Rae Woodland - obituary
Rae Woodland was a soprano admired by Benjamin Britten and saw Glyndebourne as her 'home’
Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE
Rae Woodland, the soprano, who has died aged 91, overcame a hare lip to achieve operatic success, notably as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a role she took to Sadler’s Wells and Glyndebourne.
Benjamin Britten invited her to join the English Opera Group tour to Moscow in 1964, when she sang the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia, and she remained associated with his music for the rest of her life.
She was thought to be the first English soprano to sing with Luciano Pavarotti, when she made her debut at Covent Garden in Bellini’s La sonnambula alongside Joan Sutherland in 1965; her performance, in the words of one critic, was “radiant”.
An earlier reviewer had noted how, as Queen of the Night at Glyndebourne in 1960 under Peter Gellhorn, Rae Woodland “launched herself into the vocal equivalent of outer space without apparent qualms, hitting the starry top Fs in the middle”.
Another role was as Elektra in Idomeneo, which she recorded with Peter Pears and Heather Harper under Britten in 1969 and sang at Rome Opera with Jessye Norman and Nicolai Gedda in 1971. But Glyndebourne was where she was happiest, as she once explained in a recording made for the British Library. It was a “home from home”, she said, describing with fondness the family atmosphere there.
Rae Woodland was born in Nottingham on April 9 1922. Her father had been a professional footballer with Norwich City and later managed a hotel. She was sent to a convent school at Southam, Warwickshire, before finishing her education at Mundella Grammar School, Nottingham.
Seeking to correct her daughter’s hare lip, Rae’s mother saved for many years to take Rae to see Sir Harold Gillies and Archibald McIndoe, pioneers of reconstructive surgery, in London. “I was terrified, of course,” Rae Woodland later recalled. “But not nearly as much as my mum – she spent the night of the operation in the Catholic church near the clinic.” Rae was eventually left with barely a mark.
Meanwhile, her family moved to run a hotel at Wickersley, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, where Rae and her sister, Christine, sang for guests accompanied by a piano trio. Meanwhile, an adjudicator at the Mexborough competitive music festival, where she won several classes, helped to put her in contact with Roy Henderson, Kathleen Ferrier’s teacher. However, their relationship nearly got off on the wrong note when Henderson told Rae Woodland — who had dressed in her smartest outfit for the audition — to visit Bond Street to observe how fashionable women were attired.
After understudying for Mattiwilda Dobbs at Glyndebourne in 1956, Rae Woodland sang for Lotte Lehmann in a masterclass at the Wigmore Hall (Grace Bumbry was also a participant). Joan Cross then invited her to join the National Opera School, which led to Sadler’s Wells, where she sang Queen of the Night in 1957 under Rudolf Schwarz. She sang in the premiere of Nicholas Maw’s The Rising of the Moon in 1970, Verdi’s Macbeth in 1972 and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1980 and 1982).
In 1963 she took part in the Proms premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 with Janet Baker under Leopold Stokowski, a recording of which has appeared on the BBC Legends label.
During the 1970s Rae Woodland moved towards lighter music, becoming a stalwart of Friday Night is Music Night on Radio 2, though still appearing in Britten productions, including a well-received Albert Herring for Welsh National Opera in 1976. She bade farewell to the stage in 1984 and, after a period teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, retired to Snape, where she taught on the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme.
Her husband, Denis Stanley, whom she married in the 1950s, died in 2011. They had no children.
Rae Woodland, born April 9 1922, died December 12 2013