About RTÉ Television
The Afternoon Show
The Afternoon ShowRTÉ One, Weekdays, 4.00pm

The Rise and Fall of a La Scala Diva - Marjorie Wright

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Marjorie Wright

You were born into interesting times! She was born in Belfast in 1930s when Hitler was indoctrinating nazism across Europe and Bonny and Clyde were shot.

She was the 3rd child, born after her second sister had died of pneumonia so her parents (SS Parents) were traumatized. Her mother was devoted to Joan who died. So they moved from Belfast to Portadown to escape the pain of the memories.

Then when her mother got pregnant with Marjorie, she was 43 years old and actually thought she was getting the menopause. It was a difficult birth. She cried all the time as she didn't have enough food and her parents didn't know what to do to please her. Her sister Helen (8 at the time) said she hated her! Marjorie was initially going to be called Joy, but she was such a miserable baby that they changed her name to Marjorie Winnifred. She hates Winnifred.

She stayed dysfunctional until she was 11, up to all the tricks of the trade, an awkward child. Her mother was an ex-teacher and did all her home-work for her! So finally her dad put the foot down and said "you aren't stupid; it takes brains to be as bad a student as you are!" And he made her study or as he threatened, she'd stay at school until she was 30. Then at age 11 she put her head down and studied hard.

You were a Daddy's girl! Yes she was her father's pet! The women loved her father. She shares a birthday with him. He was a musician a violinist with perfect pitch. Her Mom and sis were academics and Marjorie & her dad were musicians.

When did you discover your love of music?

She grew up playing music; she was steeped in it, and has been playing the piano since she was 3.

She had a stammer as a child, not at home but when she went out of the home, a bully of a teacher picked on her. That had a lasting affect on her; to this day she puts herself down. She didn't tell her parents about the bullying, as they'd have killed her. A nice headmaster knew and interfered, called her parents in, moved her out of the class and he demoted the teacher. He encouraged her parents to incorporate music into her curriculum and after school. She went to Newry and got a scholarship there in piano and then in singing in Belfast.

After she left college and taught in a primary school for a year, aged 18 years old. Then she went and won for a national scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London. She was a mezzo soprano. Her accompanist helped her a lot and that got her through to win the scholarship. She definitely believes others must give of their talent to others to help them; it's a gift to spot talent. She did 3 years there and became a Graduate of the Royal Schools of Music - to teach and learn music.

What happened then? Then she went to Rodean - big posh school in Brighton, where she taught part-time singing there and loved it. She stayed there for 2 years. Then she won the Clara Butt Award at the Royal College of Music, which she received from the Queen Mother. She had to learn to curtsy and as her family have bad feet, she found it very hard! She also had to be very careful what underwear to wear or her suspenders might catch in each other as she curtsied!

The Ambrosian Singers (16people +) were very famous at the time - they did recordings of pop, opera etc for radio and tv etc. Maria Callas did the solos etc. They worked with Bernstein etc. When you work with wonderful people you get used to it they're normal. She never spoke to Maria/Bernstein as such, as she was in the chorus. But it was wonderful fun.

How did it come about that you moved to Italy?

When she was with the Singers she toured in Roma. Her friend married an Italian. And then Marjorie began to feel she was stuck in a rut and her friend invited her to come visit Rome for a year. So she did a TEFL course in London so that she could go to Rome and she loved it, as it was so different from singing. She sold her violin, left the Ambrosian singers and planned to leave for a year but never came back!

One day she was in a bus in Rome and a man sat next to her on the Via del Corso, a conductor whom she'd worked with, and he said he was looking for her and asked her to do a job on radio, sang a piece. She did a concert with him. Then her career took off. The Italians were very supportive of her and still are.

Then she started to work with Italian modern music composers, like Luigi dalla Piccola. She had to step in at the last minute in a concert to play a solo in La Commiato ("Goodbye"), as the soloist got sick. She trained in 3 days to sing her part in Austria. A huge event, and she went for it and it was a huge success. She enjoyed it afterwards; but before it she was terrified, her throat dried up and all.

How did you take care of your voice?

She didn't talk at all, she whistled the piece, it would have strained her voice to sing it in advance. She did it everyway in rehearsal, but singing it! She was terrified but the conductor put her at ease. She was a great success and it made her career.

So your career took off then?

She did lots of concerts as a guest performer in La Scala and other venues. No favourite role. She just did what was presented to her. She sang in operas, in modern operas - she loved Stravinsky. Did it for over 10 years in Italy.

But it was not to last?

Then politics hit, singers tried to get her out. She was getting all the work. She left of her own accord. She was taking work from them. Not personal, or horrible. She didn't have to leave Italy, but it was suggested it would be better if she went back to London as she had a British passport and so had more rights and financial supports. But she never got as much money back in Ireland or England to go back to Italy.

Have you ever been married?

She didn't find Mr Right yet but she is open to it even now. She did know many great men friends she was never without a male escort, great friends, but never married.

She went to London but couldn't get into the music business, as people were quite established and didn't want a newcomer. So she did a lot of things - writing, and was even a shop assistant in Harrod's - the hospitality counter, and she made great friends. It was owned by House of Fraser at the time not Mohamed Al Fayed.

Famous friends: She met Edward Purdham the film actor (in The Student Prince) and he rescued her from the arms of a nasty French conductor.

Did you ever try to go back to Italy?

Yes she always wanted to go back to Italy. Now with this book she goes back and forwards there. But she is rooted her now.

What does her family make of her success?

Helen can't make Marjorie out! She'd given her up as a lost cause. She came out to visit her once in Rome and it was chaos! Her parents saw her perform in Ireland but didn't travel out to her. They were very proud of her - "Ulster bumming and blowing!"

What are you up to these days?

She is based in Warrenpoint and loves it, great craic. It is a most beautiful place, a great base here. It's like Ballykissangel! They're looking for tourists! If she becomes rich and they make a film of her life she will build a swimming pool for the town.

She also wrote a book called "How to be a Bad Singer" in 1989, as interviewed on Pat Kenny. The English edition of this was published in 2006, the Italian edition was published in 2009 in Venice.

The Italians recently awarded her the Leone d'Argento - the Silver Lion by an Operatic Commune in Venice. It is a trophy for lifetime achievement. The statue is in Milan. (She has photos of it.)

Prices/Stockists/Relevant Information

Title: "The Rise and Fall of a La Scala Diva"
Author: Marjorie Wright
Publisher: Janus
Retail price: €10.75