Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the British mezzo…
Felicity Palmer doesn’t hold back: candour as well as professionalism is a key aspect of her character. What emerges from talking to her is a sense of how difficult and problematic a singer’s career can be, even when outwardly it is a successful one. These revelations arise from the fact that, while she is unashamedly critical of others (of inadequate teaching for singers in particular) she is equally ready to acknowledge those aspects of her own life about which she feels self-critical.
But if such attributes are for a singer somewhat rare, Felicity’s childhood holds fewer surprises. Music was always there. She and her sisters would sing in a church choir, their father being the choirmaster and organist too. In addition he was a pianist and taught music in grammar schools. As for her mother, she had an interest in the theatre side of things and would direct some of the school productions, one such being Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury in the late-1950s. However neither parent recognised the special potential of Felicity’s voice. “Oddly enough, about two years ago just before she died, my mother told me a story about the audition I did for that G & S production. I was too young for the role for which I auditioned and I can’t now remember why I did it, but I ended up as Chief Bridesmaid and as an understudy. Anyway, my mother finally recounted how my father came home after that audition and said to her ‘Do you know what? She’s really got a voice; she nearly got the part’. And that was something I’d never heard before.”
At the age of 16 Felicity went part-time to the Guildhall School of Music, later becoming a full-time student, and in due course she would be taken out of the chamber choir there run by John Alldis to be put by him into a professional choir. “We went on tour, which could be pretty frightening I have to say, but in those days there was a circuit of such choirs and you could make your living that way. It was my training and it stood me in incredible stead.” Prior to that, however, feeling that much of the training at the Guildhall had been less than satisfactory, Felicity had obtained a Bavarian scholarship to attend Munich’s Hochschule. But hopes of better teaching were not to be fulfilled. “The training was, I think it’s fair to say, a joke, but Munich was a great place to be as a student: they treated students very well. While at the Guildhall I had lived at home and I was very green, as we were in those days. It was the late ‘sixties and I was 24 and for me it was a growing up year: having to cope with a foreign language, handling money on my own and having no one to help me. Furthermore it was the beginning of my operatic education. A student card got you into the opera and Dale Duesing, who was in the same year, inveigled us all in so that we could see any opera in any opera house for a mark.”
If the general teaching standards in London and Munich had disappointed her, there had also been another factor for her to live with. While at the Guildhall her then singing teacher had told Felicity’s parents that they ought to accept the fact that she was unlikely ever to be more than a chorus singer. Felicity when talking to me didn’t make a lot of this but she did say that there had been no assumption that she might become a soloist until she found herself the runner-up in the Guildhall’s big prize, the Gold Medal. She continues the story: “The man who won it had been a colleague of mine and when we both went in for the Ferrier Prize in 1970 I assumed that he would again be the winner. When I won it, you could have knocked me down with a feather. By then I had already been working with John Eliot Gardiner in the Monteverdi Choir and had done solos from the choir, so I think it was beginning to be known that I had something.”
From that point on anyone reading Felicity’s CV would have assumed that only good times lay ahead. She established herself as a concert soprano and as a recording artist, one of her recordings being Holst’s Choral Symphony under Sir Adrian Boult. Next she turned to opera. Here she makes an admission: “Being someone who did a lot of modern music and was a quick reader, I thought sniffily that opera singers were a bit stupid: I really did. I’ve had to eat humble pie since then!” She laughs at this now, and indeed an international operatic career awaited her, starting with English National Opera in 1975, her debut role being of all things Pamina in The Magic Flute. This came about at the request of Lord Harewood and Charles Mackerras after she had done a Prom concert with the latter and, despite their confidence in her, she now feels that only youthful bravado carried her through a role that was at that time vocally beyond her.
But what is so striking about Felicity’s story is the fact that well over a decade later she recognised the need for decisive action over what had slowly built up to a crisis point despite the amount of work she had been doing. “I think I survived with my musicality and with a great will to work, but it became increasingly difficult and by the late-‘eighties it began to be torturous. I had a name but I wasn’t singing well, and that was beginning to be recognised in crits. I was a soprano but didn’t feel I could keep that going. Indeed, a man I was seeing in Switzerland suggested I should train as a mezzo. But what he was teaching didn’t get me anywhere and I felt it was vocally dangerous. I went from teacher to teacher to teacher: all of them were quite positive but didn’t seem to have any solution as far as I was concerned.
“But then came a magic day when, having just sat down and started my vocal exercises, I sat bolt upright as a thought struck me: ‘This can’t work’. It was the moment when I took responsibility for my own singing. I’d packed in far too much as can so easily happen in this profession, and I’d let myself succumb to doing whatever was suggested to me. There wasn’t time to take stock and everything was getting very, very messy and untenable. But then I met the mezzo-soprano Josephine Veasey in the canteen at ENO. She was the vocal coach and I asked her advice about a couple of offers I’d had. And that became a turning point in my life because she phoned me that evening asking what it was that I really wanted. In that conversation she said to me: ‘You know singing’s really very simple’ and I remember bursting into tears because by that stage I thought it was anything but! Then she asked me to come and see her. We started working together because I recognised in what she had to say something truly interesting but at variance with everything I had understood about singing until that point. So I stuck with her and things began to change. By 1993 I could really feel that change: I wasn’t so afraid and I felt that I had something that would work. I felt too that I had found a different way of approaching just about everything.”
In a piece of this length there is no space to elaborate in detail what it was that Veasey offered, although it was something that has since been developed by Felicity Palmer into her own approach applicable both in her performances and in the private teaching that she now undertakes. It can however be said that an essential part of it lies in the notion of making the starting point the words you have to communicate. “I almost ban the word ‘singing’ and very much work from speech. Jo’s notion was to approach every word as though we are speaking it, only there happens to be a pitch. I think this has never been examined by the singing fraternity, but it’s a vital modification and one that also makes sense to me anatomically. It’s very involved but quite the opposite of the ‘sing, sing, sing’ approach because I really do think of it as pitched speech.”
But, if this is the answer that Felicity has found on a technical and artistic level and which has carried her forward into a long career that is still flourishing, it’s also part of something wider. “I recognise now how enmeshed I was before. I needed to take responsibility for everything in my life because I had a very, very poor self-image. That’s not uncommon with actors and singers: they’re often people who have a need to prove something. I’ve read biographies and autobiographies of great people, people much more famous than I’ll ever be, who just thought they were nothing. We artists, all of us, take a risk every time that we step out onto a stage but you must have some kind of self-belief. I realised that I had to take responsibility for my life and for the way I sing and for what I believe in too, not just be somebody who says ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ and does what they’re told. Acclaim is meaningless unless you achieve that: if you believe that you’re nothing and worthless no amount of success will persuade you otherwise.”