Ruby Philogene's Divine Voice

Happy Days Ennsikillen International Beckett Festival welcomes the renowned mezzo soprano to Marble Arch Caves

On the eve of the second Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, I drive to the Colebrook Estate near Brookeborough to meet with world renowned mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene MBE, who will be appearing at the festival and who is married to the festival’s founder and artistic director, Sean Doran.

Over a cup of tea in the couple’s cottage kitchen, the opera star, recitalist and teacher tells me about her family background, her musical training and her career so far. I am intrigued by her unusual name. 'Philogene is a Greek word meaning "love of people",' she explains with a smile.

And what of her love of music? Philogene recalls being introduced to various genres of music, and falling in love with them all, from a young age.

'My father and mother arrived in London from the Caribbean island of Dominica in the 1940s. I grew up listening to church hymns, calypso, country music, Elvis Presley, Bob Marley. I sang in a group with my cousin and a few friends, but when it was suggested that I have my voice trained we found a singing and piano teacher in The Stage magazine, and it was she who introduced me to classical music and the opera.'

The first production Philogene ever saw was Samson and Delilah starring Shirley Verrett and John Vickers at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 'When I heard what the human voice can do I was captivated and determined there and then that I too would sing on that stage.'

At the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Philogene specialised in singing but also studied languages, music theory, history of music and the Alexander Technique. She then won a scholarship to study for her Masters degree at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Danish voice coach Michael Eliasen.

'It was an exciting time for me,' Philogene remembers. 'I became aware of the dedication and energy of American divas like Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price. I also loved going to the gospel churches to hear music that is transcending, soulful and so very deep.'

Philogene’s big break came in London in 1993 when she won the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier award. After the first three rounds, she learned she was in the final when a top London agent called her to say he would be at the Wigmore Hall to hear her.

'That was the one award I coveted and winning it felt quite surreal,' she admits. 'I am a mezzo soprano and Ferrier was a contralto who also sang the mezzo repertoire, but her voice has an exceptional timbre and she sang with so much emotion and real heart that it gives me goose bumps even to think about it.'

As her career developed, Philogene appeared not only at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden but the Deutsches Opera in Berlin, the Theatre de La Monnaie in Brussels, and the Lincoln Centre in New York.

She has performed with maestros Riccardo Muti Sir Colin Davis and Michael Tilson Thomas, and worked with theatre director Philippa Lloyd when she played Carmen. Accompanied by her favourite pianists Paul Plummer or Julius Drake, her recital repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary music and reflects her love of mid- to late-Romantic songs and spirituals, such as those on her excellent recording Steal Away, which also features the London Adventist Chorale.

It was Drake who introduced Philogene to her future husband. Then artistic director of English National Opera, Doran was overseeing a production of Monteverdi’s Orpheo, featuring Philogene as Eurydice. At the end of their first meeting, Doran remembers turning around to look at Philogene, but in contrast to the mythic hero who lost his beloved by looking back, Doran knew in that instant that he had found his love.

During their honeymoon in Perth, Australia, Philogene collapsed with a perforated appendix, but her recovery was aided by the sunshine and the extraordinary light in that region and the pair ended up staying in Perth for five years.

While Doran worked on festival projects in Western Australia, Philogene continued to sing and also discovered a special talent for teaching. Her holistic ‘Find Your Voice’ programme, which helps singers find their true sound, includes breathing techniques, body alignment and relaxation. Now that she is based in Northern Ireland, Philogene aims to introduce the programme here.

For her Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival festival recital at St Michael’s church on August 23, Philogene will be accompanied by Paul Plummer in Wagner’s 'Wesendonck Lieder'.

Richard and Minna Wagner lived for a time in a small cottage on Otto Wesendonck’s estate in Zurich, and the five songs are dedicated to his wife Matilde Wesendonck who also wrote the texts. Wagner and Mathilde may or may not have had an affair, but the songs reveal their mutual infatuation.

This year’s Happy Days festival also features Dante’s Divine Comedy, Samuel Beckett’s favourite literary work, performed in part in various unusual locations. Appropriately, 'Inferno' will be staged twice nightly in the spectacular setting of the Marble Arch Caves and during the performance, Philogene will sing Dido’s moving Lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.

'It’s a piece which is very close to me,' she explains. 'I have sung it many times in the opera and at recitals. I recall a special production by Nancy Evans at Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh, and I sang it in the beautiful setting of the Umbria Festival in Italy last year.'

At the conclusion of 'Inferno', the cavernous acoustic will be filled with the familiar strains of 'Amazing Grace' as Philogene leads the audience out of that dark underworld towards the light.

Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival runs from August 22 – 26. View the full festival programme.