Date of Birth: 9 April 1922, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England
Birth Name: Rae Woodland
Rae Woodland, was a much-loved opera and concert singer with a radiant tone and warm personality. At the age of 16 she had undergone an operation to treat a cleft lip, performed by pioneers in reconstructive surgery, and she went on to develop a career notably with Sadler's Wells theatre, north London, Glyndebourne and the English Opera Group. After her retirement from the opera stage in 1984 she taught singing at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies and the Royal Academy of Music.
It was in part because of her congenital condition that she was sent away to a convent primary school in Southam, Warwickshire, for children with disabilities though her parents, who were in the hotel business, were always on the move. The surgeons to whose clinic her mother took her for treatment were Sir Harold Gillies and Sir Archibald McIndoe, who asked her what sort of mouth she would like. She replied that she wanted to be a singer: by the time the scars had healed, it was evident that a transformation had been achieved.
Her first vocal successes were in local festivals and in a hotel in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, run by her parents. Sent to study in London with Roy Henderson, whose pupils had included Kathleen Ferrier, she was dismayed to be advised to visit Bond Street to observe how ladies walked, dressed and did their hair; "I think you're a little bit provincial," Henderson told her.
It was not until the mid-1950s, by which time Woodland was in her early 30s, that her career began to take off. First she understudied at Glyndebourne in 1956 and then sang for Lotte Lehmann in a masterclass at the Wigmore Hall. She then joined the National Opera School, and it was while there that she was invited to sing the Queen of Night in Mozart's Magic Flute at Sadler's Wells (1957). She had in fact gone to Henderson as a mezzo, but he extended her range, and indeed the Queen of Night, with its taxingly high tessitura, became one of her signature roles. A recording of her performance at the BBC Proms in 1966, which she once described as "the highlight of my career", demonstrates that she had the ideal voice for the part, using it, moreover, not simply as a vehicle for virtuosity but in a thrilling invocation of the powers of hell to wreak vengeance.
In an archive interview as part of the Oral History of Glyndebourne, made in 1994, she spoke of her happy years with two leading British opera companies: "Sadler's Wells made me; Glyndebourne was the icing on the cake." The family atmosphere, ample rehearsals and high artistic standards at the latter were particularly valued. The roles in which she excelled included Electra in Idomeneo, the Gentlewoman in Verdi's Macbeth and Mistress Ford in Falstaff, but she also essayed such roles as Venus in Tannhäuser and Mimi in La Bohème, and presented a formidable Lady Billows in Albert Herring.
The creation of the role of Lady Eugenie Jowler in Nicholas Maw's comic opera The Rising of the Moon (1970) was another landmark in her Glyndebourne career, but she also maintained a close relationship with the English Opera Group, touring Russia with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and singing frequently at the Aldeburgh Festival. A memorable performance of Idomeneo, in which she was again Electra, took place at the latter festival in 1969, a few days after the catastrophic fire in the Maltings the performance was relocated to Blythburgh church.
Woodland was also known at home and abroad on the concert platform, appearing in Mahler's Second Symphony (1963), Bach's St John Passion (1967) and a Gilbert and Sullivan programme (1968) at the BBC Proms. In the latter part of her career she developed this lighter side of the repertoire and appeared regularly on BBC Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night.