Tidemarks, turtles and touring: Kathleen Ferrier in her own words

A new play tells the story of Kathleen Ferrier, using the singer’s own letters and diaries. Lucy Stevens explains how she brought a down-to-earth icon to the stage

The story of Kathleen Ferrier’s life and untimely death at only 41 is well-known. Her extraordinary voice is regularly heard on the radio and on recordings that still sell in their thousands. There are awards, bursaries and a competition bearing her name. I got to know her music while I was a student at music college, and eager to know more, I turned to a book of her Letters and Diaries. As soon as I read the first letter, I knew that an audience should meet this remarkable woman – one of our greatest ever contraltos – and hear her story, in her own words.

Unconventionally for the 1940s, Kathleen came to professional singing relatively late. Married at 23, she divorced her husband, a bank manager in Silloth, Cumbria, and moved to London in the middle of the second world war, unsure if she would be able to pay the rent. But she forged a career and, as a single woman, travelled the UK, Europe and the US, often alone and paying her own way. It is this brave, passionate woman that I wanted an audience to meet and, with director and writer Chris Baldwin, devised my one-woman play, Whattalife! using only Ferrier’s own words taken from her letters, diaries and verbatim accounts.

Ferrier’s witty and honest letters to her sister Winn, her father “Pop”, her close friends and her agent Mr Tillett reveal the flesh-and-blood woman behind her blossoming international career. Even her first surviving letter, written on 2 November 1940, catches vividly the drama of her life and the realities of wartime Britain. “We had ages to wait for the train eventually, so from sheer desperation we explored Tullie House and the reading room, and by chance saw that the Sadler’s Wells opera company were at Keswick that week, and what an opportunity! I have never seen a real, live opera, have you? So we brooded and we counted our petrol coupons and decided we’d risk it and coast down the hills and push John Tomas [her car] up the hills. Anything to see Marriage of Figaro.”

Lucy Stevens as Kathleen Ferrier in Whattalife!
Lucy Stevens as Kathleen Ferrier in Whattalife! Photograph: Geoff Broadway

Later, the letters catalogue the life of a busy, committed singer, struggling at times with the workload and the conditions of endless touring. I was constantly struck by her friendly, conversational tone and groundedness. Her letters are full of humour and idiosyncratic words and phrases – “pickled tink” and “Whattalife!”, and her stories are all garnished with a punchline.

Like Ferrier, I’m a contralto, and woven through the piece are short extracts from her repertoire, which follow the chronology of Kathleen’s professional journey from her debut as a soloist in Messiah to her final performance – in Orpheus at Convent Garden in 1953. I don’t try to mimic Ferrier – I use my own singing voice, but I do use her vowel sounds. My singing teacher, the late Gerald Wragg, head of opera at the Royal Welsh College, was sceptical that this could work. As a young man, he had seen Ferrier perform live and could not imagine someone playing her on stage. So I asked him to play on the piano from Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, while I spoke text from a draft of Whattalife! over it, singing only the last phrase. He had a tear rolling down his cheek when we finished. It was then I knew not only could I perform the piece but it was a powerful device for telling Kathleen’s story.

Hear Kathleen Ferrier sing What Is Life and Art Thou Troubled.

The play follows life’s highs “… I’m fit as a flea … and haven’t had a cigarette since I left the boat – in fact I’m too bloody good to live (only I hope no one’s listening, ’cos I like it just the same!)” and lows: “So I’m unhappy at the moment and you would probably say it was good for my art – but if this is art, then I hate it – I hate music, I hate my own voice, I hate people and I hate America! There!! I’m sorry – it’s just tiredness … am going to have a bath and leave a tidemark just to get my money’s-worth …”.

Towards the end of her life, in 1952, she was forced to cancel major engagements due to ill health and took to gardening. One biographer, Maurice Leonard, tells the story that one day, as she gardened in Hampstead, in a surge of high spirits she burst into a thunderous rendition of Handel’s Like as the Lovelorn Turtle. This has been incorporated into the play, although we had to go to the British Library to find the music.

Hear Kathleen Ferrier sing Like as the Lovelorn Turtle.

Ferrier died in 1953. Her sister Winifred lived until 1995 and protected Kathleen’s legacy with great care. Maybe she was afraid that Kath’s humour and love of risky limericks might somehow undermine the power of her recordings. But for me it enhances them. Kathleen wasn’t trained for the stage and said she didn’t feel comfortable in opera, limiting her repertoire to Britten’s Rape of Lucretia and Gluck’s Orfeo. But she communicated from her heart and gave her audience a window into her strength, passion and vulnerability.

In Vienna, while recording Mahler’s Um Mitternacht with Bruno Walter, Kathleen collapsed with cancer-linked exhaustion, before the last take. She picked herself up and in the recording that followed we can hear the determination in her voice, every word of the text delivered with a depth that is almost overwhelming: “At midnight I fought the battle, of your passion, o humankind; I could not resolve it with my strength at midnight.”

Kathleen Ferrier: Whattalife! is performed by Lucy Stevens and Elizabeth Marcus at Milton Court Concert Hall, London on 30 September.

Lucy Stevens

The GuardianTramp

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