CONTENTS Leaving Life in the Parking Lot
Where is the Parking Lot?
Fighting the World's Fight
Diva in Her Own Right
AROUND THE OVAL
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
About the Montanan
Diva in Her Own Right
Students sing the praises of Esther England
By Patia Stephens
Esther England was thirteen years old when her family visited Colorados Pikes Peak on their vacation. Coming down the mountain on the old Cog Railway, she was moved to song by the beauty of the warm August night. Accustomed to singing together, her mother, father and two younger sisters joined in.
As the train wheels clacked on the rails, other vacationers added their voices. They sang all the old classics, from Take Me Out to the Ball Game to Let Me Call You Sweetheart. It was a moment England would never forget.
The whole car was singing, she remembers. It was magical. I bet there are people all over America who still remember that. The young womans ability to inspire song in others was to be her calling.
In 1969, England joined UMs music faculty. Thirty-two years later her voice students number nearly 1,500 and include world-class opera singers, Broadway and Hollywood actors and teachers at all levels. They shower England with superlatives — calling her an angel, a treasure, a major-league horn — and speak with awe about her ability to recognize talent and to nurture it, to encourage passion for music and song, and perhaps most importantly, to instill confidence.
I learned many things from her, but I think the most salient influence she had on my career was her confidence in me, says Mary Logan Hastings, who became a successful opera singer after studying with England in the 1970s. She now is an assistant professor of voice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Confidence is one of the most valuable gifts one can give a voice student, if not the most valuable. I only hope now that I can instill in my students half the confidence she put in me.
England clearly is abundantly blessed with confidence. But there is something else about her. It is more than her impressive presence, her gracious demeanor or her heroic proportions. There is a certain generosity of spirit, a warmth and strength that emanates from somewhere within. Heart, it might be called.
It is a radiant spring day in Missoulas Rattlesnake Valley when England takes time out to sit in the sunshine on her deck and discuss her life and career. Four extroverted, brilliantly blue-eyed Siamese cats chase bumblebees, preen themselves and affectionately rub against their mistress. A table full of floral seedlings await transplanting to the lush green backyard.
Singing is about giving people great joy, says England, who as a mezzo-soprano has a lower than average womans voice. Never mind about prima donnas, she adds: It takes immense confidence — a big ego, if you will — to put oneself on the line as a singer.
You also have to have a strong sense of self to be a teacher, England says, because youre shaping [your students] souls and messing with their deepest feelings. Theres only one human activity thats more intimate than singing.
A classroom and studio teacher, England became a full professor in 1988 and associate dean of the School of Fine Arts in 1993. In 1998 the University recognized her teaching prowess with the Distinguished Teaching Award. Then, last fall, after three decades of students had benefitted from her brilliance, UM nearly lost England — not once, but twice.
On September 8, 2000, England and her School of Fine Arts colleagues were returning from a planning retreat at Seeley Lake when their van was caught in a dust storm. The dust, kicked up by plowing in a nearby field, obscured visibility and they were hit head-on by an oncoming car. As the injured passengers scrambled to exit the van, it was rear-ended by a pickup truck. The five-car pileup was nearly fatal for England, who suffered severe internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen, plus eight broken ribs and head and knee injuries. School of Fine Arts Dean Shirley Howell also received serious injuries, but all passengers in the UM van survived the accident. A woman in another vehicle was not as fortunate.
England was recovering when she discovered a lump in her breast. Upon the diagnosis of cancer, she underwent an immediate mastectomy, followed by intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Tired and fragile from chemo and blood loss that left her anemic, England calls the accident and illness a double whammy. In spite of it all, she maintains a positive attitude, saying shes lucky. Im going to be just fine, she says. We caught it early and the tumor wasnt the most aggressive type.
Recuperating at home, England taught a fall semester opera seminar every Monday night. While she nursed her surgical scars and painful broken ribs in her easy chair, ten students gathered around her to study composers, periods, styles and techniques. In the spring, she returned to a lighter-than-usual load at UM, although the twenty hours a week she spent in teaching and administrative duties is considered normal by most standards.
Teaching is really hard work, she says. Its mentally and emotionally exhausting because you listen with every fiber of your being to everything theyre doing. You have to be ultimately sensitive, and thats hard to do eight or ten hours a day.
Though lacking in stamina, England found returning to work healing. Teaching saved my life, she says. Being suddenly cut off from all the students made me feel depressed and isolated. Going back to work reminded me that I still am alive, Im still part of the scene.
Her presence has been a valuable lesson for her students, too. Its been good for the kids to see someone traipsing around bald and still teaching, she says. Cancer is a big scary word, and it demystifies it. My students have gained a measure of compassion watching me do it.
