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 Margaret Curphey

by

Maurice Powell

Margaret Curphey is beyond question the most eminent Manx-born singer of the second half of the twentieth century, for although the Island has always produced a number of fine local singers,* some of whom enjoyed and indeed are enjoying a measure of success ‘across’ in the UK and elsewhere, only Margaret Curphey can be regarded as a major opera singer whose appearances at Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells, English National Opera and Scottish Opera in some of the most demanding roles in the operatic repertoire from the operas of Mozart, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Weber and Wagner, are still remembered fondly today. Her inclusion in the series ‘Manx Musical Worthies’ is long overdue.

 

* The soprano May Clague, the triple Cleveland Medal winner Alan Quirk, the soprano Nora Moore, the quadruple Cleveland Medal winner Allan Wilcocks, Jean Curphey who enjoyed a successful career on radio in the 1950s and ‘60s, the six times Cleveland medal winner Karen Elliott and most recently the contralto Mandy Griffin, four times the Cleveland Medal winner, to name just a few.

Margaret was born 1938 in Douglas, the daughter of William Edward Curphey - a well-known local Police Sergeant and later the Inspector of the Harbour Police - and Mary Susanna Curphey née Gelling. Both Wally and Susie, as they were affectionately known, were singers, her father, a tenor who later developed into a fine baritone, her mother, a mezzo-soprano. Margaret’s twin sisters, Muriel and Christine also became well-known local singers; her youngest sister, Mary, took a different path altogether, and, as there were no opportunities for female police officers on the Island at that time, joined the Lancashire Police Force. The Curphey-Gelling Family of Singers were well-known in Manx musical circles and were destined to become a force to be reckoned with at the Island’s prestige competitive Music Festival, the Guild.

‘She could sing before she could talk!’

It was from her mother that Margaret received her first singing lessons and continued these lessons up to the age of fourteen. She attended Murrays Road School, Park Road School and later Castle Rushen High School and Ballkermeen. Her first public performance was at the age of five at a Buck’s Road Sunday School Anniversary service. She took piano lessons from Miss T. C. Corris, and later, singing lessons from Douglas Buxton, the highly regarded choir trainer, conductor and singer.

Margaret’s name first appeared in the local newspapers in the Mona’s Herald in April 1945 when she was listed among the successful candidates in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music preliminary grade piano examination. The following year she won a prize in the Recitation Class for girls under the age of ten at the Union Mills Eisteddfod, and in April and July that year, was listed among the soloists at the children’s afternoon services of the Choir Sundays at Ballasalla Wesleyan Church. Over the next few years Margaret took part either as a soloist or competitor in annual Sunday School Anniversaries, local Eisteddford’s – where she one many Rose Bowls - and other church-based services and entertainments too numerous to mention and continued to take her piano grade examinations. A brief report in the Isle of Man Examiner of 6th May 1949 of an entertainment headed ‘Island of Singing Birds’, was the first to mention the title of a song she sang, in a vocal class for girls aged ten to fourteen: When the Fairies Do Their Shopping’.

In 1950 she joined the Young Folks League, and in June was one of three winners of a word making competition.  That year, though, aged twelve, she sustained a serious injury to her hip in a school playground accident which resulted in a fifteen-month sojourn in Noble’s Hospital during 1950-51. * In February 1951 she was the winner of a YFL photographic competition, and in July, having just been released from hospital, she won a special award of Festival of Britain picnic crowns.

* See Isle of Man Examiner, 23.6.50 for a photograph of Margaret on her ward when the cast of Stella Hartley’s summer season entertainment Showtime visited the hospital.

Margaret’s first appearance in the Manx Music Festival was in May 1951 when she sang Reger’s The Virgin’s Slumber Song, was placed joint second, and was chosen to sing in the final. In 1953 she won first prize in her age fifteen to eighteen class and the adjudicator noted in his remarks: ‘Phrases well; tone always pleasing; naturally commands attention by her performance’.

The year 1953 and 1954 were typically busy years for the young singer with appearances at a World Manx Assoc annual meeting, when she was said to be ‘in excellent voice’; as a young prize winner from the Guild at the BBC Northern Children’s Hour broadcast from Villa Marina; performing two songs at the Beekeepers Annual Thanksgiving at St. Mary’s Church, Port St. Mary, and at two Harvest Thanksgiving Services. In March 1954 she was awarded the Silver Rose Bowl at Union Mills Eisteddfod for second year in succession, and in July and December appeared as a soloist at two concerts with the Lon Dhoo Ladies Choir and the Lon Vane Ladies Choir, directed her vocal teacher Douglas Buxton.

