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Louise Kirkby-Lunn

Louise Kirkby Lunn, born Louisa Baker in Manchester on 8 November 1872, was an internationally famous contralto, sometimes described as a mezzo soprano, who is largely forgotten today. Her father was an iron moulder and her mother, Elizabeth, had a confectioner’s shop in the Ancoats district of the city. She was singing at concerts in Manchester in the early 1890s as Miss Kirkby Lunn and as her parents had arranged local tuition from Dr. J.H. Greenwood, the organist of All Saints Church; she was probably a member of the choir. Kirkby was her mother’s family name; the origin of Lunn is uncertain but there may have been a family connection. The early use of a professional name suggests that she was already seeking a vocal career and from April 1893 she studied for three years with Alberto Visetti at the Royal College of Music in London. Whilst there she successfully appeared in student opera performances appearing in Schumann’s Genoveva and Delibes’ Le Roi l’a dit and in 1895 sang for Henry Wood in the first season of Promenade concerts at the Queen’s Hall.

Her professional operatic debut, as Nora in the première of Stanford’s Shamus O’Brien, took place in March 1896 with Dennis O’Sullivan in the title role and Joseph O’Mara as Mike Murphy. An arrangement with the impresario Augustus Harris followed with three performances at Covent Garden as a Valkyrie. His death in June of the same year ended it and she accepted an engagement with the Carl Rosa.

Lunn’s Rosa debut was as Siebel in Faust at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin on 19 August 1896 and over three seasons she added operas by Balfe, Bizet, Thomas, Verdi, Wallace, and Wagner. Her Rosa repertoire of twelve roles included novelties such as Eila in the world premiere of Hamish MacCunn’s opera Diarmid in October 1897, and Julia in a stage version of Sullivan’s oratorio The Martyr of Antioch. The roles of Magdalena in Meistersingers, Fricka in Valkyrie, Ortrud in Lohengrin (Illustrated), and Brangäne in the British English-language premiere of Tristan and Isolde, were probably the most important in the light of her later Wagnerian achievements. Her final Rosa appearance, after some 300 performances, appears to have been in Carmen at the Sheffield Theatre Royal on 30 March 1899.

Marriage and motherhood at the turn of the century temporarily halted her operatic career but she was able to make a few Covent Garden appearances in 1901 and return a year later to make successful appearances in Aida, Rigoletto, Lohengrin, Tristan, and Valkyrie. An international career embracing opera, concert and oratorio followed. Her American career included three seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and a tour with the Henry Savage Opera Company. She also appeared in Europe and toured Australia and New Zealand. However Covent Garden remained her operatic home where she sang several Ring cycles conducted by Richter and Nikisch and created Dalila in the 1909 British premiere of Saint-Saens’ Samson and Dalila. Her last season was in 1919 although she returned there in 1922 to sing a few performances with the newly formed British National Opera Company. She sang once more with them as Kundry in Parsifal on 27 February 1923 at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. This seems to have been her last operatic performance.

Her career in concert and oratorio had been equally successful. She often appeared at the major festivals and had been particularly associated with the role of the Angel in Elgar’s Gerontius. She was bold enough to make early BBC broadcasts and also left an extensive recorded legacy which sadly includes only one Wagnerian extract. Concert appearances declined from about 1925 as her health deteriorated. She died at her London home 17 February 1930. A memorial service at Saint Martin’s in the Fields followed four days later with cremation at Golders Green.

Kirkby Lunn was an international star among international stars singing with Destinn, Caruso and other famous singers on both sides of the Atlantic. The Rosa seasons had paved the way for a great career.

© 2019 John Ward

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