with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. She had first appeared with them in 1941, singing Gilda, and she continued to sing with the company until the 1956/57 season, almost invariably as Gilda. At the end of "Caro nome" she would "let forth a silvery high E", as one critic remarked.

Her repertory was wide- ranging, from Mozart to Johann Strauss, from Purcell to Edward German, but, as her recordings show, her voice was particularly ill-suited to 19th-century French opera-comique: Philine's "Je suis Titania" from Mignon, Juliet's Waltz song from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, the Shadow song from Meyerbeer's Dinorah, the Bell song from Lakme and Olympia's Doll song from The Tales of Hoffmann were all, though sung in English, stylishly performed. In 1949 she sang Catherine Glover in a BBC studio broadcast of Bizet's The Fair Maid of Perth, with Richard Lewis as Henry Smith and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, which was re-broadcast in 1979 to celebrate the centenary of Beecham's birth.

After her retirement Catley gave private lessons in singing, in London and in Italy, where she built a villa in Lerici.

Elizabeth Forbes

Gwendoline Florence Catley, singer: born London 9 February 1906; married 1936 Allen Ford (one son); died Hove 12 November 1996.