Opera-goers with memories long enough to date back to the 1960s will not have forgotten the enchantingly pretty Chinese soprano Soo Bee Lee as Damigella, the serving maid in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea at Glyndebourne. Her flirtatious duet with Valetto, the page, sung by the tenor Duncan Robertson, regularly brought forth a storm of applause from enraptured audiences for three years running, in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The old auditorium at Glyndebourne made a perfect framework for Soo Bee Lee, whose delicate voice was well projected and whose diction was exemplary. The opera was recorded by the original cast.
Born in Singapore in 1934, Lee was encouraged to make a career of singing by Joan Hammond, the Australian dramatic soprano, and the conductor Walter Susskind. She obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she arrived in 1955. A gold medallist at the RAM, she stayed on for an extra year and then studied further at the National Opera School.
By the time she embarked on a professional career, she was already married to the actor Glyn Davys. At Christmas 1961 she appeared on BBC television in Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel as the Sandman.
In April 1962 Lee was engaged by Sadler's Wells Opera (now English National Opera) to sing the trouser role of Sali as a child in the first scene of a new production by Basil Coleman of A Village Romeo and Juliet at the Bradford Delius Festival. The grown-up Sali was sung by the tenor John Wakefield and the highly praised performance was conducted by Meredith Davies. There were three performances in Bradford and three in London during April. On 29 June the first professional performance in the UK of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea took place at Glyndebourne, scoring a tremendous success, in which Lee as Damigella shared.
Lee found another sympathetic role in Lucia in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, which she sang at Morley College in May 1963, before returning to Glyndebourne in June. She sang Dorinda, making a delightful shepherdess in Handel's Orlando with the Handel Opera Society at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1965. Janet Baker sang the title role. At the Bath Festival in June 1966, Lee was an excellent Despina in Phoenix Opera's production of Così fan tutte, which was conducted by Yehudi Menuhin, the first opera he had ever conducted. Menuhin was again the conductor at the Windsor Festival this time, of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Eton College Theatre. Lee sang Second Woman, while Irmgard Seefried was Dido.
Phoenix Opera presented Rossini's Barber of Sevile at the Brighton Festival on 5 May 1971, the last opera production directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who died on 15 May. The cast was excellent, with Alan Opie as Figaro, while Lee sang Rosina with great charm and a nice spirit of mischief, but in Guthrie's frequently brilliant staging, "the bombardment of ideas, some quickly dropped without follow-up, some drawn out and over elaborated" (I noted at the time) made the judging of individual performances almost impossible. What I chiefly remember of the production was the magnificence of the first act finale.
In 1973 Lee took part in a rare performance of Masaniello furioso by Reinhold Keiser, a slightly older contemporary of Handel, at the Barber Institute in Birmingham. She returned to Despina in 1974 in Kent Opera's Così fan tutte, one of Jonathan Miller's very earliest opera productions. The following year she sang First Boy in Kent Opera's The Magic Flute. In 1985 Lee returned to Singapore to sing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, the first local performance of a Viennese operetta.
Lee taught for some years at the London College of Music, and, even after she retired as a professional singer, continued to perform recitals and to promote new and rare works. This was perhaps best exemplified by her association with the English composer Carey Blyton, whose Folksong Arrangements she recorded in 1997. She also took private pupils and more recently started a summer school in Eastbourne with the singing teacher Liza Hobbs.
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