Englands passion for music began early. Born to an Army nurse and chaplain during World War II, she learned to read at age three and a half, started piano lessons at age five and began playing flute at age eight. The family moved to McCall, Idaho, in time for Englands high school years.
As a senior, England aced an essay and quiz to become Idahos Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year. The $500 scholarship allowed her to choose an out-of-state college. I never would have come to The University of Montana if I hadnt won the Homemaker of the Year Award. Which is ironic, she says with a chuckle, because Im the only one of my classmates who never married.
Entering UM in 1962, England planned to study animal behavior while playing flute in the University orchestra. But after a theory placement test revealed her perfect pitch and excellent sight-reading ability, she was placed in the honors theory program and officially became a music major. In the second half of her freshman year, she began voice lessons with John Lester, who helped England realize her singing voice. He recognized the ferocity of my talent, she says. Piano and flute shortly took a back seat to voice study. Within a quarter, it was obvious to me that my voice was my vehicle. Its just the way God intended my life to go.
England was an enthusiastic student, learning music voraciously, performing with the Jubileers and the opera workshop, and earning nearly enough credits for four majors besides music. As a sophomore, she auditioned for the director of the San Francisco Opera, who told her, Youre ready to go to New York, young lady. But she didnt feel ready, and remained at UM, landing her first professional gig in her junior year as a soloist with the Spokane Symphony in Mozarts Requiem.
Englands senior year was a whirlwind that culminated in one momentous week in April 1966. On the heels of placing first in district competition and third at regionals, she was offered a soloist contract with the Metropolitan Operas touring company. The $16,000 salary was three times what her father earned, and she was only twenty-one. But, that same week, she received an offer of a Fulbright fellowship to study opera in Germany. She had an important decision to make. I talked to a lot of people, she says. In my heart, I knew I was too young to sing professionally. And I wanted to go to Europe.
England flew to Munich. There she studied advanced German at the Goethe Institut and opera at the Musikhochschule Munchen. When her Fulbright year was up, she took a professional position as a soloist with the Bayerischen Rundfunkchor, or Bavarian Radio Choir.
Englands three years with the choir were romantic and exciting. She traveled Europe, performing, recording and studying with the best talent Europe had to offer. Everywhere she went, people told her she was ready for the big time, but something continued to hold her back.
Then, in another strange twist of timing, in the same week she was offered both a lifetime contract with a Munich choir and a one-year contract as a voice teacher on UMs music faculty. England accepted the UM position, accepting also that she was missing one crucial element necessary for professional success as an opera singer. I had everything that it took but ambition, she says. I didnt have the competitiveness.
Returning to Montana, England would soon find her niche. It was 1969 and she was barely twenty-five years old. I was scared spitless, she says. I had no idea what it meant to be a teacher, [but] I learned very quickly. I began to understand the joy of teaching, and that I was born to do that. Everything in my career had pointed me in that direction.
In the summer of 1970, England discovered her first great protegé.
After a performance, she joined colleagues for pizza and beers at the Heidelhaus, a former Missoula landmark. There, singing country-western songs with a band, was Pamela South. She had this huge voice . . . a miraculous voice, England says.
An ex-rodeo queen, South had come from Salmon, Idaho, to study music at UM but dropped out when she became overwhelmed by the theoretical aspects of the major. I walked up to her and said Why arent you in school? England recounts.
South remembers, She came up to me and said, You should be singing opera. And of course, I just went, Yeah, right. For her to say that I was going to do opera was just ludicrous. But in her very relentless way, she convinced me.
South returned to UM and spent the next year and a half studying under England, who directed her in her first role, the witch in an operatic production of Hansel and Gretel. South then kicked off a winning streak on the audition circuit, wowing judges from the Seattle, San Francisco and New York Metropolitan operas. South sang with the Seattle Opera for a year before joining the San Francisco Opera, where she would stay for twelve years.
The critically acclaimed soprano has since performed with the finest opera companies in the country, singing with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo and in venues from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. South now lives near New York City, most recently singing major roles with the Atlanta Opera and LOpéra de Montréal. She soon will accept an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from UM.
If Esther hadnt put her boot to my butt, I doubt very much I would have gone into opera, South says. I dont know what Id be doing — singing in some lounge, maybe. Last March, South returned to UM to headline, with Rob Quist, the inaugural production of Odyssey of the Stars, a School of Fine Arts gala event celebrating the artistic successes of students present and past. England, who produced the musical extravaganza, was honored by South on the University Theatre stage.
