Opera Scotland

Anne Howells Suggest updates

Anne Elizabeth Howells.

Born Southport, 12 January 1941.

Died Andover, 18 May 2022.

English mezzo-soprano.

Anne Howells was one of the most successful British singers of her generation, appearing with many of the leading international houses. She was a particularly good actress, equally adept in serious and comic parts. Her voice was perhaps not the most powerful instrument, but she had the sense to avoid heavier areas of the repertoire - the dramatic parts of Wagner and Verdi - that would have strained it. It was as Dorabella in Così fan tutte that her international career took off with many performances around the world.

Her repertoire ranged from the early baroque of Monteverdi and Cavalli to modern works. With Scottish Opera she was especially successful in Strauss, Debussy and Offenbach.

After a childhood spent partly in South Africa then in Sale (Cheshire), Howells trained with Frederick Cox and Vera Rozsa at the Royal Manchester College of Music.  As a student in 1963 she sang Helen in the UK premiere of Paride ed Elena (Gluck).

Howells spent three seasons in the chorus at Glyndebourne, alternating with two Opera for All tours,  before receiving her big break. For the 1967 Festival it was planned to give the first modern production of Cavalli's L'Ormindo (1644) in a realisation by Raymond Leppard, who had previously provided an edition of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea for the Festival.  A leading singer dropped out and Howells learned the role of Erisbe,  Queen of Morocco,  very quickly, meeting with a great success. Future parts at Glyndebourne over the next twenty years included Dorabella, Minerva Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. the Composer, Clairon and Baba the Turk.

Her professional debut in 1966 was with WNO (Flora Bervoix La traviata). In 1967 she appeared with Cambridge University Opera Society in her first Barlioz part (Beatrice).  Howells sang at the Royal Opera House from 1967, also making her debut as Flora (in a new production by Visconti, with Mirella freni conducted by Giulini).  Early parts at Covent Garden included Mozart (Cherubino, Zerlina, Second Lady); Rossini (Rosina); Berlioz (Ascanius Les Troyens); Wagner (Wellgunde); Verdi (Flora Bervoix, Emilia); Bizet (Mercédès); Strauss (Annina).  As her career developed Howells added further parts including Mozart (Dorabella, Despina, Annio La clemenza di Tito); Donizetti (Maffio Orsini Lucrezia Borgia); Berlioz (Ascanio Benvenuto Cellini); Gounod (Siébel); Offenbach (Giulietta); Tchaikovsky (Olga);  Strauss (Octavian,  Adelaide,  Clairon);  Debussy (Mélisande); Tippett (Helen King Priam, Thea The Knot Garden) and Britten (Hermia).  Despina was an enjoyable departure for her in Così fan tutte, as, after dozens of performances,  she had come to find Dorabella a character with less to offer dramatically.

She had a great success on the Royal Opera's visit to Berlin in 1970. While the new opera by Bennett, based on Joseph Conrad's novel Victory, was seen as distinctly old-fashioned. her own contribution was very well received.  When the Royal Opera went on an exchange visit to La Scala, Milan, in 1976, she appeared in two of the three productions - Benvenuto Cellini and La clemenza di Tito (but not Peter Grimes).

At the Royal Opera she also sang in two recent works - Ophelia in Hamlet (Humphrey Searle - UK premiere) and Lady de Hautdesert (Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain - first revival).

Howells worked with ENO on a 1975 staging by John Copley of Offenbach's La belle Hélène. While this was still very amusing it was not quite as witty as the later production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser for Scottish Opera in a newly commissioned translation by John Wells.  She also appeared with ENO in a second major operetta role, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow  (1980).

As for new operas, she created four leading roles - early in her career Cathleen Sweeney The Rising of the Moon by Nicholas Maw (Glyndebourne 1970) and Lena Victory (Richard Rodney Bennett, Covent Garden, also 1970); Régine La Forêt (Liebermann - Geneva 1987) and, near the end of her career Mrs Heenan in The Silver Tassie (Mark-Anthony Turnage at ENO 2000).

Appearances abroad included several visits to the USA - Chicago 1972, New York Met 1975 and San Francisco 1979 (all as Dorabella); Geneva (Octavian, Idamante Idomeneo and Leokadja Begbick Mahagonny).  At the Salzburg Festival 1980 (Annio; Nicklausse Contes d'Hoffmann). In Paris she sang two completely contrasting parts, Phèdre (Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie) and Concepción (Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole).

Her appearances at the Edinburgh International Festival were restricted to guest visits by Scottish Opera (Pelléas et Mélisande and Orion).

With Scottish Opera, Howells appeared in nine operas, beginning in 1971 with a production of The Barber of Seville in which she sang at the original mezzo pitch with Patricia Hay on alternate nights singing the soprano transpositions. Her nine roles were by Monteverdi (Poppea); Cavalli (Diana L'Orione); Rossini (Rosina); Offenbach (Hélène); J Strauss (Orlofsky); Strauss (Octavian, Composer, Clairon) and Debussy (Mélisande). Colin Graham's production of Pelléas was taken to Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1973 along with a production of Tristan, constituting Scottish Opera's first visit to London.

Anne Howells did not appear much on the concert platform. Exceptions include appearances in Scotland with the SNO (Mahler's 4th Symphony) and in London with Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia (Berlioz's Dramatic Symphony Roméo et Juliette).

After her retirement from singing, Howells taught in London (from 1997 to 2011) as a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music.


Anne Howells can be seen on DVD in the Glyndebourne staging of  Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (directed by Sir Peter Hall, with Dame Janet Baker as Penelope) and the Royal Opera production by John Copley of Lucrezia Borgia (with her then husband Stafford Dean as Don Alfonso d'Este and Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role). There is also a Royal Opera DVD of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Solti and directed by John Schlesinger, in which she sang Octavian as a stand-in for that one performance only.  The Salzburg Clemenza was also filmed.

On CD, she can be heard in two of Sir Georg Solti's recordings made with the Vienna Philharmonic - Annina Der Rosenkavalier and Third Flower Maiden Parsifal  (the others being a starry bunch including Lucia Popp,  Kiri Te Kanawa and Gillian Knight).   Other recordings issued on CD include the Glyndebourne production of L'Ormindo and the Royal Opera staging of Les Troyens.  The Scottish Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier was recorded, though only in excerpts.  She also appears as Mrs McLean in a recording of an American piece, Susannah (Carlisle Floyd).

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