Soo Bee Lee
‘Opera-goers with memories long enough to date back to the 1960s will not have forgotten the enchantingly pretty Chinese soprano Soo Bee Lee as Damigella, the serving maid in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea at Glyndebourne. Her flirtatious duet with Valetto, the page, sung by the tenor Duncan Robertson, regularly brought forth a storm of applause from enraptured audiences for three years running, in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The old auditorium at Glyndebourne made a perfect framework for Soo Bee Lee, whose delicate voice was well projected and whose diction was exemplary.’ (Elizabeth Forbes, The Independent, Soo Bee Lee obituary, 2005)
Singaporese soprano Soo-Bee Lee (May 9, 1934 – August 31, 2005) was the eldest of six children. She grew up in Japanese-occupied Singapore, working on her grandmother's farm and helping to raise her siblings. According o her obituary in The Guardian, this was perhaps the foundation of her indomitable spirit. She remained big sister, or ‘Chi,’ to all of them, renowned for her letter writing as they scattered around the globe. She was encouraged to make a career of singing by Joan Hammond, the Australian dramatic soprano, and the conductor Walter Susskind. She obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she arrived in 1955. This took some courage and determination, as she faced initial opposition (though later loving admiration) from her father. A gold medalist at the RAM, she stayed on for an extra year and then studied further at the National Opera School. Initially, she also had problems proving herself in the world of European song, in a far less multicultural Britain than today’s Britain. In 1958, she married to the actor Glyn Davys, and initially she devoted herself to her family. Nonetheless, she arrived to the IVC Den Bosch in September 1960, in order to test her ground.
Soo Bee Lee at he IVC 1960
Dutch critic Gérard Verlinden thought Lee’s voice insecure in her semi final renditions of Händel and Mozart, whereas the misplaced English translation of Micaëla’s Carmen aria did give a fair idea of her possibilities. It proved enough to pass to the finals, where she received an Honorary Diploma for her performances of aria’s from Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, Mozart’s Die Hochzeit des Figaro, and a song by Delius. Soo–Bee Lee’s exotic looks obviously attracted some journalist to her, which accounts for the fact that we have both her drawing, and a photo from a newspaper publication.
Little over a year after her 1960 IVC participation, at Christmas 1961, she appeared on BBC television in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel as the Sandman. The obituary in the Independent further informs us that in April 1962, Lee was engaged by Sadler's Wells Opera (now English National Opera) to sing the trouser role of Sali as a child in the first scene of a new production of A Village Romeo and Juliet, at the Bradford Delius Festival. The grown-up Sali was sung by fellow IVC 1960 participant, tenor John Wakefield. On 29 June the first professional performance in the UK of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea scored a tremendous success in Glyndebourne, with Lee as Damigella. Other roles were Lucia in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, at Morley College in May1963, before returning to Glyndebourne in June. She sang Dorinda, making a delightful shepherdess in Handel’s Orlando with the Handel Opera Society at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1965. At the Bath Festival in June 1966, Lee was an excellent Despina in Phoenix Opera's production of Così fan tutte, conducted by Yehudi Menuhin (his operatic debut). Menuhin was again the conductor at the Windsor Festival this time, of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Eton College Theatre. Lee sang Second Woman, while Irmgard Seefried was Dido. Phoenix Opera presented Rossini's Barber of Seville at the Brighton Festival on 5 May 1971. Lee sang Rosina with great charm and a nice spirit of mischief. In 1973 Lee took part in a rare performance of Masaniello furioso by Reinhold Keiser, at the Barber Institute in Birmingham. She returned to Despina in 1974 in Kent Opera's Così fan tutte. The following year she sang First Boy in Kent Opera's The Magic Flute. In 1985 Lee returned to Singapore to sing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. She appeared on television and radio in England and abroad. She taught, mainly at the London College of Music, and co-founded a singing summer school, only retiring when she started chemotherapy in 2002.