Vera Rózsa obituary

Distinguished singing teacher with a long list of famous pupils

The distinguished singing teacher Vera Rózsa, a Hungarian resident in Britain since the 1950s, has died at the age of 93. The roster of her students, which included Karita Mattila, Anne Sofie von Otter, Ileana Cotrubas, Sarah Walker, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Tom Krause and many others, speaks for itself: even in their prime, these singers returned to Rózsa for advice and help. A former singer herself, forced by a damaged lung to develop a special breathing technique in order to sustain a partial career, she was later able to use her knowledge to assist singers with particular vocal problems. Her experience and innate musicianship, allied to an uncompromising honesty and unwavering dedication, made her one of the most sought-after teachers in the second half of the 20th century.

Her father, a would-be actor and amateur violinist, was an inspiration. He and Rózsa's mother encouraged their three children to develop their potential irrespective of material considerations. Rózsa, who was born in Budapest,aspired to be a conductor – the composer Zoltán Kodály, to whom she became very close, was one of her teachers at the Franz Liszt academy of music – but, lacking the appetite for contrapuntal studies, she decided instead to pursue singing. Recalling how she sang one day while Béla Bartók accompanied her on the piano, she described how she felt almost hypnotis- ed in his presence, after which he tersely commented: "Thank you. You have talent." He then walked out.

Her low-register voice encompassed both mezzo-soprano and alto, and at this stage she was able to exploit her versatility in a wide range of genres including Mozartian opera, Handelian oratorio, lieder and Yiddish folk songs.

Rózsa's first husband, the composer and conductor László Weiner, was deported by the Nazis to a forced labour camp in Slovakia. Despite the intervention of Kodály, Weiner was murdered there. Rózsa herself went into hiding and it was while taking refuge in a freezing forest that she contracted the pneumonia that irreparably damaged one of her lungs. Notwithstanding the privations and danger, she worked at the Swedish embassy in Budapest during the second world war, courageously providing false passports and shelter for numerous Hungarian Jews.

After the war, she briefly joined the Budapest State Opera in 1945, making her debut as Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel. Not wishing to associate, however, with colleagues whose wartime activities had been less than irreproachable, she left and spent the years from 1946 to 1951 at the Vienna State Opera. Photographs from this period show her to have been an alluring Carmen.

By developing her technique in a way that could circumvent her lung damage, she was able to continue her singing career for some two decades, even after she moved to Britain in 1954. The reason for her emigration was that she had married a Briton, Ralph Nordell – a member of military intelligence personnel in Budapest at the end of the war. Soon after their move she gave birth to a son, David. The marriage to Nordell was ended only by his death nearly 40 years later.

Rózsa developed her career as a teacher, first at the Royal Manchester College of Music, and subsequently at the London Opera Centre, the Opera Studio in Paris and the Guildhall School of Music. She also had many private pupils and gave masterclasses all over the world. In 1991 she was appointed OBE.

According to her distinguished pupils and colleagues, she was tough and energetic, but centred and not given to extravagant gestures. The mark of a good teacher is the ability to discern the source of the student's difficulties and to enable them to be surmounted. This was Rózsa's forte. Kiri Te Kanawa was helped through a bad patch, while Von Otter, looking back in later years, admitted that she needed to be "shaken around a little bit". Rózsa wanted her "to show more of my inner self".

Walker, acknowledging that she owed everything to Rózsa, described how once she panicked during a recital. In the interval she prevailed upon the management to bring Rózsa to her dressing room. The teacher's sage advice was: "Darling, you are to imagine you are sending your voice on a long journey but you are not to go with it." The pianist Graham Johnson recalls that Rózsa was never able to lie to a student. That was another strength, along with a conviction that technique was inseparable from the musician's art.

Rózsa had a particular affinity for Schubert lieder. "There is no sad Schubert song in which there is not a smile, no happy song in which there is not a tear," she maintained. It was that grasp of nuanced expression, coupled with her sensitivity to the needs of individual singers, that made her the incomparable teacher she was.

She is survived by David.

Vera Rózsa, singer and teacher, born 16 May 1917; died 15 October 2010


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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