October 8, 2007

October 8 | Kathleen Ferrier

April 22, 1912 - October 8, 1953: Age 41

Kathleen Ferrier, born in Lancashire, UK, was a brilliant contralto. She is particularly remembered for her Bach Passions, her Orfeo, but most of all for her beautiful renditions of English folk songs. Unassuming, funny, and personable, she was easily the greatest and most beloved British opera singer of her time, and perhaps of all time.

In March 1951 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery in April proved that the cancer had spread to her bones. Extensive radiotherapy and its side effects caused her to cancel most of her performances that year, including a tour of North America. By mid 1952 she was in almost constant pain. It was during that year that she made her famous recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde — the composition of a dying man. Most of the people involved knew she was very ill, and she herself may have realized that she was dying. It is recognized as one of the greatest performances of that piece ever recorded.

Her last challenge was a production of Orfeo and Eurydice in early 1953. By now she certainly knew she was dying, and that this would be her last role. The first night was brilliant. On the second night, partway through the second act, "a dull crack was heard" and Ferrier flinched. Her left femur had broken spontaneously. Holding on to a piece of scenery for support, she continued to sing. The other performers, taking their cue from her, continued the opera, improvising the movement around her, and the performance was completed. After the curtain, when asked what she needed, she replied "Get me a stretcher."

There were two more surgeries in May and in July, but it was futile. Ferrier died on October 8, 1953.

Sources: bbc.co.uk, Wikipedia

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