‘Manx Soloists always sing from the heart’

Both Margaret and her mother Susie Curphey were prize-winners at the 63rd Manx Music Festival in 1955, which attracted the largest post-war entry, and introduced new opera and oratorio classes. Susie competed in the Cleveland Medal competition; Margaret was place first in the girls’ solo under eighteen class with Sullivan’s Orpheus With His Lute, and she also took part in the duet class with her father, and her sister Mary also took part. The adjudicator wrote that Margaret’s was ‘. . . a voice of considerable beauty, warm and mellow . . . (in) a most musical and artistic performance’. That year she sang in the Festival Concert for the first time.

In October that year Margaret travelled off the Island for the first time to compete in the Blackpool Music Festival. The Mona’s Herald* reported on a ‘Brilliant start by Manx Competitors . . . the best day’s performance by Manx competitors . . . and a ‘Newcomers’ Triumph’. The outstanding performer in the Festival ‘. . . was blue eyed 17-year-old Margaret Curphey who won the Howarth Trophy in the girls’ high voice solo’, one of the most impressive debuts in the history of the Festival and the first time a Manx singer had won that class since 1933.* Margaret received an ovation following the adjudicator Herbert Howells’ remarks when he complimented her on a performance of ‘exquisite beauty and sheer musicality . . . (and) a beauty of sound to match the beauty of the poem and the music’. Indeed, Margaret’s voice, no longer merely a pretty, tuneful girl’s voice, had considerably matured by this stage. She also shared first prize with her uncle Tom Gelling in a soprano and baritone duet by Purcell, My Dearest, My Fairest.

*  Mona’s Herald, 25.10.1955

* Isle of Man Examiner, 29.10.1955.

If you need a rose bowl, ask Margaret Curphey.

In March 1956 Margaret added yet another trophy to her collection when she won the Grimshaw Rose Bowl at the Atholl Street Methodist Church Eisteddfod. At the Manx Music Festival in May she was placed second in the soprano and baritone duet class with Tom Gelling. Her phrasing was praised but the adjudicator felt that the two voices were not ideally matched. There were fewer Manx entries at the Blackpool Music Festival in October, although three members of the Curphey family – Susie, Margaret and her sister Mary – took part, plus Susie’s brother and sister-in-law. Margaret competed in four classes and was placed ninth in open soprano class, third, with her sister Mary, in the soprano duet class, and sixth with Susie Curphey in the soprano and mezzo-soprano class, when both were praised for their ‘well-matched and delightful tone’.

In February 1957 Margaret took to the stage in the small role of the gypsy girl Vanya in Manx Operatic Society’s production of Johann Strauss II’s The Gypsy Baron, and according to one reviewer ‘made the most of her part’. Margaret won considerable praise in the Manx Music Festival that year when she was placed first in the solo soprano operatic class for her performance of ‘. . . a difficult song tackled so bravely . . . a pretty soprano voice . .   (and) a charming singer’. She was place second in the soprano and bass duet class with Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Come unto these Yellow Sands, by Purcell, and second in the soprano solo class where she displayed ‘. . . a full joyous tone’ in a performance where her ‘. . .  generous voice and talent’ were fully displayed.

In something of a departure from her usual round of engagements, Margaret was invited to be a guest artiste in the 5th Annual RAFA Show in September with Phil Moss and his band. There was another ‘big vocal invasion’ from the Island at the Blackpool Music Festival that year which once again was something of a Curphey-Gelling family affair, with the family ‘quintet’ heading the honours list. Although she failed to secure a place in the final of the operatic solo class, her performance of the Willow Song from Verdi’s Otello was judged to be a ‘. . .. very, very well-thought-out performance . . .’

In January 1958 Margaret presented a selection of Manx Songs at an Albert Road School Parent-Teacher Association concert in Ramsey, and the following month sang in the chorus of the Manx Operatic Society’s production of White Horse Inn at the Gaiety Theatre. The Ramsey Courier noted that ‘the ladies of the chorus include some of the Island’s most promising (young) vocalists . . .’ Margaret was awarded the Mary Purcell Cup in the Manx Music Festival that year after attaining the highest marks in a vocal solo. She was also placed third in the soprano and bass duet class, and first in the soprano and alto duet class and was awarded the Billown Rose Bowl where her performance of Montague Phillip’s Sing, Joyous Bird was judged to be ‘. . . brilliantly sparkling . . . (and) marked by perfect enthusiasm and wonderful artistry’.

