Obituary: Marjory James, celebrated mezzo soprano discovered on Edinburgh’s Empire Theatre stage

Marjory Watt James, mezzo soprano. Born 14 February, 1940 in Edinburgh. Died 1 January, 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 78

Marjory James
Marjory James

As a child growing up in Edinburgh’s New Town it was not unusual for the stairs of her tenement home to echo to the sounds of classics such as Oh, My Beloved Father.

The original Puccini aria’s English version had been made popular post-war by Joan Hammond but the extraordinary voice that soared in that Barony Street stairwell belonged not to a professional soprano but to the schoolgirl resident of 
No 20.

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In the beginning her only audience was the building’s neighbours but by the time she was 13 the youngster with the exceptional talent had been spotted by the celebrated scout and impresario Carroll Levis. That discovery set her on a path that would see her perform as an operatic singer on the BBC, at Glyndebourne and alongside Kiri Te Kanawa as well as tour internationally in her own right and as the wife of one of the most talented trombonists Britain has produced.

The daughter of Prudential agent Kenneth McMichael and his wife Marjory who worked in the printing industry, she grew up with her two brothers David and Thomas. Her passion for music was inherited from her father who, as a young man, used to sing on stage during the interval at Edinburgh picture houses.

Educated at the capital’s London Street Primary and Bellevue Secondary Schools, it was her performance on the stage of the city’s Empire Theatre that propelled her into the entertainment business. Carroll Levis made an art of finding talented unknowns through his touring stage show and once he had heard the teenager sing he knew she had a future in music.

As the young Marjory McMichael she won his Carroll Levis Discoveries talent show in the early 1950s, collecting a £500 prize and a trip to New York. In the event she did not get to the Big Apple, possibly because of her age, but she did go on to make a fulfilling career from her naturally gifted voice.

She sang on the Carroll Levis Show on the BBC’s Light Programme in 1956, in a show featuring the BBC Variety Orchestra and some of the finalists in the previous year’s search for discoveries.

A couple of years later she was back on air on the same show, appearing alongside the Debonairs. She also performed in the Dickie Valentine Show in Blackpool, appearing on television alongside the chart-topping singer.

However she opted to go down the classical route rather than popular music and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow, spending a further three or four years training in Germany.

A petite mezzo soprano, who stood less than 5ft tall, she went on to sing in numerous operas, including Götterdämmerung with Scottish Opera and the Magic Flute with Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Miss McMichael, who sang regularly at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, also appeared in Madame Butterfly, performing alongside the New Zealand star Kiri Te Kanawa.

By the 1980s she had met Derek James, principal trombonist with both the Royal and the London Philharmonic orchestras and following their marriage in 1985 her career took something of a back seat. She effectively retired from singing and chose to support her husband, a 6ft 4in former Welsh Guards bandsman, who also performed with the World Orchestra. Together the London-based couple travelled internationally, including tours to Japan and South America.

After her husband’s death, on New Year’s Eve 2014, she moved back to Scotland to be nearer her own family. She took up painting in oils and watercolours, concentrating on landscapes and flowers, which she sold commercially.

She died, after a fall, almost four years to the day since losing her husband and is survived by her brother Thomas and his family.