La Scala or nothing - What is success?


I was thrilled to be able to get to Carlisle Cathedral last Friday to hear Christopher Fifield speak about contralto Kathleen Ferrier, having edited her letters. I can overlook his mockery of that fine artist Clara Butt, because his enthusiasm for the contralto voice and Ferrier in particular was charmingly evident. He observed that if Ferrier's marriage had worked out, we wouldn't have gathered there to hear him talk about her.  Later on that same day I was talking to the mayor of the little town of Millom about my plans to celebrate Kathleen Ferrier's centenary in a couple of weeks' time. I was planning to mention to her how Ferrier had been successful at the Millom Festival in the 1930s, when Her Worship interrupted to tell me about the Millom contralto of that era who she was convinced had been at least as accomplished as Ferrier, but had never got further than Millom because of other obligations. Full of enthusiasm for Ferrier, I was rather taken aback!

This is not a unique experience  - I have been told of other contraltos of the 1930s and 1940s whose options were limited by social factors and whose beautiful voices and fine artistry therefore never travelled very far. One of these was my mother-in-law, Emily Bailey, whom, sadly, I never met. Her parents turned down the offer for her to remain in school at age 12, when she would have begun teaching(!) because family tradition required her to work in the local cotton mill. Her musical activities included the methodist chapel, Stockport Choral Union and singing lessons from a local choirmaster. As with Ferrier, marriage followed for my mother-in-law, but unlike Ferrier, so did children and the extra responsibilities of motherhood. 

The professional performing ambitions of many of us are restricted for all sorts of reasons. This isn't necessarily a personal tragedy: it's just how things turn out. Other activities can take a lot of our time. For many of us, caring for dependant relatives or friends takes priority over chasing performance opportunities. Those of us who are musicians through and through will find our own way to exercise our music. Musical artistry blossoms everywhere, not just in the big cities. 

April 2020