Margaret in concert with Ivy Benson

In July, in yet another departure from her usual sphere, nineteen-year-old Margaret, ‘a member of a well-known local singing family’, was invited to sing with Ivy Benson and her all-girl band*. at an afternoon concert in the Villa Marina Gardens, and at an evening concert, in place of the resident band vocalist Cherry Hutton who was indisposed. She sang Puccini’s O My Beloved Father and Stephen Adam’s uplifting Victorian ballad The Holy City in performances that were, according to Ivy Benson herself, ‘the musical highlight of the evening . . . on an Island noted for its wonderful singers’. The other guest artistes on that occasion were the Ray Ellington Quartet and their resident singer Valerie Masters, later a popular radio and television presenter and actress. Later that month she sang Danny Boy to great acclaim with Ivy Benson at a Sunday Concert when the guest star was David Whitfield.

* Ivy Benson and her All-Girl Band was one of the summer season resident bands at the Villa Marina and Gardens from 1955 until 1965. See Maurice Powell, Summer Entertainment on the Isle of Man: The Joe Loss Years Part II; Ronnie, Ivy, Ken and Phil, but no Joe, and A Fond Farewell to Ivy and RonnieEntertainments in Douglas 1951-55 Book 3.pdf (3legs.com)

The 1958 Blackpool Music Festival was another ‘Family Affair’ with Susie Curphey, Tom Gelling, the twenty-year-old Margaret, and the Blackpool debuts of Christine and Muriel Curphey. Margaret was not a finalist that year, but participated in the soprano open, operatic and lieder classes.  On 14th December that year she was among the soloists in Buck’s Road Methodist Church’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. The orchestra was led by one of great stalwarts of Manx music making, the violinist Kathleen Rydings, and conducted by J. V. Jolley

Margaret took to the stage again in February 1959 in Manx Operatic Society’s production of The Three Musketeers, in which she played the Queen, and celebrated her twenty-first birthday during the run of the show. Her performance of ‘the musical jewel of the production’, My Dreams, was reportedly distinguished by ‘. . . glorious singing . . . (and) a memorable quality of restraint’.

The rest of the year comprised the familiar mixture as before. In March Margaret, ‘. . . one of the first-rate singers in the country’, took part in a performance of J. H.  Maunder’s once popular Victorian Easter oratorio Olivet to Calvary. She was placed third in the Special Soprano class at the Manx Music Festival in May when the adjudicator was impressed by her ‘. . . very good legato . . . (and) very delicately poised voice. . .’, and the Curphey family were triumphant at the Blackpool Music Festival in October, although Margaret failed to secure a place in the final despite winning ‘high praise’ and giving  ‘. . . a profoundly  moving’ performance in an aria from a Haydn oratorio. The adjudicator was possibly suggesting that her voice on this occasion had been uneven, but perhaps this was an actually an acknowledgement that Margaret’s voice had acquired a suitably operatic weight and richness of timbre. The year ended with her appearance as the guest artiste at the Isle of Man Shorthorn Breeders Association annual dinner at the Sefton Hotel.

Triple Triumph for ‘The Manx Princess of Song’

The year 1960 was in every sense Margaret’s year, and began with a concert performance of William Wallace’s Maritana - one of the most performed operas in the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain - in January with the combined Lon Dhoo and Lon Vane choirs and an orchestra of sixteen plus two pianists, directed by Douglas Buxton, in which she took the title role. She ‘shone’ in this, her first major operatic role notably in the aria Scenes that are the Brightest and the Act III duet Sainted Mother with her aunt Ena Gelling, although the Villa Marina was nowhere near full to hear this ‘wonderful old opera’.

The sixty-eighth Manx Music Festival took place in May that year, and twenty-two-year-old Margaret, described in one local newspaper as ‘a dress maker . . . who makes all her own clothes’ * gave a ‘thrilling performance’ of a Bach song which won her a place in the final of the Cleveland Medal competition of the first time. Her singing of Liza Lehmann’s Magdalen at Michael’s Gate was judged to be above the ordinary level by a long way’; she won the Noah Moore Trophy in the oratorio class in a performance characterised by ‘. . . outstanding timing and phrasing’. In all, Margaret participated in three finals: for the Billown Rose Bowl in the vocal duet class with Ena Gelling; in the lieder final for the F. M. Cubbon Rose Bowl, and in the Cleveland Medal final when she sang the aria Gathering Berries from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden and displayed ‘a technique far beyond the average’.

