‘We fled the opera in our nighties’ – a memoir of beloved Eilene

The mezzo-soprano Fiona Kimm contributes this impression of the late Eilene Hannan.

eilene hannan

I was very sad to hear of the death of Eilene Hannan last week, at the early age of sixty eight.

Not only was she a singer with a voice of remarkable beauty, but a supportive and generous colleague, who made working with her a delight. I sang with her in three productions in the 1980s. “Rusalka” at English National Opera was a landmark; a production of immense depth and subtlety by David Pountney, it was remarkable for many superb performances, but above all for Eilene’s extraordinary portrayal of the title role. She combined a beauty of sound with a poignancy, fragility and depth of characterisation which truly broke your heart! It was a privilege to be a part of that wonderful experience. And it is so good that Eilene’s performance has been preserved on DVD, though it captures only a part of her charisma in live performance.

I then sang with her in the ENO production of “War and Peace”, in which she again excelled as Natasha. In everything she did, Eilene found the core of the person she was playing, and both as a colleague and as a member of the audience, you were caught up in the reality of her performance. It was a really enjoyable experience too. She and I sat on our balcony, before singing the girls’ duet, listening to Tom Allen singing Bolkonsky’s aria below us, both of us in total admiration for his singing.

Despite her own formidable talent, Eilene always was generous towards others. This great production, and Eilene’s notable interpretation, was one of the highlights of the ENO tour to the USA in 1984 (We also had a less than pleasant experience during one of the Coliseum runs – a bomb scare, where we all had to evacuate the building. It was November, and Eilene and I were in nighties. Perishing!

The last opera we did together was Graham Vick’s production of Eugene Onegin for Opera North with Jonathan Summers. It was a very enjoyable experience, and yet again, Eilene’s ability to sing this repertoire, which requires strength and focus, and still bring out the vulnerability and fragility of Tatyana, was an object lesson. I’m very grateful to have known her, and to have learnt a great deal from watching and listening to a consummate artist, who never short changed the composer, the audience, her colleagues or herself. She was a very special person.

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