The contralto is the lowest in register and the rarest of all female voices. It would generally have a similar vocal range to the male countertenor and unfortunately with the rise in popularity of the soprano in the late 19th Century there were less and less roles being written for contraltos. Contraltos tend to be type cast mostly as evil or villainous characters but they have also picked up a lot of business from the roles that were originally written for castrati in the 17th and 18th Century and additionally there are a number of prominent breeches roles (male characters performed by females) sung by contraltos.
In any generation there are only a handful of great operatic contraltos, currently many would consider the Polish singer Ewa Podleś to be the greatest living contralto with the younger Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux quickly becoming a star in her own right, but perhaps the greatest contralto ever has been the English singer Kathleen Ferrier.
Ferrier was from Blackburn in Lancashire and was a proficient piano player as a child and only started taking occasional singing lessons at 19. Married in 1935, her husband made a bet with her that she wouldn’t enter the singing competition of the Carlisle Festival in 1937. She was already playing in the piano competition, which she won, so she took up her husbands bet and entered the singing competition as well, which she also won. During the war years she toured England a lot singing recitals and in 1942 moved to London to pursue a professional career as a singer. By the end of the war in 1945 her engagements book was full.
She performed a lot of recitals around the concert halls of Europe and America in the post war years but ironically, for possibly the greatest operatic contralto, she only performed in two stage roles. Firstly Lucretia in Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ (which incidentally Irish Youth Opera toured a wonderful production of in 2014). Britten had written the role for Ferrier after seeing her singing in Westminster Cathedral and she had her stage role debut as Lucretia at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. Her second role and one which she will be forever associated with was as Orfeo in Christoph Willibald Von Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ which she also made her debut performance of at Glyndebourne in 1947.
She toured heavily for a number of years extending her repertoire to include Lieder and she had a particular fondness for the songs of Brahms and Mahler, who’s post war revival was in no small part assisted by her concerts and recitals. She made a number of concert tours of Holland in these years, a country where she received a great reception and one she had a great personal fondness for.
In January 1951 at age 39 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and went under prolonged radiation treatment. Despite the treatment and a mastectomy the cancer returned and her periods of hospitalisation and treatment continued. Even in this weakened state she returned to The Royal Opera House to again perform the role of Orfeo in 1953 under the baton of her good friend Sir John Barbirolli. (a production that also featured the great Irish soprano Veronica Dunne)
The opening night was a triumph and she was elated to be back singing but on the second performance tragedy struck. The radiation treatment had badly weakened her bones and during the performance her leg broke. The audience didn’t notice but immediately her fellow cast members knew something was wrong. Unable to move and in great pain Ferrier continued to the end of the performance, took her curtain calls and only after the final curtain came down was she taken to hospital.
While in hospital she kept a diary of her plans when she was discharged and noted her upcoming singing engagements. Kathleen Ferrier never left University College Hospital and died on 8th October 1953 aged 41.