Obituary: Ava June, soprano

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Born: 23 July, 1931, in Poplar, south London. Died: 22 February, 2013, in London, aged 81.

AVA June was a soprano singer whose reputation was established in the late 1950s and who then went on to enjoy an exciting career with many of the leading opera houses in this country and abroad. She was principally associated with Sadler’s Wells (now English National Opera) where she sang leading roles.

June became internationally recognised as an outstanding Wagnerian soprano who sang the taxing role of Sieglinde in The Valkyrie part of The Ring Cycle, memorably conducted by Reginald Goodall in 1970. It was the first Ring Cycle performed in English. The production proved a triumph and June’s Sieglinde is warmly praised some 40 years later.

At the beginning of her career, June came to sing the role of Donna Elvira in the Scottish Opera production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The production toured Scotland and was conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson. It was notable for the outstanding cast, which included veteran Scottish singer Ian Wallace as Leperello and, apart from June, future stars such as Donald McIntyre and Margaret Price. The critics were enthusiastic about June’s appearance, writing that she “sang impressively”.

In 1960, June made her only appearance with the Scottish National Orchestra, again under Sir Alexander, in concert performances in Edinburgh and Glasgow of Verdi’s Nabucco. She sang the taxing central role of Abigaille with a rare ease and much vocal dexterity.

June’s father worked for distiller Johnnie Walker and her mother was a tailor. She left school at 14 and worked as a dressmaker in Ivor Novello’s theatre in London’s West End.

Aged 16 she had voice lessons initially with Kate Opperman, but such was June’s talent she was taken on by Joan Cross (the first Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes) and then the redoubtable Dame Eva Turner. She won first prize in the Sofia competition in 1963.

Her singing career began as a member of the chorus at Sadler’s Wells in 1953 as a mezzo. She began taking on minor solo soprano roles and by 1957 had been promoted to principal soprano. An early success was in Verdi’s La Traviata in which she sang Violetta with a youthful enthusiasm. A production of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers with the tenor Charles Craig followed in 1960.

June was then seen in numerous operas conducted by Colin Davis and Alexander Gibson throughout the 1960s, including Mozart’s Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. She was a dignified Marschallin in John Copley’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Charles Mackerras, and was Queen Elizabeth in Donizetti’s Mary Stuart, with Janet Baker as Mary, Queen of Scots.

June became internationally recognised for her interpretations of Wagner. Her 1970 performance as Sieglinde was also in the recorded version. The demanding passages of act one of posed no problems for June’s rich and commanding voice and opposite Alberto Remedios’s vibrant Siegmund, the pair delivered a thrilling account of the act’s conclusion.

June also sang Eva in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg with the company.

Her appearances at Covent Garden were somewhat restricted. She made her debut with the Royal Opera in 1958 as First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, and was cast as Freia and Gerhilde in The Ring Cycle under Georg Solti in the early 1970s.

June also sang Marzelline in Fidelio and in 1970 Frau Schomberg in the world premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory.

She retired from singing in 1984 and became a much-respected voice coach and teacher. June gave lessons at a variety of music colleges – most notably the Royal College of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music – but was a most incisive adjudicator at the Britten/Pears School at Aldeburgh and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

June also gave Master Classes at ENO Studio and was influential in guiding the careers of such future stars as Rosalind Plowright, Susan Bullock and Janice Kelly.

The mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker was often on stage with June and recalls her colleague. “I admired her tremendously when I joined the ENO at the time of the Goodall Ring as a humble Rhinemaiden. She was a very classy singer with a hugely impressive stage presence and, not least, a glorious voice.”

June married David Cooper, an architectural engineer, who died in 1982.