First row: William Smith, Doug Carson, John Roberts, Harold Plummer, Selwyn James
Second row: Mary Lou (Langille) Keith, Diane (Bethune) Palmeter, Marguerite Ashworth Cahoon, Winnie (Allan) Field, Peter Flemington, Esma Taylor
Third row: Howard Ladd, Jane (Hebb) Hartling, Malcolm Joyce, Michael Meacher, Stuart Smith, Clair Ripley, Don Archibald, Ross Thompson
Annon Lee Silver, Soprano: A Personal Tribute
Written by Ron Murdock ('62)
It is 41 years ago that a beautiful, charming and highly talented operatic soprano, Annon Lee Silver, died at the very early age of 33. She was nearing the height of a mega operatic career based in Europe. Breast cancer robbed the world of a great artist. She was intelligent, musical, generous, somewhat chaotic and infinitely inspiring.
She was born in Sydney Mines, Cape Breton, in 1938. She was a graduate of Mount Allison University (1958) and went to London, England, on a Lord Beaverbrook Arts Scholarship to study piano at the Royal College of Music.
In 1961 she met the renowned voice pedagogues Professor Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling when they were guest voice teachers at the Dartington Summer of School in Devon, England. She had a few lessons with them but they both felt that there was really no voice there other than, as they told me later, “a squeak” and that she should continue her piano studies.
They didn’t recon on Annon Lee’s spontaneity and determination. One day, some months later, they opened the door of their house in Cureglia, a charming village in the mountains near Lugano, Switzerland, to find Annon Lee standing there–bag and baggage–looking (as Rodd-Marling related to me) like an angel. They asked her what she was doing there and she simply said “I’ve come to learn to sing.” She had no money whatsoever and for a few weeks survived entirely on the generosity of the other students who shared their food with her and helped her get a foothold. Husler and Rodd-Marling were too kind to send her away and agreed to “take her on” at least for a little while.
Within a very short time of daily lessons Husler and Rodd-Marling discovered a voice of great beauty, power and range. Such was the genius of these two great teachers, and such was the talent of Annon Lee Silver.
She made her operatic debut in 1963 at Glyndebourne Opera, England, singing the role of Amor in Monteverdi’s opera “The Coronation of Poppea.” She returned to Glyndebourne in 1969 as Sophie in Michael Redgrave’s production of “Werther.” In 1970 she created the role of Miss Atlanta Lillywhite in Nicholas Maw’s “The Rising of the Moon.” She sang at the Bath Festival, toured with Glyndbourne, was engaged by the Welsh Opera Company and had a full contract with the Frankfurt Opera. Karajan, the great German conductor, wanted to engage her for concerts and opera; the Edinburgh Festival was also making offers. It seemed that the world was at her feet.
My first meeting with Annon Lee was when both of us were brought back to Halifax by the Nova Scotia Talent Trust to do a series of summer concerts in 1964. She was already becoming a star in Europe; I was still a voice student studying in Montreal with Bernard Diamant.
We met the morning after she’d arrived from London, England and the idea was that we would perform a few songs each to publicize our Halifax concert. Our audience was some of the teachers who were attending a refresher course at Dal.
There had been such a buzz about Annon Lee before we arrived in Halifax that I was indeed curious to meet her and hear her. But my first impression was not at all favorable. I thought to myself “what’s all the fuss about?” I didn’t like the sound I heard at all.
However, the next night was our concert. She was first on the program. I was standing in the wings, watching and waiting.
The first notes which came out of her mouth literally knocked me off my feet. I’d never heard such beauty, such passion. It was obvious that she had been extremely well taught. What I had heard the day before bore absolutely no resemblance to what I was then hearing. It was clear that the day before she had been jet-lagged and perhaps hadn’t “sung in” enough. But at the concert she had certainly had enough rest, had certainly “sung in” well and what I heard in just those first few notes convinced me that I simply had to study with Husler and Rodd-Marling.
The headline of the review of the concert which appeared the next day in the Halifax Herald ran: “The Silver Tones of Beautiful Miss Silver.” She literally stole the show. And so she should have.
