The night Margaret Price sang mezzo

The night Margaret Price sang mezzo


norman lebrecht

February 01, 2011

Tom Graham, the diva’s agent, has recalled for me a moment from the unrepeatable past when one of the great sopranos was persuaded to sing mezzo by a pop station.

Well, almost.
In the early years of commercial UK radio, stations were obliged to include educative and improving content, which could mean classical music. Capital, the London station, staged concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. That’s where Tom came in. 
Here’s his story (and don’t miss the conductor kick in the tail).

Margaret Price


On Sunday, March 15, 1981 I was rung at
home, Oakwood Court, by Martin Campbell White a Director of Harold Holt Concert
Management.  As it was a Sunday he
apologized but said he had an emergency. They were presenting a performance of
the Verdi Requiem at the Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Claudio Abbado and the engaged mezzo, Lucia Valentini-Terrani had
just cancelled. Did I have an idea for a replacement?  It was a starry cast, Mirella Freni, Jose
Carreras and Nicolai Ghiaurov.

As it happened Margaret Price happened to be
visiting us that Sunday. I remembered Margaret had started her career as a mezzo
[she made her Covent Garden debut as Cherubino]. It was a crazy thought but as
it was with Claudio Abbado and Margaret had sung the Verdi Requiem often I
thought it was worth thinking about.  I
went into the kitchen and told Margaret the situation and asked if she was
interested.  She thought about it for a
few minutes and told me to see what Abbado would think about the idea. I rang
Martin and floated the idea to him and asked him to see what Claudio Abbado

After an hour or so Martin rang and said
that if Margaret felt comfortable Claudio was happy to have her sing the mezzo
part. So on Tuesday, March 17, 1981 Margaret sang for the first and last time
the mezzo part in Verdi’s Requiem. The concert was broadcast on Capital

                                                 (in another Abbado requiem)

I remember two other occasions when Capital
Radio, primarily a ‘pop’ station broadcast serious classical concerts, also
involving last minute replacements.

The elusive and legendary conductor Carlos
Kleiber jumped in and replaced Claudio Abbado in a concert with the LSO on June
9, 1981.  The program was Weber Freichutz
Overture; Schubert Symphony 3 and Beethoven Symphony 7. It was to be Kleiber’s
only concert appearance in London. (C
apital also broadcast the Covent Garden
Otello in 1980 when both Margaret Price and Carlos Kleiber were engaged at the
last minute when the opera was changed from Andrea Chenier).


  • Marie Lamb says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that she was so well-prepared on such short notice. It’s not every soloist who would know other solo parts in addition to her own. However, Dame Margaret was not just a pretty voice, but a thorough professional. Now, I wish I could have been there that St. Patrick’s Day of 1981…great story!

  • Chris Kelnar says:

    Happy memories! I was at the Price / Norman Abbado Verdi Requiem, the Kleiber concert and Otello – three of my greatest musical experiences. Incidentally it was Karl Bohm that Kleiber substituted for, not Abbado, at that only London concert appearance. The critics panned it (unbelievably) and I understand that Kleiber vowed never to return.