Yes, ’tis Mabel

I wrote in a previous blogpost about researching the English soprano Margaret (“Mabel”) Ritchie, whom I will be playing in the forthcoming drama about Shostakovich, Like a Chemist from Canada. At the time of writing that first post, I still was waiting to hear from various people who might have more information about her. This is a summary of what else I have learned since then:

It’s clear from the correspondence between Britten and Pears that they were both fond of Mabel and respected her as musician. Dr Nick Clark at the Britten-Pears Foundation points out that Britten and Pears were pretty candid with one another and specific in their comments on the abilities of their musical colleagues, so their continued work with and fondness for Mabel is significant. The English Opera Group was carefully formed of musicians whom Britten could trust to do good work; Mabel was just such a member from the Group’s foundation in 1947.

Britten and Mabel corresponded up until the mid-60s (she died in 1969) and she often invited him and Pears to sing at events she had organised. In terms of work offered to her, she was very clear about what she felt she could and couldn’t do. Britten apparently proposed the role of Lady Billows but Mabel declined: “I feel she is not me”.

Nancy Evans (who sang Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946, with Mabel as Lucia) writes in her unpublished manuscript After Long Pursuit of the intensity of the rehearsal process and the need to relax at the end of the day.

One suggestion was made by the delightful, but mildly eccentric, singer Margaret Ritchie, known to us all as ‘Mabel’, who possessed a beautiful, soaring soprano voice… [she] pinned up a notice on the rehearsal-board: “Would any singers who would enjoy the refreshment of singing Madrigals please meet at the bottom of the lily-pond [at Glyndebourne] after supper?”

Her anecdote suggests to me a lively person who cherished music-making in all its forms. Her mild eccentricity seems to sit perfectly comfortably with Britten’s references to her seriousness, sensitivity and musicianship. As Dr Nick Clark puts it, she was very likely one of those “salt of the earth” people who kept the rest of a cast calm, especially when the work became challenging.

On the question of her speaking voice, I was able to talk to Philip Scowcroft, whom I had discovered through this online article about Mabel, thanks to Jim Brooks. Philip attended a lecture recital given by Mabel in 1959 and, as a great fan of her singing, remembers it clearly. He writes:

if she had spoken with a northern accent, particularly a noticeable one, I would remember it, even across the intervening 56 years…

So I guess that settles it in terms of the Grimsby accent. Philip adds at the end of his letter:

for me she was one of the greatest of British sopranos of her era.

Another Mabel fan, Starrman22, has uploaded a number of her recordings of Mabel to YouTube. Here she is singing Schubert:

With thanks to Dr Paul Kildea, Dr Nick Clark of the Britten-Pears Foundation, Philip Scowcroft and Jim Brooks. Photo of Mabel, Kathleen Ferrier and Anna Pollak in The Rape of Lucretia used with permission of Getty Images. Text from After Long Pursuit used with permission of Britten-Pears Foundation.