Not just a great singer, Neil Howlett’s teaching was inspired

A tribute to the singer, who died today, by his pupil Una Barry.

I first got to know Neil from afar in the audience as a young music student and young professional as this wonderful baritone at English National Opera. I must have seen everything he did there – Mozart, Wagner, Debussy, all the first performances [and some last!] in the 70s and 80s. So many there in those days were just outstanding, and of course it was the time of the Reginald Goodall Ring. I saw Neil do Amfortas in Parsifal, and also in a semi-staged performance on 11 August 1987 at the Proms that turned out to be Reggie’s last concert he ever conducted. I remember there was Gwynne Howell as Gurnemanz, Warren Ellsworth as Parsifal, and Sheelagh Squires as Kundry. The Financial Times wrote, “Neil Howlett was a noble Amfortas.” He sure was.

I didn’t know Neil in those days, but in 2012 when I was looking for a new singing teacher with a move out of London to Yorkshire and with Heather Harper and Josephine Veasey both retiring from ill-health, I came across Neil’s comprehensive website of singing articles, knowing that he taught in London and Lincoln and, if we got on, Lincoln via Newark on the mainline would be ideal. Neil’s site was not how to sing by numbers or out of a book but a very practical and scholarly site, given he had done not only all the research but also knew what it was like to get up and do the job. He had also been a fine oboist before he went to King’s College, Cambridge to do English, Archaeology and Anthropology as a choral scholar, and then winning the Kathleen Ferrier Award that then sent him abroad to study with the best and get into German opera houses.

I had a few lessons in London before I moved, and I knew we would more than get on. He was not for the faint-hearted in the profession for he knew the profession was tough, and one thing you needed to succeed was resilience. Over seven years from March 2012 to July 2019, I had 113 lessons. I recorded them all; I typed them up verbatim, and got them bound! May seem odd to some of you, but not only did Neil scrutinise my singing from note to note, he taught me how to teach, which is something I came to very late in life compared to others because of being away so much singing myself as well as my regular work for water and educational projects in Africa. Now having all those lessons to hand, I have a Bible to which I can refer when in doubt for everything is there for my own teaching, as well as what others taught me. I can never say that I ever had a ‘bad teacher’ – they all taught me a lot.

My life as an active public singer is at an end, and never more so now with this Covid situation that has hammered into a profession on my level that may well not be there for the next generation for not all singers can be stars. But if I get back to teaching – if there are any students left to teach – then I will teach whoever as well as I possibly can – even better than I did, in memory of Neil and for all the invaluable knowledge he freely shared. My own students loved him from kids to those in their 70s still wanting and well able to sing, as I made sure they got time with Neil from time to time as he the ‘master teacher’ – a name that used to make him cringe as he was so modest – and me the student teacher. But they all loved him and they learnt so much that was relevant to their stage of development.

So here we are today on what is a very sad day of loss. In saying that, Neil was not afraid of dying. We had the odd conversation about life and death over a cup of tea once in the kitchen as I’d been relearning Verdi’s Requiem with him for two concerts. He certainly did not believe in any life after death or was remotely religious. But it has made me smile today in all this sadness that Neil should have died on Ascension Thursday, one of the big festivals of the Christian calendar throughout the world. Who knows but if there is such a thing as life after death, one thing is for sure: his spirit will live on among us and those of us who knew him well, will not forget him in a hurry. May he rest in peace.

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    • Thanks Christopher. I turned it around very quickly as it was only at around 12.30pm I had heard indirectly that Neil had died. Hope there aren’t too many typos but Norman kindly invited me to write something and then was very gracious in publishing all I wrote. Such a sad day,

  • As a young singer freshly arrived from Cambridge in 1977 I was directed to Neil at the Guildhall, where over the course of three years he introduced me to “real” singing. Even though I never truly mastered vocal technique, his teaching left me with a wealth of knowledge that has allowed me to appreciate what great singing can be.

    Like Una, I saw practically everything Neil sang at ENO from 1977-82. His fine Iago is on disc, but I suspect that Scarpia was his finest achievement.

    There is an audio recording of Nemico Della Patria on YouTube which affords a rare opportunity to hear him sing in his impeccable Italian.

    A sad day indeed.

