Obituary: Patricia Kern, mezzo soprano

Patricia Kern: Mezzo soprano who performed in many memorable Scottish Opera productions. Picture: Getty
Patricia Kern: Mezzo soprano who performed in many memorable Scottish Opera productions. Picture: Getty
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Born: 14 September, 1927, in Swansea. Died: 19 October, 2015, aged 88

Patricia Kern was a mezzo soprano of international standing who the musical director of Scottish Opera (SO), Sir Alexander Gibson, cast early in her career and then did much to husband her voice and guide her career. Consequently, Kern returned often to SO throughout the 1970s and gave stunning performances of some demanding roles. She remained loyal to the company despite a burgeoning recording and international career. Kern’s voice was light but crystal clear with a fine capacity, especially for coloratura roles and arias. In the early part of her career she was a noted oratorio singer – especially Handel.

Kern was a dedicated artist as a student and, as she once remarked: “I really was a contralto. I started to exercise the voice a little more floridly, and the voice really started to travel up very easily. As a result, most of my time was spent in the higher, lighter mezzo range.” It was a wise decision and her career flourished.

Patricia Kern studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and then gained experience with the tiny Opera For All (1952 -55) which toured throughout the UK and was often seen in village halls throughout Scotland. In 1959 she was given a contract by the young Colin Davis at the Sadler’s Wells Company and immediately demonstrated her ability with the 18th century repertoire – although her debut role was as Jezibaba in Rusalka. Kern remained a member of Sadler’s Wells for ten years – during which she was heard in Scotland when the company toured.

Her repertoire included the Rossini roles and Iolanthe. Kern sang Josephine in the 1966 world premiere of Malcolm Williamson’s The Violins of St Jacques.

Kern’s official debut in Scotland was in 1960 on a Sadler’s Wells tour singing the title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola – a role with which she would become closely associated.

She made her debut with SO in 1969 in a memorable production of the opera by Colin Graham – the cast also included the baritone Ian Wallace. Her performance was well received and captured the essence of the character and she delivered the final taxing aria with a flamboyant ease.

Kern was now one of Gibson’s regular guests and part of the SO family. In 1961 she sang Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus and in 1975 she was a forthright Rosina in Barbiere di Siviglia alongside Wallace.

That was a memorable revival as Wallace bade farewell to SO after a distinguished presence in its early years. The production had been seen in Ayr and Stirling but Kern sang the performances at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh which were memorably conducted by Roderick Brydon.

In 1972 Kern joined a strong cast of SO regulars in Toby Robertson’s joyous production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Brydon. The Citizens’ actor Tim Curry was an impressive (spoken) Puck, as was Kern’s musically radiant Hermia. Kern made a strong impression under Raymond Leppard in Incoronazione di Poppea (1973).

Her 1979 portrayal at the Festival of Mrs Grosse in Britten’s Turn of the Screw was also historic as it was one of the last times Peter Pears was seen on stage.

He sang the Prologue with a beguiling command and then joined the audience in the Circle of the King’s. Kern gave a mesmerising account of the housekeeper and captured the sinister nature of Anthony Besch’s production.

Kern played an instrumental role in the 1974 world premiere of Iain Hamilton’s The Catiline Conspiracy based on a Roman theme. The opera had been boldly commissioned by SO and The Scotsman critic hailed the opera as “a majestic piece”. It was conducted by Gibson and directed with much flair by Besch. In Colin Graham’s sensitive 1975 production of Pelléas et Mélisande Kern was an outstanding Geneviève.

The world premiere of Robin Orr’s challenging Hermiston was given at the 1975 Festival. It had a rocky rehearsal period at the King’s Theatre and caused some on-stage dramas. A scene necessitated a singer to be suspended for 15 minutes and at both the dress rehearsal and the first night the singer collapsed. The cast were unnerved but Kern gave a thrilling performance as Kirstie.

Kern followed a distinguished career in London. At Covent Garden she sang a notable Zerlina in a revival of Don Giovanni with Tito Gobbi in the title role and Cherubino in John Copley’s new 1971 production of Figaro under Colin Davis.

Her recordings were extensive and particularly noteworthy are Rodelinda (with Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker), Albert Herring (under Bernard Haitink) and Hansel and Gretel with Margaret Neville.

Throughout her career Kern was a fine and resourceful singer assuming roles with a scholarly integrity. Her stage personality was engaging and always sympathetic with the character she was portraying. In more recent years she was a voice coach at Toronto University.