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Martial Singher; Baritone, Famed Voice Teacher

March 12, 1990|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Martial Singher, the scholarly, lyrical French baritone who devoted his life to the subtleties of composers and librettists, personifying style both on the opera stages of the world and in the classrooms of the nation, is dead.

The former head of the vocal department at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara--a position he assumed when the legendary Lotte Lehmann retired--was 85 when he died Friday.

Alexander Saunderson, a longtime friend, said from Santa Barbara that the fabled voice teacher had died of a longstanding heart condition at his home there.

Compared to many of his contemporaries, Singher was not of heroic stature nor of large voice, but for 30 years he was, said Times music critic Martin Bernheimer, "an artist of refinement . . ." who "the connoisseurs adored. . . ."

When Willliam H. Seltsam compiled "Metropolitan Opera Annals" in 1947 he dedicated the work to only two singers: Geraldine Farrar, the great American diva, and Singher.

"Singher," wrote Seltsam, "has proved that the standards of the great singing actors of the past survive in our own day."

The elegant, stylish musicologist was highly regarded in this country from his first Metropolitan performance in 1943 in "The Tales of Hoffman." Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic, wrote in the Herald Tribune that Singher "gave a stage performance of incomparable elegance and did a piece of singing that for perfection of vocal style has not been equaled since Kirsten Flagstad went away."

His roles ranged from Pelleas in Debussy's "Pelleas et Mellisande" to Escamillo in "Carmen" to Wolfram in "Tannhauser" to Lescaut in "Manon."

He stayed with the Met through 200 performances but in 1959 a heart disorder ended his career as a performer but proved a blessing to what would be hundreds of students.

He taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, at Peabody and at UCLA, in Aspen and at the Marlboro Festival before settling in Santa Barbara where he would remain until his retirement in 1981.

There he took over from Miss Lehmann, teaching voice and the literature of song while managing the opera department and its annual productions.

His students there included Rodney Gilfry, James King, John Reardon, Judith Blegen, Jeanine Altmeyer, and many more who have gone on to their own illustrious careers.

He taught unknowns in relatively modest surroundings because he said he "lacked the strength and perhaps the authority to work with stars." He had considered for a time becoming a vocal coach and teacher for the nobility of the opera world but "I soon found out they wouldn't do what I said. Can you imagine what I would have had to go through getting Mario del Monaco (the Italian tenor) to sing Don Jose in a semblance of French. . . .

"No! (besides) I love to work with young people. Working with fresh talent permits me to be faithful to the original (score). . . ."

Born in Oloron-Saint-Marie in Basses-Pyrenees, Singher at first wanted to teach school but a gift for song sent him to the Paris Conservatory for study.

He first performed professionally in Amsterdam and then in Paris both with the Paris Opera and the Opera Comique before coming to the United States in 1941.

After retiring in 1981, he wrote "An Interpretive Guide to Operatic Arias."

Asked on the eve of his farewell Santa Barbara production in August, 1981, how he had managed to get such quality work from such embryonic voices, he replied:

"You can get anything you want from anyone. . . . All you have to do is kill yourself."

Survivors include his wife, Margareta, the daughter of conductor Fritz Busch; three sons and a grandson. Services are pending.

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