    • I recently got CD copies from some company that released broadcasts, and it was one version of Tosca at ENO from a live BBC broadcast. There are odd things around like that to be got. Like all those British singers of that generation, they sang everything. There were no so-called baroque singers as such or so many twentieth century specialists. They did the lot if they so chose. Neil could learn any role in a week as he not only was a fine musician with a fine voice but also had a photographic memory!

      • I will certainly look for that Tosca. I imagine it’s the one with Neil, Linda Esther Gray and Charles Craig, and Mark Elder conducting. I remember Neil telling me how excited he was at the prospect, and how significant it was that Craig was more or less coming out of retirement to sing the Cavaradossi (and he simultaneously chastised me for praising Domingo’s Otello, which I had recently heard at ROH – Neil at that point really didn’t think much of Domingo). Well, Craig was marvelous, though past his peak, and I still love Domingo’s Otello. De gustibus and all that….

  • Over the past days, by coincidence I have been relishing Howlett’s Iago on discs. The most impeccable and moving performance ever, with that honeyed tone suddenly transformed into a terrifying Credo ending into ghastly cynicism and laughter. He chilled my blood in the theatre, I can still hear it now.

    His Scarpia, hangman and churchman, was also chilling. That entry in Act 1 had me cringing in fear, yet his voice was so aristocratic. It was the almost old-fashioned lyricism, that legato so perfectly phrased with long Italianite lines, that marked him as so special for me, words so impeccably clear. Nobody today at ENO can match him.

    I was privileged that Howlett introduced me as a teenager to so many fabulous roles during his time at ENO. Including french roles – Lescaut and Golaud (again the first exponents I saw). He never received his full due, overlooked for more rasping melodramatic voices in the later Powerhouse years.

    Then at Guildhall he taught in the studio next to my piano class. He seemed so sligh and gentle I could never quite equate him with the actor on stage. One night, only an hour after a lesson, he was singing on the Barbican stage, still with pencil in his top pocket, so modest.

    Sad to read of his passing.

    • Bob, I can assure you that at least at the time I knew Neil, there was plenty of fire and temperament hidden behind that placid exterior!

  • In my final year of undergraduate studies at the RNCM, I pleaded with Neil Howlett to take me on as a pupil. His teaching schedule was already full but somehow he found the time to start teaching me. Within weeks it was as if I was discovering a new voice. He patiently and painstakingly retrained my voice. I owe Neil my career and my admiration, admiration not merely for his skills as a teacher. His voice, instantly recognizable, noble, rich, vibrant, his wonderful legato, I close my eyes and can hear it still. How fortunate I was to have met and known this extraordinary artist.
    My dear Neil, you are forever in my heart.

  • I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my former teacher, Neil Howlett.
    Neil not only taught me the principles of good honest singing, but perhaps more importantly, he taught me how to listen. His knowledge of great singers and teachers of the past was encyclopedic, his enthusiasm for the subject was wonderfully infectious and I am so very grateful that he generously enjoyed passing it on.
    I highly recommend listening to Neil’s ‘Amfortas’ recorded live at the BBC Proms under the baton of the great Reginald Goodall. It can be found on YouTube, the scene starts at around 1:12:30. Neil’s singing speaks for itself.

    • Some of us where there that night mid-August 1987. Never forget the loud shout of ‘bravo’ that came from one of the Prommers at the end. The BBC recording has deteriorated but still better than nothing. But seeing and hearing him sing at the Coliseum in a far better acoustic cast as that is, was quite something along with so many British singers of his day.

      • very sad. I knew him on and off for many years. We used to chat about the old singers. He was so knowledgeable. Also a good bridge player.
        best ian

  • Thank you, Norman, for correcting those few typos that came with writing this in the forty minutes I had on Thursday.

  • Noelle Barker at the Guildhall recommended Neil Howett to me as a singing teacher back in 1978. I was of course very familiar with his work particularly at the Coliseum so was a little bit in awe of him at my first lesson. At that stage I found even a D a high note, Eb very high and an E almost impossible which is not good for a baritone if you want to sing anything at all really. Neil taught me the passaggio technique of moving from the chest voice up into the head and it just clicked. I was off and found I could get F# sharps with no difficulty after a term studying with him. My life moved on to do other things later but I have so many happy memories of that era studying with and learning so much from Neil not only about singing but also about life in general. I remember also that he was also a keen cyclist and regularly travelled from his lovely home in Wimbledon to sing performances at the Coliseum on his bike.

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