Obituary: David Kelly

Elizabeth Forbes
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:28

The Scottish bass David Kelly was a member of the Covent Garden Opera Company (now the Royal Opera) for 15 years, from 1955 to 1969, during which period he gave well over 700 performances of some 50 roles. He was the kind of ultra-reliable singer, able to turn his hand to anything, that every company needs, but does not always appreciate.

That Covent Garden did appreciate Kelly is demonstrated by the large number of performances he was asked to sing - 82 in his second season alone. He also appeared at Glyndebourne, with the English Opera Group, Welsh National and Scottish Operas, and was a popular concert singer.

Kelly was born in Kilmarnock and studied at the Glasgow Academy of Music. He spent a short time touring with the Carl Rosa Company, then in the summers of 1954 and 1955 sang the Keeper of the Madhouse in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at Glyndebourne. Later he was to sing Trulove in the same opera for Scottish Opera.

He made his Covent Garden debut on 26 October 1955, as Timur in Turandot. The following year he returned to Glyndebourne as a Priest and a Man in Armour in Die Zauberflote, having already sung Sarastro at Covent Garden. Other roles in 18th-century works included Harafa in Handel's Samson, as well as Antonio, the gardener, and Dr Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro.

His introduction to 19th-century German opera was as Reinmar von Zweter, one of the Knights in Tannhauser. His usual role in The Mastersingers was Hermann Ortel, Soap- boiler, but he also sang at least one performance of Veit Pogner, Goldsmith, a much more interesting character. His other German roles at Covent Garden included Donner in Das Rheingold, Cuno in Der Freischutz, Vanuzzi in Richard Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau and a Man in the British premiere of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1965). At Glyndebourne in 1959 he sang Don Fernando in Fidelio.

Kelly was particularly at home in the French and Russian repertories: he made an excellent Zuniga in Carmen, sang both Narbal and King Priam in Les Troyens, and Crespel in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. In Boris Godunov he offered an amusing Vaarlam and a fine Pimen. He took part in the British premiere of Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova (1963). He was perhaps less suited to Italian opera, but his Verdi roles included Dr Grenvil in La Traviata, a particularly sympathetic portrayal, the King and Ramfis in Aida, Monterone in Rigoletto, the Monk (who may or may not be the Emperor Charles V) in Don Carlos and Pistol in Falstaff, while Angelotti in Tosca and Betto di Signa in Gianni Schicchi were two of his Puccini character parts.

However, it was to British 20th-century opera that Kelly made his greatest contribution. Having created the role of Snug the Joiner in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with the English Opera Group at Aldeburgh in June 1960, he sang Snug in the subsequent Covent Garden production later the same year. In 1962 he sang the Old Man in the premiere of Tippett's King Priam at the Coventry Theatre, and later at Covent Garden. In the revised two-act version of Britten's Billy Budd (1964) he sang Lt Ratcliffe, while his usual role in Peter Grimes was Hobson the carrier. He took the part of the He-Ancient in a revival of A Midsummer Marriage. All these characterisations were noteworthy for the confident style in which he tackled them, at a time when Britten and Tippett were considered "modern" composers.

Kelly also gave one and a half performances of Polonius at the British premiere of Humphrey Searle's Hamlet (1969). The second performance was stopped halfway through, and all others cancelled because of the illness of the baritone singing the title role.

In 1966 Kelly recorded the part of Lockwood in Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights, a virtual creation as the opera was not staged until 1982, seven years after the composer's death. Herrmann, who wrote many film scores, including those for Citizen Kane and Jane Eyre (with Orson Welles as Rochester) conducted the recording himself. Kelly also recorded his usual roles of Lt Ratcliffe in Billy Budd and Snug in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

After his retirement from the opera house, David Kelly became a teacher at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and for over 20 years served as the head of vocal studies and opera at that establishment, passing on his own great professionalism and sense of style to a new generation of singers.

David G. Kelly, opera singer: born Kilmarnock, Ayrshire 24 December 1923; twice married (one daughter); died Troon, Ayrshire 24 October 1996.

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