Margaret Marshall OBE, soprano

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

It’s difficult to pick only one thing. A very strong early memory was seeing Margaret Price give a concert in Stirling, my home town in Scotland, when I was still at school, and having a strong feeling that was what I wanted to do with my life. My singing teacher Ena Mitchell was probably the biggest single influence – she was extraordinary, a very successful singer and brilliant musician who had a larger than life personality but most importantly spoke a musical language I understood and from whom I learned everything. Another important influence was Hans Hotter with whom I also studied after winning a Caird Travelling Scholarship. Being such a renowned singer he needs no introduction: we particularly studied lots of Lieder and he was also the person who suggested I enter the 1974 ARD competition in Munich which I won and which opened up so many opportunities. Subsequently the faith placed in me by conductors including Riccardo Muti and Neville Marriner and also Philips Records was career transforming.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I have retired now from singing so the challenges are behind me, thank goodness! Generally speaking, it’s a great challenge to sing professionally for three decades. Especially when you are a working mother. I have two children and they didn’t always love me being away from home a lot.

There are specific challenges when you sing under the weather: that happens relatively frequently. I remember one performance where for most of the day I had been in the bathroom with food poisoning from eating liver for the first time the night before! But I had no understudy so I had to get on the stage and perform, and somehow I managed to get through a whole performance of ‘Così fan tutte’ feeling not very well! But perhaps the greatest single challenge was when John Elliot Gardiner asked me to step in for a performance of ‘Don Giovanni’ in Parma. I had sung the role (Donna Elvira) in English but not in Italian. But he still wanted me to come. So I did, and stood in the orchestra pit and sang with someone acting the part on stage. It was during that performance I realised for the first time I needed reading glasses! Two days later I performed it on the stage.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

The first recording I made was of a wonderful work by Baldassare Galuppi called the Rapida Cerva. I suspect many people don’t know it or him, but it’s a great Baroque work full of coloratura that I loved to sing. Also, I am particularly proud of the complete series of Vivaldi sacred music I recorded with Vittorio Negri for Philips records. The music suited my voice perfectly and I included a few tracks on my recent album Margaret Marshall Songbird.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

The music of J S Bach. And if I had to choose just one work it would be the St John Passion. I remember going to sing early on in my career for Karl Richter in Munich. I turned up with a pile of music and all he wanted to hear was Zerfliesse mein Herze. He subsequently invited me to sing a St. Matthew Passion in Vienna but sadly died before the concert took place. I would have loved to have performed with him. His Bach for me is extraordinary.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

To be honest I didn’t do much other than practice and perform. It is the music that provides the inspiration. I have always felt incredibly fortunate that I had the opportunity to sing this wonderful music. After I retired I became much more active, taking up skiing for example at the age of 55. I love it now that I can ski with my grandchildren who are 6 and 8. Before long they will leave me behind but at the moment they think it’s quite cool to ski down the slope with Dani (that’s what they call me!)

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I sang a very similar repertoire for my whole career so I wouldn’t say I set out to make a choice as such. The biggest choice I made was not to sing opera for the first three years after winning the Munich competition. I received some very attractive invitations but Ena Mitchell, my wonderful teacher, said no to all of them, until I was invited by Riccardo Muti to sing Euridice in Gluck’s Orfeo in Florence in 1977. I had already sung the work in concert performances and she felt that was the right step for me to make my operatic debut.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I know many singers don’t like the acoustic, but I always enjoyed singing in the Royal Festival Hall. The Concertgebouw is also beautiful with a wonderful entrance down to the stage.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

Everyone has the potential to enjoy classical music – I strongly believe that. Most people like music – and classical music is music, with so many great tunes. My kids grew up with classical music around them – and they love it. My grandchildren also hear a lot of classical music, which they really enjoy. So it’s a shame that some people feel that it is somehow an elite activity. I believe it’s a matter of exposure at a young age – I remember as a young child listening to my dad’s records of Brandenburg Concertos and singing along. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family but the music was there and it made a huge impression on me. So somehow we need to find a way for more children to experience that – and that is all to do with education.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One experience I will never forget was a concert of Bach’s B Minor Mass in the presence of the Queen of Spain in Barcelona. I left my hotel and ordered a taxi to take me to the theatre that was ten minutes down the road. Half an hour later we were still driving around Barcelona and then the driver stopped in front of a nightclub! Not only was the Queen attending the concert but it was a live television broadcast so you can imagine I was a bit stressed. Fortunately we made it to the right theatre just in time!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That’s such a hard question. The more successful you become the harder you are on yourself. At least I did, because you have such high standards and expectations to live up to. I remember distinctly feeling that after winning the competition in Munich. But ultimately you just have to work hard to be the best you can be. There was a time when I would have defined success as singing in the Holy Rood Church in Stirling where I grew up. And then I ended up singing with some of the worlds most wonderful orchestras on stages in Salzburg, Milan, London and New York. But it’s really only now when I look back at that than I can take pride in what I did. When you are in the middle of it there are lots of pressures, you are going from one thing to the next and it is a continuous cycle. What I do always remember feeling though was a duty to the composers who wrote the wonderful music I was so privileged to sing.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

This is a wonderful profession but it’s hard and competitive. Talent is important but so is hard work and discipline. Also no matter how successful you become make sure you have a teacher or mentor who can tell you the truth. We can’t hear ourselves the way our audience hears us, and it’s important to have a pair of ears that can tell us what they hear. But above all enjoy it. Music is a wonderful profession and if you have the chance to experience that then you are very fortunate.

What is your current state of mind

So happy to have family around me at this difficult and sad time.

Margaret Marshall’s new album Songbird includes previously unreleased recordings she made in the 1970s with German radio stations and orchestras. More information

Margaret Marshall was born in Stirling, Scotland in 1949.  After leaving school, Margaret had a choice between an offer to study languages at St Andrews University or singing at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.  Singing won and Margaret set out on a musical path which saw her become one of Scotland’s most successful singers on the international stage. 

It was at the Royal Scottish Academy that Margaret met her teacher Ena Mitchell, with whom she continued to study after graduating.  Winning a Caird travelling scholarship, Margaret also travelled to Munich to study with the renowned German bass-baritone Hans Hotter.  It was he who suggested that Margaret enter the 1974 ARD International Music Competition in Munich.

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Image: Margaret Marshall as The Countess in Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

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