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Gala Concert by the Friends of the RNCM - in aid of the Barbara Robotham Award for Singers. Amanda Roocroft (sop); Jane Irwin (mezzo); Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts (ten); and current students of the college, all sometime pupils of Ms Robotham, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester 19.1 2006 (RJF)


It used to be said eighty or so years ago, and only partly tongue in cheek, that an opera house manager seeking a tenor for a role in the Italian repertoire had merely to do an evening tour round the cafes of Naples. Nowadays Italian tenors are a rare breed and the Anglo Saxons, particularly the British, fill many roles in all vocal registers at the best opera house addresses. As Dennis Marks, sometime General Manager at the ENO and elsewhere recently noted in Opera magazine this has been a consequence of the standards of vocal teaching in our conservatories.

The Royal Northern College on Music, based in Manchester, is one such centre with a fine tradition of vocal teaching going back to the days of Frederic Cox and Elsie Thurston who set Elisabeth Harwood on the road to the 1960 Ferrier Prize and international stardom. A more recent group of teachers have been responsible for preparing distinguished alumni for careers on the operatic and recital stage. This group, including Parick McGuigan, his wife Caroline Crawshaw, and Barbara Robotham are now retired or nearly so and Barbara, like many good singing teachers, had had a distinguished career in the profession before turning to teaching. In 1960 she won the Gold Medal at Liverpool in competition with the likes of Dame Gwyneth Jones and toured widely in Europe performing in opera, oratorio and giving recitals. She made over 100 broadcasts before (having become enamoured of teaching) joining the staff of Lancaster University as Professor of Voice in 1972. She moved to the RNCM in 1979 as Principal Lecturer.


On the approach to her 70th anniversary, the Friends of RNCM organised this concert to raise money for a prize in Barbara Robotham’s name. She selected the items to be sung and introduced each with a personal anecdote. These varied from the deadly serious such as recounting her nervousness at singing Britten’s songs with Peter Pears and the composer as accompanist, to more lighthearted moments and aided by three distinguished alumni and some current students the evening, was a feast of singing that played to a full audience.

The opening trio from Act I of Cosi fan Tutte featured Amanda Roocroft and two current students provoking fond reminders of the 1988 performance when Roocroft sang Fiordiligi. Her performance was outstanding on that occasion and gained lavish praise from the distinguished critic and Richard Strauss scholar Michael Kennedy. Amanda went on to sing the role at Glyndebourne and to record it with Simon Rattle and with Barbara Robotham as mentor as well as teacher, she was wise enough to turn down premature offers from distinguished houses and conductors. The fact that her Mozart singing still has the hallmarks and legato of those student performances is a tribute to her self discipline and her teacher’s guidance.


Other Roocroft items were a distinguished Song of the Moon, the long Act II duet from Madama Butterfly, including the lovely aria Un bel di, with Jane Irwin as Suzuki.  Roocroft, slim of figure despite three children, sang full out and it is many moons indeed since Mancunians have heard such quality. That this was matched by Jane Irwin’s singing was a poignant reminder that the pair had sung these roles together at Covent Garden, watched by Barbara whose contribution was recognised by a seatin the Royal Box as a special guest. Jane Irwin was launched on the operatic world by the College’s 1994 production of Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc in which she sang the eponymous role and she now sings Wagner at some of the leading houses. Like all the pieces performed at this event, the singers acted their parts and sang to (and off) their partners in duets and trios. Jane and Amanda showed great animus in their contributions, as did Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts in his Peter Grimes’ soliloquy. His histrionic and vocal portrayal of the difficult piece portends well for his appearance with Opera North when they return to their home at the Leeds Grand Theatre later this year.


Of the students participating, Karina Lucas was a full toned Carmen in an acted and danced Seguidilla; Lloyd Roberts filling in the tenor phrases as well as unfastening the ropes binding Carmen’s hands. I would guess she has a good future. Christopher Turner and Claire Groom who sang the leads in the College’s recent La Rondine, also made worthwhile contributions but theirs is work clearly still in progress. Philip Smith was a promising young baritone whom I had not heard before but will look forward to doing so again. Enjoyable piano arrangements of operatic themes by Donizetti and Gounod were played with distinction by David Gowland and Roderick Barrand.


This was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have had at the RNCM for some time and it set me in good mood for the forthcoming vocal competitions. The Frederic Cox Award will help students continue their studies at the college, and the Elisabeth Harwood Award, worth £5000, is designed to help the winning survive at least the first year in a highly competitive and demanding profession. Looking at previous winners of these awards, and what they have gone on to achieve with the help of the grounding received at RNCM by teachers such as Barbara Robotham, winners should be able to enter the profession with every confidence.

Robert J Farr



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)