Edna Graham


'It's so difficult to imagine music in Redbridge without Edna. I the very first year the theatre opened Edna was directing a children's opera on behalf of the Music School. When Kenneth More himself made his performing debut in the theatre named after him, Edna was singing in that performance. She has been around forever. She has been our musical inspiration, the driving force behind our operas and classical music. [...] She inspired generations of schoolchildren and helped launch the careers of many professional performers. She was really a woman who made a difference.' (Vivyan Ellacott, manager of the Kenneth More Theatre, May 27, 2005)

Edna Graham (August 16, 1925, Christchurch, New Zealand – May 26, 2005) was a near child prodigy in a popular children's choir in New Zealand, which was conducted by her mother, a trained musician. Both Edna and her sister Diana distinguished themselves there at an early age. Edna travelled to London in 1947, to study at the Royal Academy of Music, on a scholarship awarded to her by her country. From then on she also occasionally performed in public. Her career got a head start in 1952, when she joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. Next, Graham was chosen by Sir Thomas Beecham to sing the title role in the first performance of Delius's Irmelin. Nineteen years after the death of the composer, the performance took place at the New Theatre, Oxford, on 4 May 1953.

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All Beecham's yells of encouragement at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and his soloist couldn't prevent the failure of Delius first opera, which he had composed in the 1890s. From Oxford, Graham went to Glyndebourne where she debuted that summer as one of the three Naiads in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Her repertoire at the time included operatic and non-operatic works ranging from J.S. Bach to Alban Berg. A 1953 concert appearance includes arias from Rigoletto, The tales of Hoffmann, La traviata, and Otello, in addition to which she also sang two songs by the then famous Dutch composer Richard Hageman, 'Do not go my love', and 'Miranda.' Graham's Covent Garden début took place during the 1954/55 season as Olympia in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. She excelled by means of a technical ease and a facility that well suited the mechanical nature of the 'girl'.

From Naiad to the IVC and from there to Zerbinetta

Her impressive chronology by the time she came to Den Bosch made the IVC victory and the subsequent 45RPM Philips release of 'Sempre libera' from Verdi appear like mere trophies in her curriculum.

Verdi: La traviata 'Sempre libera'
Edna Graham (soprano), Brabants Orkest – Hein Jordans (cd)
September 1956, IVC Final Concert

EDNA-GRAHAM-3Just around the time of her IVC participation graham was scheduled the Queen of Night at Covent Garden. According to Elizabeth Forbes for The independent, the part would become her signature role, 'in which she was able to express the character's malignant emotions through the flights of coloratura. She also sang the Queen of Night in Munich and Oslo, while continuing to alternate the role with that of Olympia at Covent Garden for the following two seasons.'

During the summer of 1957 she returned to Glyndebourne where she progressed from Naiad to Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Replacing the indisposed Rita Streich at last minute, Graham alternated in the daring coloratura part with official replacement Mimi Coertse. Elizabeth Forbes summarizes her remaining career as follows:

'In 1959 Graham appeared twice at Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk. In January she sang Madame Silberklang in Mozart's The Impresario and in July she sang Fiorilla in Rossini's Il turco in Italia, an enchanting performance, by all accounts. Meanwhile, in June she took part in another premiere, singing Jenny in The Borderline by Wilfrid Mellers at the Scala Theatre in London. Graham rejoined the Carl Rosa in 1960 for a London season at the Prince's Theatre, singing Olympia. The following year she sang Lida in Verdi's La battaglia di Legnano, given by Welsh National Opera as The Battle.

Graham continued to sing for another decade, but apart from appearances with Holland Park Opera as Rosina in The barber of Seville and the Countess in The marriage of Figaro, she was absent from London. She sang with Limerick Grand Opera in Ireland, she toured with Imperial Opera, she gave concerts of Puccini arias in Rome.'

Teacher the Kenneth More Theatre

Throughout, she augmented her income by touring the UK and Ireland, while also appearing in occasional broadcasts and recording sessions. In 1972, after ten years of touring, she left the stage and accepted an engagement with the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, where she taught singing whilst also appearing in over 250 school performances. The Theatre could seat an orchestra of 26, and Graham conducted and sang there in operas by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Kurt Weill and many others. She also conducted musicals, including seven Stephen Sondheim pieces, beginning with Sweeney Todd, as well as Gypsy, Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music and La Cage aux Folles. In between she produced student productions of La Traviata and Britten's Noyes Fludde in Vancouver.

She died in London on May 26, 2005, after she lost her battle with brain cancer, which had revealed itself in October 2004. Her last will specified that only her favorite student was allowed to sing at the funeral, where no religious music was allowed to be played.

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Edna Graham's official discography seems to be comprised of her 1956 IVC Gala Concert recording of 'je suis Titania,', and her rendition of Casilda on Sir Malcolm Sargent's EMI recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers.