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This article is devoted to an appreciation of Respighi’s music by a singer.
mp3 Respighi Notte (sample)

Helena Kean is a young English mezzo-soprano. She began her professional training after a visit to Bari in Southern Italy, where she was invited to join the Bari choir for a BBC broadcast in which her hosts were participating. Helena specialises in the performance of classical song and chamber music recitals. She has given solo recitals at many venues from Alston Hall in Preston, Lancashire to the Boult Hall in Birmingham. She has also been invited to perform in Paris, and for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. And she has been invited to audition with Opera North.

Helena speaks six languages (three fluently). She and her mother, Brenda, a photographer and lecturer, have combined their professional talents to create multi-media arts presentations – combining classical song recitals with illustrated lectures on cultural aspects of regions or countries. Their French programme, La Belle France, was nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award, last year, for bringing new audiences to classical music.

Respighi’s songs inspire a new generation

by Helena Kean

"I’ve spent the day practising some of the songs: Contrasto, Il giardino, Pioggia and Nevicata. They are so beautiful and inspiring" – Helena Kean in a message to Ian Lace, June 2002.

The first time I heard Respighi’s music was as a small child, listening to my parents’ LP of The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome’. I can remember hearing the most wonderful sounds that painted pictures in my head and lifted me beyond that instant into a world of impressions. My life since has been punctuated by moments of hearing these masterpieces on recordings, on the radio and in live performance. Each time I hear them I am taken away. When I began my training as a singer, my only experience of Italian song was the ‘Arie Antiche’, which are used to develop the technique and range of the voice, as a preliminary to the study of opera. I spent a very frustrating two years being ‘forced’ to train for opera and neglecting my deep passion for song. Respighi was not a composer I encountered in the limited vocal studies of conservatoire training and I struggled to be allowed to perform any song that was not ‘heavy’ German lieder.

After post-graduate training I embarked upon a seven-year mission to study the ‘modern’ song repertoire of all the countries whose languages I could speak. I began with Spain, exploring new colours in my voice and developing a stronger technique, continued with France, finding a new range of dynamic and emotional expression, then English song extended my range and interpretative style.

With my mother, a professional photographer and lecturer, we combined the song recitals with illustrated lectures on cultural aspects of the chosen country and an exhibition of photographic images. This proved very popular and brought new audiences to classical music. As a result we found business sponsorship for our projects and were nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.

Although I enjoy opera, I am one of a handful of ‘younger’ professional singers, who prefer the intimacy of the recital platform and the freedom of interpretation this allows.

This year I set out to explore Italian Twentieth Century song, to complement the images and lectures on the Mezzogiorno, which we had collated on our recent trip to Sorrento and the surrounding region. I had begun my voice training after my first visit to Italy, when my host had been taking part in a BBC broadcast with her choir in Bari. I was invited to join the second sopranos and sight-read Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus’. No mean feat! I had gone to learn Italian, staying with a friend who spoke no English, and I returned with a good command of Italian and a new direction in my life.

Two years ago I recorded Respighi’s music from a BBC broadcast of ‘Composer of the Week’. Last year I spent a whole day listening to the five programmes and was fascinated by the brief exploration of his songs and by the fact that his wife Elsa was a mezzo. What better incentive to create a recital, which could include songs by Respighi? I also felt ready to express myself in the language that had opened the door to my new life.

My local library was very excited about my new song project and did everything they could to source manuscripts for me to view. I was amazed at just how many songs Respighi had composed and on viewing them I decided to dedicate the whole recital to him. I had been worried about putting another composer’s work in the recital, but I soon realised that the variety and quality of Respighi’s work provided plenty of contrast and balance. These songs stood proudly on their own, a testament of the creative spirit of a true genius.

I chose Il Tramonto as the anchor for the whole recital. Shelley’s beautifully evocative poem and the emotional connection I felt, were expressed in every bar of Respighi’s setting. At first I did not want to sing it, but just to listen to the heavenly sound of the piano accompaniment which a friend played for me. I borrowed a CD of the string quartet version and felt there was a plan for the future in my studying this music. Both the piano and the string quartet settings are emotionally expressive of the mood of the poem and I felt they each had their own special beauty.

As I began to work with the piano accompaniment, I found a certain poignancy in the story evoked by the sound of a drowning soul coming from the piano. I immediately thought of Shelley’s death by drowning off the coast of Italy at Lerici. How appropriate that this quality should be present in the sound of the piano. Tears fell onto my score and I knew this piece would have the audience enraptured as well. When I sang, I found the music poured freely from me, as the vocal line is so generous to the mezzo voice.

Now I am looking at his other songs, I realised that the work I put into Il Tramonto has prepared me well. I have a better understanding of Respighi’s idiom and harmonic structures and how he set words. An initial glance would have made me think this work needed a large operatic voice although I could find some comparisons with the music of Debussy. On deeper inspection, I find such subtlety and grace in his music, that I am delighted to explore new colours and expression in my more lyrical voice.

I have also included two other settings of Shelley, Su una violetta morta and Serenata indiana, which will complement Il tramonto most effectively and two of Respighi’s settings of poems by Gabrielle d’Annunzio.

I had planned to include the Quattro liriche dal poema paradisiaco di Gabrielle d’Annunzio in the Italia Classica programme but unfortunately there wasn’t enough room. I will however look for an opportunity to sing them in the future. The timing of 11/8 in ‘Un Sogno’ looks quite intimidating, but the effect is wonderful. These songs, were composed on the isle of Capri and this summer I will return to Capri to explore the island with new eyes. The poetry of d’Annunzio and Ada Negri (also included in the recital) has inspired me to find a new experience of Italy.

The Respighi Society and Adriano have helped me tremendously in sourcing further music and information about Respighi. I will be collating all my research into an article for my programme to accompany the recital. Italia Classica will be premiered in my home town of Burnley in Lancashire on Saturday 26th October 2002. The setting will be the sumptuous ‘Regency Room’ at Towneley Hall, our local stately home and art gallery. Italia Classica will then tour the North West. The Italian Consul in Manchester has been very supportive and encouraging and it is hoped a performance will be given for the Consulate at the end of the year. Dates for performances and details of the presentation can be found on our website at

We are now in the process of looking for a sponsor for our photographic exhibition, which accompanies the recital. The exhibition will be seen by thousands of people and will show the most evocative and timeless images of the Mezzogiorno

Our exhibitions create a great deal of interest and are responsible for bringing new audiences to our concerts. The local and regional media are very supportive of our work and we are often invited to give radio interviews.

My greatest hope for this recital is that I will be able to bring new audiences to Respighi’s music and share my enjoyment and enthusiasm, which has grown since I began the project.

You can discover more about the enterprising Helena Kean by visiting her web site and about her Italian arts/Respighi project at

Ian Lace


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