DCSIMG

Joseph Hislop

THE SON of an Edinburgh housepainter, Joseph Hislop was born on 5 April 1884. As a young choirboy at St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, he was taught the rudiments of music and received a free general education.

After his voice broke he left school to work as an apprentice photo-process engraver in Edinburgh and then Glasgow. His love for singing, however, prompted him to ask his old choirmaster, Dr Thomas Collinson, to audition him. Collinson's considered verdict was: "You have a genius for music, but your voice will never take you into the professional ranks" – or so it seemed.

Reluctantly, Hislop continued in the engraving business, even being sent to Gothenburg, Sweden, to demonstrate the latest three-colour techniques. In his spare time he sang in a local choir and his talent was eventually discovered by a visiting soloist from Stockholm who predicted that Hislop had the potential to achieve a brilliant career. Hislop gave up photography and moved to Stockholm to train for the operatic stage, first with Dr Gillis Bratt, a vocal specialist, and then the Royal Opera School.

In September 1914 Hislop made his debut at the Swedish Royal Opera, singing in Swedish the lead in Gounod's Faust. Over the next six years he appeared in many leading roles in Sweden and Norway, also sharing the principal role in Verdi's La traviata at the San Carlo Opera, Naples, with one of Italy's rising young tenors, Beniamino Gigli. Hislop made his Covent Garden debut in May 1920 as Rodolpho in Puccini's La bohme, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in the presence of the composer. Afterwards, Puccini congratulated Hislop, commenting that the Scottish tenor was "My ideal Rodolpho".

Soon after, Hislop was engaged over the Atlantic by his fellow countryman, the soprano Mary Garden, then director of the Chicago Opera Association. He sang in Chicago and New York, later also touring across country to positive reviews. Returning to the Continent, Hislop became the first British tenor to sing a leading role, appearing at La Scala, Milan. He went on to appear in Turin and Venice, in Paris and, in 1925, he sang at the Coln in Buenos Aires.

A change of medium followed in 1929 when Hislop played a singing poet in The Loves of Robert Burns, one of the earliest British talking films, with the future triple Oscar winner Freddie Young overseeing the camera work. The film was a financial failure, with a poorly written script considered too Scottish for the English and too English for the Scots!

The British premire of Franz Lehr, the Hungarian composer, followed at the Palace Theatre, London, with Hislop taking over the role of Goethe created two years previously by Richard Tauber in Berlin. By 1934 Hislop had moved into English light opera, singing Sir Walter Raleigh in 380 performances of Edward German's Merrie England, which also involved a long British tour in 1935. The vocal strain of this run proved to be damaging for his voice and Hislop retired in 1937.

Almost immediately he began a third new career as a teacher at the Royal Academy, Stockholm, where one of his pupils was the soprano Birgit Nilsson, and at home near Gothenburg where he mentored the tenor Jussi Bjrling.

By 1947 Hislop had returned to Britain to become an adviser at Covent Garden and then Sadler's Wells, also teaching at the Guildhall School of Music (among others) the baritone Peter Glossop and the soprano Elizabeth Fretwell. He retired to Fife in 1969 but continued to teach, including such future stars as the baritone Donald Maxwell and George Donald, pianist and lyricist with the popular review group Scotland the What?.

Hislop married twice, in 1915 to Karin Asklund and in 1940 to Nancy Fraser Passmore. He made more than 180 recordings, and sang 29 operatic roles. For his services to the music world, he was made a Knight of the Vasa (Sweden) and a Knight of the Dannebrog (Denmark).

He died peacefully in his sleep at home in Fife on 6 May 1977.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page