A Life in Song!
There can be few of us here today who are not aware that Lawrie was a very fine singer. He was a passionately committed and consumate performer, who possessed an instantly recognisable, glorious, bass-baritone voice. The way he prepared a singing role was meticulous!
I first encountered Lawrie when I played the trumpet in the, then, Surrey Opera Group’s production of La Clemenza di Tito back in 1976 at the ‘dear old’ Market Hall in Redhill.
Lawrie had ‘pipped me to the post’ and had become involved with the Group just one year earlier than myself, when he sang for them the role of Osmin in Il Seraglio, with its famous long, low bottom D. I remember Joyce Hooper, Surrey Opera’s Founder, recalling that they had been very lucky in finding Lawrie, as a singer with a ‘usable’ bottom D was decidedly rare. In the Clemenza production, when he sang Publius, there was a Trio, where Lawrie had several repeated phrases throughout the number. These were not supposed to be heard by the other two members of the ensemble – an aside! Lawrie sung them down stage left – near the trumpets – with such character and with his usual flawless diction that I was transfixed every night and I eagerly awaited that moment at the subsequent performances.
Lawrie had that rare gift of engaging an audience – the X factor (long before a certain Mr S. Cowell had ever thought of it!) When he was on stage you wanted to listen and watch him, but he was never a scene-stealer. Always a generous and modest performer, Lawrie knew, instinctively, how his part in a scene, however small, fitted into the grand scheme of things.
The number of roles Lawrie sung was huge and it might, possibly, be easier to list the relevant ones that he hadn’t sung. It would not be extensive!
Once, again at the Market Hall, I arrived, rather in the knick of time, to conduct a Surrey Opera Group performance to find that the singer, who was to play Bartolo in the Marriage of Figaro, was practically voiceless, but he thought he could get through the opera. I, a little bravely, said that this was not acceptable and unfair on our audience but did we have an alternative? Yes, apparently, we did. Lawrence Reed, who I really did not know all that well at that stage, was thought to be attending that very performance and he might be persuaded to go on stage rather than sit in the audience. So - I nervously waited at the top of the steep, dreary back stairs up to the Market Hall auditorium and, low and behold, Lawrie appeared with his daughter Sue. I greeted them and asked Lawrie the obvious, rather foolish, question – are you coming to see the ‘show’? Of course he said – no you’re not, I replied – you’re in it and he was. More or less, without batting an eyelid, he agreed and gave us his splendid Bartolo that June evening in 1981. He had had absolutely no rehearsal and, as far as I can remember, he made no errors. Lawrie didn’t make errors! He just asked for one small cut, which he was accustomed to, in the recitative section before his aria. He was completely calm and composed. I don’t think Vena attended that evening but if she didn’t I would like to have been a fly on the wall when Lawrie and Sue returned home that evening. Vena – ‘did you enjoy the performance’? Lawrie – ‘yes’! Vena – ‘who was in the cast’? Lawrie — ‘I was’?
Over the years Lawrie has sung with many opera companies in and around the South East of England, most notably Gemini and Abbey Opera and, I am proud to say, for many years Surrey Opera.
I have mentioned his performances of Osmin and Publius but Lawrie sung far more than just his beloved Mozart. His Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was, for us, a high spot in the last act of our production. He was a fabulously authoritative Swallow at the opening of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and when in the last act his character becomes, somewhat, the worse for drink Lawrie was delightfully endearing as he tripped around the stage flirting with the two Nieces. His Sergeant Meryll in The Yeoman of the Guard was exquisite and touching. His Sarastro and Speaker in The Magic Flute were, of course, always marvellous. His Zacharia in Nabucco was stirring and powerful and one particular highlight for me, and I am sure many others, was the double act of Peter Sidhom and Lawrie as Don Giovanni and Leporello in 1985. They were a near perfect combination of voices, characters and stage presence. Lawrie always loved singing Don Alfonso in Cosi – his favourite role, I believe, and his last major role for us was Dalant in The Flying Dutchman. His portrayal was quite frankly a tour de force! He continued to sing in our chorus for a number of years, which, I think, sums up his philosophy about performing – there are no small roles just small performers!!! Lawrie mucked in. He was part of a team and he was loyal.
The smaller roles he did sing were equally strong and precise – Benoit in La Bohème, Pistol in Falstaff, the Sacristan in Tosca and to have Lawrie sing the opening lines in Sweeney Todd was surely casting from strength? Who would not want to continue listening after hearing Lawrie sing – ‘attend the tale of Sweeney Todd’ – perched on a barrel?
He wasn’t just restricted to opera – for many years he sang in the choir at Farm Street, to which he was extremely loyal. He sang oratorio and in shows and, I am sure, if his legs had allowed him he would have sung up until the day he died.
Through the miracle of technology we have many of Lawrie’s performances with us forever and they are real gift for us all to be able to hear and see his talent on tape, cassette, video and, when transferred, DVD.
Lawrie ‘earned his crust’ in the structural engineer’s world, but many believe that had he decided to sing fully professionally he would have forged an international career. I am sure that would have been true but aren’t we the richer that he didn’t?
Several Years ago, after Lawrie had been singing roles for us for some twenty years or so, we made him an Honorary Life Member. In his honour we will be transferring the title to Vena!
Lawrie was, quite simply, a special performer! I never saw him get angry or even mildly irritated in a production, even if it was patently obvious that things were not going well.
It was a pleasure to know him and an inspiration to work with him. I feel very privileged to have been a small part of his colourful musical life!
Jonathan Butcher 10/04/2012