[Esther] guided me to a door that I had no idea existed, South told the 800-member audience. She convinced me to open it, and when I did, I saw my life. I would not be standing here if not for Esther.
South later muses that England takes great satisfaction in her students successes. There are those people who were singers and then they teach and they live vicariously through their students, she says. I dont think Esther does that at all. I think this is her dream. Its not about her, its all about us. Its a very rare thing.
Englands co-masters of ceremonies at the Odyssey of the Stars were Jim Caron and Don Collins, a dynamic duo who founded the highly successful Missoula Childrens Theatre. They agree it couldnt have happened without England.
Caron and Collins met in the summer of 1970, when England cast them as Sancho and Don Quixote, respectively, in UMs production of Man of La Mancha — roles they recently reprised to celebrate MCTs 30th anniversary. England was instrumental in building MCT during its early years. She gave of herself — her unparalleled skills as a musical director and vocal coach — and she never charged us a penny, Caron says. She brought us a new level of professionalism, which inspired us to get better in every aspect, not just in music.
England was always the strongest link between the fledgling theater company and the Universitys School of Fine Arts, Caron says, a link that was critical to MCTs success. Today, 55,000 children a year are in plays because of what MCT does, Caron says. None of those kids would be in a play if Esther hadnt been there to help us in those early years.
The measure of any teacher is in the success of his or her students, says fine arts Dean Shirley Howell. By that measure, she says, I think England is a great success. Her influence on her students and on the community has been profound. Her dedication to her students is quite amazing.
Musician and songwriter David Simmons performing and recording career has taken off in the Minneapolis area. If it wasnt for Esther England, theres no way on Gods green earth I would have the jobs I have right now, Simmons says. Esther not only gave me the tools, but she also encouraged my passion.
Former Miss Montana Sue Stanaway, now vice president of investments at Salomon Smith Barney in Billings, acknowledged England in the credits of her 1998 CD. My life is testament to a great teacher, Stanaway says. Esther has devoted her life to discovering, nurturing and creating great vocal talent. A diva in her own right, she is the absolute best at what she does.
Lois Myers came to England relatively late in life. She was thirty-six years of age and dreamed of singing on an opera stage. England promised to work her hard, and she did, building in Myers the skill and work ethic she would need for an operatic career. Myers remembers the effort England put into preparing her for her annual recitals at UM — and the thrill of earning a rare accolade.
My greatest moment during one of the recitals was when, after an aria, I heard a Brava from the audience, Myers says. I could tell Esthers voice from anyones, and it was her giving me a brava. Bravos and bravas are words that dont come from her mouth often.
Myers earned a masters degree in vocal performance from UM in 1996 and went on to sing with the San Diego Opera, where she recently finished her fourth season. Practically every time I sing, I am using something that I learned from Esther, she says.
Dickinson College voice faculty member Lynn Helding says that the first teacher can make you or break you. During her five years studying under England, she became a finalist at the national Metropolitan Opera auditions before landing leading roles with top operas in the United States and Europe. She really gave me all the first, essential grounding in both technique and attitude — what it really takes to be a singer, Helding says.
Baritone Curt Olds first met England at MCTs summer Performing Arts Camp when he was fifteen, and it was because of her that he decided to attend UM. He studied with her from 1989 to 1994 and says she profoundly influenced his singing and his life. He now lives in New York City, where he sings and dances in the Broadway hit Riverdance. UM has a gold mine in Esther England, Olds says. Shes one of a kind. You wont find a better teacher anywhere — including New York.
For her part, England says her students have been her children and teaching has been her life. Every time a student graduates, I have the empty-nest syndrome, she says. Im in the background cheering them on and being real proud I had some part in it.
Now, under the greening shadow of Mount Jumbo, England is reflecting on her past. Its been a wonderful career, she says. After a lifetime of giving, shes been forced to slow down, just a little, and reap the rewards. She is humbled by the support shes received in the aftermath of her accident and illness.
Its been a deeply spiritual and bridge-building time — to realize that my life matters to others, and to realize how much they matter to me, she says. The reaction from friends and students has really made me feel that my life meant something after all.
England also is re-evaluating her future. Her singing days are just about over, she says, because the surgery to remove her spleen damaged her breathing muscles. And without the ability to demonstrate to her students, she fears she will be a less effective voice coach. Its a grim, disturbing fact that she still is coming to terms with. However, she fully intends to keep teaching as long as possible, and enjoying life, which has become precious indeed.
It was a dark winter for me, she says, but now I truly understand what spring is all about.
Patia Stephens is a news editor for University Relations and a frequent contributor to the Montanan. She also is Esther Englands latest big fan.