Anne Collins

The Guardian

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Anne Collins

Powerful contralto renowned for her performances in operatic character roles

Anne Collins, who has died of cancer aged 65, was the possessor of a true contralto voice, which she used to great effect in an opera career that spanned nearly 40 years. Born in Durham, she began as a cellist, later moving on to voice at the Royal College of Music. It was there that she was first noticed, in a student performance in 1969 of William Walton's one-act opera, The Bear. Her interpretation of The Widow was deemed "powerful" and her voice "intelligently used, comically inflected".

Joining Sadler's Wells Opera, in its second season at the London Coliseum, Collins made her debut in 1970 as the governess in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, followed by the Third Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute. The part that showed her great promise later that year was Antonia's mother in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. In Colin Graham's production, designed by David Collis, she emerged as a ghost, floating in mid-air (actually on a fork-lift) and dominating the great trio.

The following year, she began to use her comic gifts in the first of her Gilbert and Sullivan roles, as the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe, opposite the Private Willis of Robert Lloyd. Her formidable delivery of the lines "When your houses next assemble/You may tremble" had the true Savoy style. By way of complete contrast, she was a touching Mamma Lucia, portrayed with a club foot, in Cavalleria Rusticana. When the company performed Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea for the first time, with Janet Baker in the title role, Collins was the witty Arnalta.

There were many other character roles with the company, including Ragonde in Rossini's Count Ory, Inez in Il Trovatore, Madame Akhrosimova in the first UK production of Prokofiev's War and Peace, Ulrica in Verdi's The Masked Ball and a Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, "landing some well-aimed kicks at Goro, one might have been watching the World Cup" as Rodney Milnes wrote in Opera magazine.

The 1970s, though, are remembered above all, once the company had been rechristened English National Opera, for the cycles of Wagner's Ring conducted by Reginald Goodall. Collins took part in the very first cycle in 1973, singing in all four parts, as Erda in The Rhinegold and Siegfried, Rossweisse in The Valkyrie, and the Second Norn in The Twilight of the Gods. All these are preserved in the recordings made live at the Coliseum.

Collins's verve was demonstrated when she took on the role of Lady Jane in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, playing the cello onstage, and dancing with the ebullient Bunthorne of Derek Hammond-Stroud. For several seasons they delighted audiences, amused by the contrast – sometimes in the same month – of seeing Hammond-Stroud as Alberich, and Collins as Erda in the Ring, and then having them re-emerge in Patience. The G&S production travelled to Vienna, and later to the US, on ENO's guest tours.

Collins also sang in the British premiere of Henze's The Bassarids, 1974, in Shostakovich's The Nose, 1979, and, another memorable comic turn, as The Countess in Nino Rota's The Italian Straw Hat, the latter with the New Opera Company in 1980. When Welsh National Opera first performed Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage in 1977, Collins was Sosostris, in which she enjoyed a particular success when the company took the opera to Lisbon in 1979. Collins later sang Erda with WNO in Göran Järvefelt's production of The Ring. With the Handel Opera Society, she sang Dejanira in Hercules and Onoria in Ezio. In 1975 and 1980 she was the vocal soloist at the Last Night of the Proms.

At Covent Garden, Collins sang a number of roles, including Anna in Berlioz's The Trojans (1977), the Mother in Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (1983) in the John Dexter-David Hockney staging, Mary in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (1986), the Mother Superior in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel (1992) and, most recently, Auntie in Britten's Peter Grimes (2004). This was a part that she sang in several productions in Europe, in Geneva, Brussels and Hamburg. For Scottish Opera, Collins created the role of the Angel of Death in James MacMillan's Inés de Castro (1996). In later years she several times returned to ENO as Katisha in Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado, seeming to bring some sense to all the antics. Her singing and acting were all the more funny, as she was obviously taking it all very seriously.

The contralto voice is a rarity. Collins could use it to its best degree and achieve success equally in drama and comedy, in parts great and small. As well as the Goodall Ring, her other recordings include Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Vaughan-Williams's The Poisoned Kiss, and several G&S parts, on CD and video.

  • Anne Collins, contralto, born 29 August 1943; died 15 July 2009