Susan Chilcott, opera singer: born 8 July 1963; married 2000 David Sigall, (one son); died Timsbury, Somerset 4 September 2003.
Susan Chilcott was a lyric soprano whose gradual evolution from promising young star to leading lady of the opera house was all but complete when she tragically succumbed to breast cancer. Unlike so many leading ladies, Chilcott was blessed with a genuine and natural modesty. Asked about the glowing reviews and her fans' adulation, her reply was invariably disarmingly simple: "I am grateful."
After her Desdemona at Glyndebourne two years ago she was described by one critic as "an English rose in full bloom"; the following January she was named by The Independent on Sunday as one of the top 10 leading opera singers in Britain; to Antonio Pappano, the musical director of the Royal Opera, she was simply "the real thing".
Her fiery stage presence made the headlines in June last year. While she was appearing in The Queen of Spades at Covent Garden, a candle set light to the train of her dress. Although members of the audience tried shouting at her, Chilcott carried on with her aria unaware of the danger. A member of staff and a fire officer ran on stage and put out the blaze with a water extinguisher. When the performance resumed with the line "We are safe now" there was laughter from the audience.
For Chilcott work just seemed to flow into her diary. "I've never chased a career for its own sake," she said. Indeed, she frequently turned down roles for which she felt unready or unprepared. When major success came it was initially in Brussels, in 1994, when she was cast as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes (conducted by Pappano). Her performance was described as "treasurable for the assurance with which she moved and for a soprano [voice] of great beauty and expressivity".
But Britain was not far behind in appreciating her talents. On that year's Glyndebourne Tour, Michael White, writing in The Independent, noted that her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin was
magnificent: a luscious young voice of heart-stopping dramatic urgency in the letter scene, and immaculate poise in the transformation to womanhood at the end. It's a performance you could leave thinking a star had just been born before your eyes.
Susan Chilcott was born in 1963 and brought up by her adoptive parents on their farm near Timsbury, high up on the Mendips south of Bristol. By her own account she passed an idyllic childhood there, up to her knees in farmyard mud. She grew up with ponies to ride and fields to play in; later she relished the peace, the tranquillity and the serenity of the countryside. Her parents, although not musical, were unstinting in their support.
Her first trophy came at the age of three, a silver cup for singing in public. She kept a fading photograph of that formative occasion to hand. Her teachers appreciated her talent, and with her parents' encouragement she sang in the Bristol Eisteddfod at the age of eight. By 12 she was studying with Mollie Petrie, who remained her teacher and mentor until the end.
As with many promising talents from the West Country, Chilcott was entered into the Mid-Somerset Competitive Festival in Bath. In later years she supported it through appearances, newspaper profiles and, earlier this year, judging a singing prize. In a local newspaper interview with her friend Jonathan Dimbleby, she expressed her approval: "A competition like this gives people who want to sing and to perform a chance to show what they can do," she said. She was a gold medallist with the Royal Overseas League in 1986.
Anxious not to rush or be rushed into unsuitable roles, Chilcott bided her time, taking non-musical work to keep body and soul together. On one occasion she was making ends meet by working in an old people's home when she won a singing prize judged by Dame Janet Baker. "She asked me what I was doing to earn a living," Chilcott later recalled. "I was very embarrassed to have to say 'cleaning'."
She never let go of her roots. In adult life, home was a cottage on the outskirts of Blagdon, barely 10 miles from her parents' farm, built precipitously into the hillside. She returned there at every available moment, thinking nothing of joining in the hymns at her local church on Sunday morning. "I have a passion for cooking, and I love being here as just an ordinary mum," she said. "It gives me balance."
The quiet order of her whitewashed cottage could have been a million miles from the red plush and high frenzy of the Royal Opera. As she once said:
I have a great sense of disbelief . . . One day I'm digging potatoes in the garden, baking, putting my son's toys away. The next I am
travelling to London, meeting Domingo and singing with him for the first time.
Her operatic début was with Scottish Opera in 1992, and offers of work soon followed. Later that year she created the role of Donna Luisa in the British premiere of Roberto Gerhard's The Duenna for Opera North. She was the Countess in Figaro at Garsington the following year, although, as she once admitted, she generally felt a degree of resistance to Mozart's women: "Not musically but because, theatrically, they are usually cast in a straitjacket."