After the concert I had a long talk with her about her studies with Husler. She told me that he trained singers every day, that it was indeed a training and not just learning a technique. She showed me some of the exercises which made an instant change in my voice. Now I was even more convinced to get to Switzerland and work with these teachers and, in fact, with the help of the Nova Scotia Talent Trust, I did so and was with Husler from 1966 to 1969.
The next concert we gave was a few days later in Tatamagouche, at the Nova Scotia Festival of the Arts. We had decided to do some duets by Purcell to begin the program but we hadn’t enough time to rehearse them so we just hummed through the three songs moments before the concert began. We went on stage and it was as if we’d been singing together for years. I remember that in one of the songs I stopped singing and let her take the line; a few moments later she returned the favor to me. It was so spontaneous that both of us came off stage laughing our heads off with the sheer fun of it all. A true friendship had begun.
Singing with Annon Lee changed and improved my own vocal use. I found new sounds coming out of me which I had only guessed and hoped might be there.
Annon Lee went back to Switzerland and told Husler about me. She did so in such glowing terms that he waived the required audition. There was no way I could have afforded to go to Switzerland just for an audition. I owe my entire career to Annon Lee Silver. I was deeply honored to be invited in 1976 by the Nova Scotia Talent Trust to do a tour of the Maritimes in memory of her. Fittingly, one of the concerts was at Mt. A., her alma mater and where, a few years earlier, she had given the inaugural concert at the Marjorie Bell Conservatory building.
After I’d studied a year with Husler, Annon Lee and I met in England at Dartington Summer School of Music where we performed together in the Great Hall, a 14th century banqueting hall. The orchestra was The Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields. The conductor was Neville Marriner. This was sheer joy.
Annon Lee could sing Schubert, Wolf, Strauss and Berg as if she was composing on the spot. I’ve never heard a singer be so spontaneous, joyous, so fully committed to the text and music. Heart, mind, soul and body united to produce something so beautiful, so exquisite, that the memory of it is still fresh in my mind all these years later.
Somewhere in about 1968 or 1969 she noticed she had a lump on one of her breasts. She waited just a bit too long before having it investigated but when she did go to a doctor breast cancer was diagnosed. She had the lump removed and, I think, underwent radiotherapy. But quite soon the cancer began to spread.
She died in London, England, on 27 July 1971 at the age of 33. The obituary in the London Times ended with the words: “Sing On.” At the time, my wife gave me a thin plain silver disk on a silver chain with those words inscribed. I wore it with pride throughout my entire singing career.
In the same obituary (London Times, 2 August 1971) the writer remembered “her voice of unmistakable, individual quality and . . .her particular vivacious charm and endearing personality.”
Annon Lee is buried in the Oakfield Cemetry, Marion Bridge, Cape Breton. On her grave marker are the words from the London Times obituary and on my silver disc: “Sing On.”
First row: Evelyn (Monck) Cumming, Rhoda Jean (McLeod) Fraser, John Patterson, Tom Forrestall, Harold Plummer, John Roberts, Judy Buzzell, Marguerite (Ashworth) Cahoon, Marion (Martin) Julian, Patricia (Foran) McGorlick, Anne (McAllan) Gordon
Second row: Ted Cassidy, Beth (Mann) Couillard, Diane (Dulmage) Matheson, Peter Flemington, Mike Meacher, Neil Sargeant, Doug Matheson, Doug Carson, Judith (Bastin) Outerbridge, Mary (Titus) Mills, Heather (MacLennan) Little, Esma (Hitchcock) Taylor, Diane (Bethune) Palmeter, Maria (Hayden) Martens, Susanne (Notting) Darby
Third row: Les M. Little, Harold Giddens, Jane (Hebb) Hartling, Dave Greenwood, Gilbert Pike, Don Archibald, Tom Scott, Joanne Bond, Winnie (Allan) Field, Selwyn James, Nancy (Caldwell) Davis, Katherine MacDonald, Dave Darby
Fourth row: Howard Ladd, Peter Vanier, William Smith, Ross Thompson, Merle Pratt, Bill Jones, Harold Sheridan