The Isle of Man Times * had no doubts that the 1960 Guild was ‘one of the finest contests for years, and reminiscent of the golden years between the wars’. The standard had been ‘fantastically high’; Margaret was ‘a lovely singer in wonderful performances’ and was ‘. . . a popular, delightful and deserving choice’ as the Cleveland Medal winner. Margaret also appeared at the Villa Marina in the Festival Concert and trophy presentation evening and sang Mimi’s Farewell from Puccini’s La Boheme. How many in the audience realised that they were witnessing the emergence of a real opera star whose rich, soaring soprano  would soon be heard beyond Manxland’s shores on some of England’s most prestigious operatic stages?

 After leaving school Margaret served time as a trainee tailoress at James Lay’s establishment before starting own business.

* Isle of Man Times, 05.05.1960.

 * See photograph in the Mona’s Herald, 10.05. 1960

The most unusual of the many accolades Margaret received appeared in John Quirk’s Dairy in the Isle of Man Daily Times, ‘Ffinlowatha’,* a ‘pastiche’ of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, part of which, entitled Reward,  contains the following reference to Margaret:

‘Came the moment, came the highlight,

When a maiden – Margaret Curphey – (Wally’s daughter, Susie’s offspring,)

Stepped upon the high, wide platform,

Stepped before the straight-faced judges,

And the crowds from town and parish;

Sang her songs so rich and lovely,

Sang her songs just like a treasure,

Sang them sweeter, O my Mother,

Than the lark could at the dawning’.

* Isle of Man Daily Times, 10.05.1960

Margaret was soon plunged back into the familiar whirlpool of activities. She was the guest artiste at the annual dinner of the Lon Dhoo Choir. She took part in the annual service for Manx Homecomers in June, and a concert in the Marine Hall, Peel, in July. Later that month the World Manx Association gathering was attended ninety-seven-year-old Richard Cain OBE, when Margaret singing ‘thrilled’ the visitors. She once again deputised for one of Ivy Benson’s resident vocalists in the Villa Marina Gardens receiving ‘a big ovation’, and appeared as the guest vocalist with the Band of the Royal Horse Guards directed by Major T. Thirtle for their summer concerts in Peel Castle grounds and in Port Erin.

‘Our Manx nightingale’ is the toast of the Island

No less than three Cleveland medal winners participated in the Blackpool Music Festival in October: Ena Gelling (1951 and 1958), Gladys Skillicorn (1953), and Margaret Curphey, who won ‘the Blue Riband of the Festival’, the coveted Rose Bowl, the fourth Manx singer to do so,* with a favourite aria from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. She also won the Wilson Rose Bowl in the light operatic class with Vilja from Lehar’s The Merry Widow and was placed first in the soprano and contralto class with Ena Gelling. She came second in oratorio class with that ‘brilliant test piece’, the Allelujah from Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate, which was ‘brilliantly sung and rounded off with a brilliant top C’. A huge pile of mail from all over the world awaited Margaret on her return to Douglas.

* The other previous Manx winners were Lilian Pickard, Arthur Quirk, and Eileen Peters

Fenella in the Isle of Man Daily Times Manx Women’s feature wrote an open letter to Margaret* offering her ‘. . . our warmest congratulations on your tremendous success . . .’ on behalf of the readers for hers was a unique accomplishment in just one year. The article concluded by referring to Margaret as ‘the greatest Manx singer of the present generation . . . like your parents and the whole wonderful singing family, you are down-to-earth and a worker . . . the Island is very proud of you’.

In November Maritana was revived and given in the Centenary Hall, Peel, and at Port St. Mary Town Hall, presumably in a concert version; on 11th December Margaret took part in the Buck’s Road Methodist Church Messiah and Christmas Fayre, and later the Minorca Chapel Christmas Effort concert.* The year finished with a call in a local newspaper for the establishment of a fund to send Margaret to Rome or Milan or London for serious operatic training. Afterall, Europe had once fêted a Swedish Nightingale (Jenny Lind), so why not a ‘Manx Nightingale?

* Isle of Man Daily Times, 01.11.1960.

*  Also taking part in this event was W. H. Holden, ‘Willy’, an elderly gentleman violinist, who as a child had been a member of the well-known Holden Family Orchestra who, in the 1880s and ‘90s, had provided dance music at the Belle Vue Pleasure Grounds.

The rest, as they say, is history . . . and a glorious one.

On 14th January 1961, following encouragement and advice from Gordon Clinton, an adjudicator at the 1960 Manx Music Festival, Margret left the island to begin her singing career by attending the Birmingham School of Music, with vocal studies with the leading English baritone and teacher John Carol Case and the tenor David Galliver, renowned for his performances of Bach.  At the end of the month, a toast was raised to her at the Ramsey Male Choir Annual Dinner.

