Obituary: Elisabeth Abercrombie

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The Independent Online
Elisabeth Abercrombie had a short but rewarding career as an operatic soprano, appearing at Glyndebourne before the Second World War, with Sadler's Wells Opera during, and at Covent Garden after, the war.

Born Dorothy Maud Brownlees, she did not like her given names and adopted the name Elisabeth. From the age of 17 she studied at the Royal College of Music, taking the organ as her principal subject and singing as a second study. After obtain-ing her degree, she took a job as organist and choir- mistress at a girls' school near Oxford.

In 1931 she married Nigel Abercrombie, then a young don at Magdalen College; a distinguished academic, civil servant and writer, he was General Secretary of the Arts Council from 1963 to 1968.

Elisabeth Abercrombie sang solos with the Oxford Bach Choir and in 1934 made her operatic debut as Phoebe in Ram-eau's Castor and Pollux with the Oxford University Opera Club. Sir Thomas Beecham heard her and as a result she was offered a contract for the Covent Garden chorus; but after a meeting between her husband and John Christie, an audition for the chorus at Glyndebourne was arranged, and she accepted that offer instead, beginning in the 1935 season. She took lessons with Jani Strasser, on the music staff at Glyndebourne from its opening, and continued to work with him throughout her career.

Though she only sang one role at Glyndebourne, the Gentlewoman attending on Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth in 1938, she covered several of the leading soprano roles. She also sang in many of the private concerts and recitals given in the Organ Room or the theatre, with which John Christie and his wife Audrey Mildmay entertained their guests.

In 1937, calling herself "Maria Etrik" on Strasser's advice, she sang Purcell's Dido, and Venus in John Blow's Venus and Adonis (which was televised) for Oxford University Opera Club. In 1939 she took part in a Cambridge University production of Mozart's Idomeneo, singing the role of Electra.

During the early war years, Abercrombie toured with the Glyndebourne Singers, giving concerts mostly of Mozart's music all over Britain. In 1942, she joined Sadler's Wells Opera, which was virtually homeless during the war, touring the country and playing in London at the New Theatre (now the Albery) or the Princess.

Abercrombie's beautiful voice was at its best at this time, and her roles included Violetta in La Traviata (her favourite), Mimi in La Boheme and Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutti. In all these operas she was partnered by Peter Pears, a fellow chorus singer at pre-war Glyndebourne.

After the war, Abercrombie appeared for several seasons (1947-51) with the newly formed Covent Garden Opera Company. She sang the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes. In 1951 she sang in the premiere of Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress as one of the two Heavenly Beings who revive Pilgrim in the Valley of Humiliation. After retiring she became a very successful private singing teacher.

Dorothy Maud Brownlees (Elisabeth Abercrombie), singer: born Plymouth 29 August 1906; married 1931 Nigel Abercrombie (died 1986; two daughters); died 23 October 1996.

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