Obituary: Olwen Price

Elizabeth Forbes
Monday 19 April 1999 23:02

THE WELSH mezzo-soprano Olwen Price was one of those singers who are invaluable to an opera company. She had a large repertory of character roles (and one or two larger roles) in which she could be relied upon to give an excellent, idiomatic performance, while her voice and style could easily adapt to composers from Mozart to Menotti, from Verdi to Vaughan Williams. Although the greater part of her career was spent with Sadler's Wells Opera, she also sang for the BBC - once assisting the great tenor Beniamino Gigli in a recital - and with Welsh National Opera.

Price began to study singing privately at the age of 18 with W.J. Watkins in Merthyr Tydfil. She also studied at the University of Wales in Cardiff. In 1937 at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, held that year at Machynlleth, she won not only the prize for contralto solo, but the Blue Ribbon awarded to the best vocalist. She joined Sadler's Wells Opera during the war, when the company was homeless, leading an ambulant life around the country, occasionally appearing in London at the New Theatre. Another member of the company at that time was the Welsh character tenor David Tree, whom she later married. In 1947 Tree joined the newly formed Covent Garden Opera Company, as it was then called, where he gave over 1,000 performances before his retirement, while Price remained at Sadler's Wells.

Throughout the 1950s Price continued to appear, sometimes as often as 50 times a season. In 1950/51, for instance, she sang Marthe in Gounod's Faust: Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff (she also sang the same role in Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love); Aunt Jane in Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover; La Frugola in Puccini's Il tabarro and Zita in his Gianni Schicchi; Mamma Lucia in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana; Ludmilla in Smetana's The Bartered Bride; and Berta in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Most of these, apart from Mamma Lucia, were comic roles, but Price was just as effective in tragic opera, as her Suzuki in Madam Butterfly, or Azucena, one of her finest interpretations, in Verdi's Il trovatore, which she sang during the 1951/52 season, prove.

Another of her best roles was Filipievna, Tatyana's old Nurse in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which she sang on several occasions. In 1953 Price made a deep impression as Maurya, the old woman at the centre of Vaughan Williams's Riders to the Sea, whose husband and six sons have all been drowned at sea off the Isle of Arran. The contralto-like tones at the bottom of her voice were particularly suited to this role; the composer himself was apparently very pleased with her performance, which many thought the finest she had given at Sadler's Wells. Other 20th-century operas in which she took part, both in 1954, were Menotti's The Consul, in which she sang John Sorel's Mother, and the world premiere of Lennox Berkeley's Nelson, where she sang Madame Serafin, the Neapolitan fortune-teller who foresees the death of Nelson during a reception at the Hamiltons' palazzo.

Price's last new role at Sadler's Wells, in 1959, was Madelon, the old woman in Giordano's Andrea Chenier, who offers her youngest, teenage son to fight for Revolutionary France, as his two elder brothers have already been killed. Then in 1961 she sang Azucena with WNO, and the following year Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Berta in The Barber of Seville, Hedwige, the protagonist's wife, in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, and Sofia, the mother of Oronte (the tenor) in Verdi's I Lombardi alla prima crociata, also for WNO, who brought the last named opera to Sadler's Wells in 1962.

Olwen Price, opera singer: born Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan 15 September 1903; married David Tree (died 1972; one daughter); died Merthyr Tydfil 6 April 1999.

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