Finding Mabel Ritchie

There are many operas and plays based on real events or people who really lived: Don Carlo and Kròl Roger; Oppenheimer and Masterclass (about Maria Callas) to name a few. Any performer playing someone who died within the last 100 years probably has the benefit of archival information in the form of photos, recordings and film, or in the memories of those still living.

Margaret Ritchie, soprano
Photo: Derek Allen

I’m currently researching the English soprano Margaret (or “Mabel”) Ritchie as I am playing her in a theatre production later this year.

Mabel had a walk-on part in several important musical moments in history – Benjamin Britten was fond of her and cast her as the first Lucia in The Rape of Lucretia (with Ferrier as Lucretia), the first Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring, and the first soloist in A Ceremony of Carols. She also appeared in a couple of films: as the wordless soloist in Vaughan-Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (based on his soundtrack for the 1953 film Scott of the Antarctic) and as Adelina Patti in the film Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945).

Mabel also sang at a soirée in Oxford in 1958 on the evening of Shostakovich’s receipt of his honorary degree from the University. Quite how she found herself there isn’t clear but it may have been through Alexandra Trevor-Roper, wife of a prominent academic, who was a keen amateur singer and music-lover. The events surrounding Shostakovich’s visit are now the subject of a new play by Lewis Owens, entitled Like a Chemist from Canada.

We know that Mabel was born in Grimsby but I haven’t yet been able to find out whether she spoke with an accent (as Kathleen Ferrier did) or whether she was rather more RP.

Luckily a letter from Britten to Peter Pears has yielded some character clues:

Mabel is being awfully sweet. She is a very sensitive good artist – sometimes as a person that funny Christian Scientist streak appears, a sort of solemn obstinacy – but she is very serious and understanding“. (November 1946)

We know from a letter written by Sir Isaiah Berlin after that evening in Oxford that Mabel sang some Poulenc songs, but not which ones. He is rather ungenerous about her performance, writing that she sang “absurdly, in the ludicrous Victorian English fashion, Shostakovich writhed a little but Poulenc, very polite, very mundane, congratulated her and made grimaces to others behind her back“.

It’s interesting to read such judgements of her singing; as so often, it says as much about the critic as the singer. Her delivery does indeed sound slightly old-fashioned to modern ears but she was known for her silvery sound and purity of tone. Britten describes her as “a very light coloratura soprano” (I will therefore be playing her with a certain licence!) and was clearly fond of her professionally as well as personally. She was also rated highly by the critics of the day and sang alongside other great British singers such as Joan Cross, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Alfred Deller and Constance Shacklock.

You can form your own opinion from her various recordings on You Tube and here she is singing Mozart’s Ridente la calma:

Like a Chemist from Canada is at Sadlers Well on June 13, the Royal Academy of Music on June 14 and the Sheldonian, Oxford on July 3. If you want to know what the play’s title refers to, you will need to come and see the show!