Margaret returned to the Island briefly in April at the guest artiste at concert at the Villa Marina with Douglas Town Band during which she sang songs and arias by Strauss, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov and Schubert. In June she took part in a showcase recital at the Midland Institute for Birmingham School of Music students, sang Hugo Wolf’s charming Elfenlied and earned the following comments from one critic: ‘Miss Curphey’s talent is outstanding. She has style, radiance, assurance and an ability to let herself so without losing control or developing an edge’.

Margaret - now the acknowledged ‘the Island’s leading singer’ - was heard in Douglas again during Carnival Week August in 1962 when she was the guest vocalist with the Irish Guards Band at a Celebrity Concert at the new Sea Terminal. Later that week she also appeared at the Villa Marina at the Festival Concert starring the popular television quiz-master Hughie Green, as part of the Old Time Dance Festival that year.

Margaret Curphey joined English Arts Council’s Opera for All tour in 1963, and during 1964-65 was a member of the Glyndebourne Opera chorus, understudied Montserrat Caballé in the role of Lady Macbeth and played the part of the Gentlewoman. It was in 1965 that she became a Principal at Sadlers’ Wells Theatre and achieved success in the roles of Micaëla, the hapless village girl in Bizet’s Carmen, and the Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Margaret stayed with Sadler’s Wells, and then with English National Opera when the company moved to the London Coliseum in 1968, for thirteen glorious years.

In July 1966 Margaret was the guest artiste with the Regal Singers at a concert at Loch Promenade Schoolroom, and in September she once again appeared with the Band of the Irish Guards at the Villa Marina for a Sunday afternoon concert. During 1967 she appeared with Scottish Opera in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Glucks’ Orfeo and Verdi’s La Traviata. The following year she undertook her first Wagnerian roles at English National Opera, that of a ‘radiant’ Eva in Die Meistersinger and ‘a lovely, soaring’ Else in Lohengrin. In June that year Margaret and the fine baritione Philip Summerscales were married in Braddan Church.*

* Oldham-born Philip Summerscales, a characterful singer in operetta, opera, lieder and English songs and a well-known Manx businessman will be the subject of a future article in the series ‘Manx Musical Worthies.’

In 1970 Margaret won the Bronze Medal at the International Young Opera Singers competition in Sofia in the role of Violetta in La Traviata. Her other roles at Sadler’s Wells and English National Opera included Musetta in Puccini’s La Boheme and Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Between 1970 and 1973 Margaret took part in the ground-breaking English Wagner Ring cycle at English National Opera directed by the underrated Wagnerite Reginald Goodall, during which she took the roles of Sieglinde in Die Walkűre - one of her favourite roles - Gutrune and Brunnhilde in Götterdämmerung, and later, when the company toured to Seattle. Her contemporaries included some of the finest English singers of the day: the mezzo-soprano Katherine Pring -  a striking Carmen - the dramatic soprano Rita Hunter, the Heldentenor Alberto Remedios, Norman Bailey - the finest English Wotan, Alberich and Hans Sachs of his time - the baritone Derek Hammond-Stroud, a superb Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, and Eric Shilling, supreme in comic and serious roles in such widely diverse operettas and operas as Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and Prokofiev’s War and Peace. In 1971 Margaret was once again an ‘ecstatic’ Elsa in Lohengrin; the following year she appeared again with Scottish Opera in Götterdämmerung, Cavalleria Rusticana and Carmen.  In December 1978, in a departure from her familiar appearances on the operatic stage, Margaret appeared with Vera Lynn and Rolf Harris on Tuesday Night is Gala Night on BBC Radio 2.

Return to Mona’s Isle

Margaret Curphey returned to the Island as a permanent resident once again in 1980, but during the next decade appeared with English National Opera North in productions of Borodin’s Prince Igor, Weber’s Der Freischűtz and Oberon and Britten’s Turn of the Screw. Throughout the 1980s Margaret was much in demand as an international concert artiste and took part in several performances of Verdi’s Requiem under the batons of Maurice Handford, Richard Hickox and Edward Downes in Coventry Cathedral, the Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall, and travelled as far afield as Reykjavik and Singapore. In Geneva she sang the role of Miss Jessel in Roderick Brydon’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. In 1994 she appeared once again with English National Opera where she undertook her favourite operatic role, that of Mary Stuart in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Her one career regret? That she never had the opportunity to sing the role of Tosca in Puccini’s searing, dramatic opera.  

Margaret finally retired in 1994 following a farewell concert at Erin Arts Centre together with Alberto Remedios and Philip Summerscales. She remains to this day a much loved and highly respected supporter of music on the island, and Patron of the Mannin International Opera Festival at the Erin Arts Centre.

Ramsey, July 2021

 

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