Beyond the operatic stage, Chilcott had an engaging rapport with the pianist Iain Burnside, the legal guardian of her four-year-old son, Hugh. In recent years they concocted an eclectic collection of recital programmes, many of which remain unheard. One such, entitled "Old MacDonald" and based on songs about animals, was to have been heard at this year's Bath International Music Festival, but by then Chilcott was already seriously ill. Fortunately, however, they did record The Gift to be Free, an uplifting collection of songs by Aaron Copland on the Black Box Music label.
Cancer first struck towards the end of 2001. As Opera magazine recorded, "a singer renowned for her sensitive handling of 'vulnerable women' - Desdemona, Katya, Ellen, the Governess - had suddenly, for quite other reasons, become one herself". There was to be no pretence. In cancelling her scheduled appearance as Natasha in ENO's War and Peace, Chilcott announced the reason: breast cancer, an operation, chemotherapy.
At home and in private she continued to sing. Midway through her treatment she managed to perform Berg's Seven Early Songs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, a concert she described as "probably the most important of my career". Soon she was back on form. April 2002 saw her début at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as a tender Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream conducted by David Atherton; two months later she opened with Placido Domingo at Covent Garden in The Queen of Spades. But the cancer was to return.
Her last major part was the title role in Jenufa for Welsh National Opera, conducted by Charles Mackerras, a fragile, sensual creature, her voice soaring with passion and anguish, even as her character's body contorts with pain. It was a searing and emotional performance, now made all the more poignant for those who saw it by the knowledge of Chilcott's private tragedy. The blazing radiance of her top register, and the warmth and vulnerability were a surprise. Few, if any, singers have surpassed the emotion she portrayed in the heartrending prayer during Act Two.
In the last few years Susan Chilcott had developed from a fine opera singer with a beautiful soprano voice into a truly magnificent singing actress, writes Elizabeth Forbes. During the 15 years of her career, from Musetta in La Bohème for Scottish-Opera-Go-Round (more than 30 one-night stands on a 12-week tour) in 1987, to Jenufa for Welsh National Opera in March this year, she sang some 20 major roles. Obviously not all of them suited her voice and personality equally well, though she had a particular talent for choosing roles to which she was able to bring sympathy and understanding.
I first remember Chilcott as Donna Luisa in The Duenna at Opera North in 1992. She sang beautifully, but did not express a great deal of emotion. As Lady Penelope Rich in Britten's Gloriana the following year, also for Opera North, she was already far deeper into the passionate character of the Earl of Essex's sister. Her next new role was also in an opera by Britten, Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, given at La Monnaie in Brussels in 1994. This was the beginning of Chilcott's international career, and Ellen became one of her best characterisations, which she sang in Paris and at Snape Maltings, and was due to sing at Covent Garden next July.
Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which Chilcott sang for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, also in 1994, was a moving, one could say heart-breaking, portrait of an ardent but painfully shy young girl in love, who becomes the supremely poised and self-confident Princess Gremina. Chilcott was able to express both halves of the character, with her voice as well as through her acting. Her Countess in The Marriage of Figaro for Welsh National Opera, which came to Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, was criticised for being too cold emotionally, but I would alter the adjective to reserved. Chilcott's other Mozart roles included an excellent Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (at Santa Fe and Geneva) and a superbly sung Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte in Paris.
Helena in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Chilcott sang at English National Opera in 1995, and later as her début role at the Met, was a splendid opportunity for the soprano to demonstrate her considerable comic gifts, while the title role of Dvórak's Rusalka in David Pountney's classic production for ENO displayed her fey, other-worldly qualities to great musical and dramatic effect. In 1999 Scottish Opera provided Chilcott with one of her finest characterisations yet, the title role of Janácek's Katya Kabanová, another performance quite shattering in the tension it created.
Meanwhile Chilcott was still finding congenial roles in Brussels: the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, the Governess in Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Alice Ford in Verdi's Falstaff and Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. She repeated Desdemona at Glyndebourne in 2001, in Peter Hall's production, and the part fitted her like the proverbial glove. She expressed both the physical frailty of the girl, and the great courage that her love for Otello gave her, all the while singing with beautiful, unforced tone. That perhaps was the secret of Chilcott's power in the opera house, that she could express the rawest of emotions in the most beautiful of tones.
Her greatest success undoubtedly came with Lisa, the besotted heroine of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Chilcott first sang Lisa for WNO in 2001, and as with Tatiana, another Pushkin-inspired heroine, she gave a deeply moving performance. In June 2002 she repeated Lisa for her Covent Garden début, with Placido Domingo as Hermann and Josephine Barstow as the old Countess. By now Chilcott had become a fully formed artist, in perfect command of her voice and of her talent for getting right inside the character she was portraying. It was one of the most rewarding performances of opera that I can remember.