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Norma Morgan

BY KATE FLEMING


In Victoria Square, in the centre of Aberdare, stands a statue of ‘Caradog’ - Griffith Rhys Jones – conductor of the renowned South Wales Choral Union. It was erected in appreciation of his musical genius in 1920, five years before the birth of Norma Morgan.

A childhood in the musical valleys of South Wales in between the wars was tough for the poor. Food was scarce and entertainment limited and simple. Norma recalls swinging from the lamppost, playing in the top field all day, then on hearing St Elven’s clock chiming nine o’clock ‘running like hell’ down the mountain to get home before the ninth strike!

So different from today, she muses, as we talk on a hot August afternoon in her home in Ansty.

The doctor was the only person to have a car in Aberdare when she was a child, and she can still hear the sound of the miners’ hobnailed boots running for the bus to take them to work on the early morning shift. However, in spite of the lack of material goods – now taken for granted – there was a cultural richness in the valleys which for Norma was an integral part of her upbringing and her professional life as an opera singer and still lingers there when she sings with The Cuckoo Choir here in Cuckfield.

The Welsh lilt in her voice remains strong as she recollects singing in the ‘big church’ at Easter and the significant occasion of her first solo.

World War Two was drawing to a merciful close and to celebrate Mr and Mrs Edwards (the bank manager from down the road) dragged their piano into the street and Norma sang. “You should do something with that voice,” Mr Edwards said to Norma’s mother and so she did.

Rudimentary singing lessons, learning and practising the scales with one Mrs Alder at sixpence an hour on Saturday mornings began to shape her professional musical career and eventually open the doors to an international world of song which the little girl from Aberdare could never have imagined as she helped her mother clean the little mission church and sang with the Band of Hope.

But if a beautiful voice was going to be recognised anywhere, it was to be in the valleys of South Wales.

Norma began to widen her horizon, taking part and winning an Opportunity Knocks talent competition in Cardiff and singing in sacred operas produced by the music teacher from the local boys’ secondary school. These were often supported by professional singers from London and so, inevitably and eventually, Norma takes the mighty step up to the metropolis to ‘find her fortune’ and become a professional singer. She was funded by the people of Aberdare with the princely sum of £5 a month paid into the Co-op Bank.

She recognised her contact at Paddington Station by a carnation buttonhole, and so began a period of time ‘keeping the wolf from the door’ by working at the Cardoma Coffee House, relying on friends of friends, and waiting for a break.

At one time she was sharing a bed with a London taxi driver – she slept at night, he during the day. She continued to sing as and where she could, at the Aldeburgh Festival, going on tour in Scotland with Opera for All, and then, one Friday, she was invited to audition for the Royal Opera Company at Covent Garden.

Norma Morgan
"I'm the luckiest person i the world." Norma Morgan

“It was Friday lunchtime at 12.30pm,” she remembers so vividly. “That was the busiest time of the week at the cafe but I was allowed to go and, unprecedented, took a taxi from Piccadilly to Covent Garden to arrive at the Audition Room opposite the Stage Door.”

The audition, however, was not without complications. True to form they were running late. “But I have to be back at work,” Norma firmly announced. At long last, awash with nerves the girl from Aberdare sang Mimi’s Farewell from Puccini’s La Boheme on the stage at Covent Garden! Although she was worrying throughout as to whether she would lose her job at the coffee house.

From the back of the room came the unexpected request to sing something else. Horrified at this Norma had to admit that she hadn’t brought anything else. The beauty of her voice was recognised, the conductor of the chorus saying later: “That was the most beautiful rendering of Mimi’s Farewell I have ever heard.” So she was given a place in the Royal Opera chorus and began her thirty years with this internationally famous and highly prestigious opera company.

Covent Garden was different from the one many of us know today. It was a fruit and vegetable market and the Opera House was a valued part of this busy commercial environment.

Norma remembers the need to pick up the hems of long dresses to avoid the mud, and the porters tendency to sing along with them often revealing fine bass baritone and tenor voices. Once, during a rehearsal for Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, they threw cabbages through the windows to indicate their dislike of this complex modern unfinished masterpiece!

She became a strong and highly respected member of the chorus. She was their Union Rep, a force to be reckoned with with a fiery tongue and a sharp wit, standing up for the rights and well-being of her chorus colleagues.

Norma sang with the great and famous and had her favourites.

Luciano Pavarotti brings a twinkle to her eyes as she recalls his love of football and his refusal to rehearse on Saturday mornings because it was then that he played for the Covent Garden football team.

I, too, am reminded of the King of the High C’s singing Nessum Dorma at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Her laughter is almost uncontrollable as she tells me about her wig disaster. Playing Suzuki, the handmaiden in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, at a crucial moment in the performance her traditional Japanese wig fell off and landed on the floor. Norma thought this was the end, but quick as a flash she bent down, stuck her head in the wig and the show went on.

Norma remembers Maria Callas with great love, affection and respect. In her famous role as Violetta in La Traviata by Guiseppi Verdi, Norma played the handmaiden who hands her the letter and so heard the reading of the letter many times. With genuine sadness and pain she describes her isolated and tragic death in Paris, almost making one think that Norma herself should have been there to comfort and befriend that amazing opera singer. She was, however, on stage the night Kathleen Ferrier collapsed during a performance of Orpheus from which she recovered sufficiently to finish her performance but died later in 1953 at the tragically early age of 41.

It is with ease and fondness that Norma talks about the musical stars of my life. Sir John Barbirolli, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, George Solti, Sir Thomas Beecham trip off that Welsh tongue and show me what an extraordinary life she has led, travelling the world and performing alongside the finest musical artists of the 20th century in the most spectacular venues.

“More jewellery in the audience than on stage,” she reflects, still with the joy, wonder and excitement that she must have felt when she first walked on to the stage at Covent Garden and heard the swish of the grand velvet curtains and the orchestra tuning up, thinking to herself ‘I have arrived’.

I, however, am blessed with a more recent Cuckoo Choir memory to match her wealth of memories, as I can still hear Norma in her ninth decade singing the solo in Handel’s Lascia ch’io Pianga one Friday afternoon at The Old School in Cuckfield...’When the night is over the sun will rise again....’

So she graciously and positively answers the American poet Karle Wilson Baker’s poignant question: ‘Why may not I ... Grow lovely growing old?’ It is a privilege to know this charming talented lady and to have listened to the story of her extraordinary life.

Da iawn (well done) Norma Morgan.


THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN ISSUE 48 (OCT/NOV 2016) OF CUCKFIELD LIFE

(reproduced with kind permission)

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