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Helen Watts (Mezzo-soprano, Contralto)

Born: December 7, 1927 - Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK
Died: October 7, 2009 - Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK

The admired Welsh contralto, Helen (Josephine) Watts, first became interested in singing while she was at the Abbots Bromley School in Staffordshire and Ernest Read, the school’s music director, persuaded her to go to the Royal Academy of Music to take up singing and piano. There she studied for four years with Caroline Hatchard and won a number of prizes. On leaving the Academy she continued studying, with Frederic Jackson.

Helen Watts began her career singing in the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and the BBC Chorus in London. Her first professional engagements were broadcasts on the Welsh Home Service and she was soon a regular broadcaster on all services of the BBC. These broadcasts led to concert engagements in London and throughout the provinces. Her first appearance as a soloist was in 1953. In 1955 she made her first appearance at the London Promenade concerts singing J.S. Bach arias under Malcolm Sargent’s direction. She quickly won her a reputation as one of the finest British contraltos and distinguished herself as a concert artist. Thereafter she appeared in principal European and North American music centres.

Helen Watts also pursued an operatic career. In 1958 she made her operatic debut as Didymus in George Frideric Handel's Theodora with Handel Opera Society at the Camden Festival, and continued to appear with the Society until 1964. In 1964 she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival as the 1st maid in Elektra and toured Russia with the English Opera Group as Benjamin Britten’s Lucretia. She made her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden as the 1st Norn in Götterdämmerung in 1965, and continued to sing there until 1971. In 1966 she made her USA debut in Delius’ A Mass of Life in New York. She sang Mistress Quickly at her first appearance with the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff in 1969, where she was a leading member of the company until 1983.

In 1978 Helen Watts was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She had a career spanning 35 years as one of the most admired and resourceful singers on the concert platform, in opera and recordings, working with three generations of conductors. While she had success in opera, she particularly excelled as a concert artist. Her concert repertoire extended from J.S. Bach to the masters of the 20th century.

In 1980 Helen Watts married the viola player Michael Mitchell, whom she had met when singing with the London Symphony Orchestra. After her retirement in 1985, she cared for her husband, who suffered long-term serious health problems and devoted many happy hours at their Pembrokeshire home to her lifelong passion for gardening. Helen Watts died aged 81. She is survived by her sister-in-law, her nieces and nephews.

Source: Liner notes to the album ‘Wagner: Die Walküre’ conducted by Georg Solti (London, 1966); Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Helen Watts Obiruary (The Guardian, October 2009)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (May 2001, October 2009)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Ernest Ansermet


BWV 45, BWV 67, BWV 105, BWV 130; Duet from BWV 101

Benjamin Britten


BWV 151

Thurston Dart


BWV 53, BWV 54, BWV 200, Aria from BWV 244

Nikolaus Harnoncourt


BWV 232

Geraint Jones


BWV 147, BWV 243

Jürgen Jürgens


BWV 198

Otto Klemperer


BWV 244

Philip Ledger


BWV 243a

Karl Münchinger


BWV 10, BWV 232, BWV 243 [2nd], BWV 248, BWV 249

Helmuth Rilling


BWV 2, BWV 7, BWV 8, BWV 12, BWV 22, BWV 23, BWV 24, BWV 33, BWV 34, BWV 38, BWV 44, BWV 46, BWV 60, BWV 62, BWV 76, BWV 77, BWV 83, BWV 86, BWV 89, BWV 90, BWV 91, BWV 92, BWV 99, BWV 101, BWV 105 [1st], BWV 111, BWV 115, BWV 116, BWV 122, BWV 123, BWV 124, BWV 126, BWV 132, BWV 134, BWV 135, BWV 136, BWV 139, BWV 144, BWV 147, BWV 148, BWV 163, BWV 166, BWV 173, BWV 178, BWV 186, BWV 190, BWV 243
J.L. Bach: Cantata Die mit Tränen sähen, JLB-8

Jaap Schröder


BWV 27, BWV 89, BWV 90, BWV 161

Johannes Somary


BWV 11, BWB 80, BWV 232

David Willcocks


BWV 245

Links to other Sites

Helen Watts Obituary (The Guardian)


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Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 06:21