The tiny but feisty Welsh-born mezzo-soprano and voice teacher Patricia Kern loved everything about the craft and art of singing. It was her passion. And even when her performing career began to wane and she turned increasingly to teaching, the singing continued.
"Patricia had a phenomenal voice, a phenomenal instrument," mezzo-soprano Jean Stilwell says of her former teacher, who died Oct. 19 in a Toronto palliative care facility. "And I think that there was a large part of her that truly, truly missed being on the stage. Even while in the studio teaching, she was a performer … a singer."
Patricia Ann Kern was born July 14, 1927, in the coastal city of Swansea in South Wales, the only daughter of a master shipwright, Clifford James Kern, and Doris Hilday (née Boyle). Patricia started her music career as a child star in cabarets and concerts at the age of 5, wearing top hat and tails, the same year Shirley Temple made her first film. During the Depression, Patricia's father lost his job so she, by default, became the family's chief breadwinner. Singing and tap dancing her way through this time of hardship helped to instill in her a sense of responsibility and discipline at a young age. The Hollywood film studio MGM offered her a contract, but her parents declined in order to keep the family together.
As the economic situation began to improve after the war, she won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in London, where she studied from 1949 to 1952 with the much-admired Welsh tenor Gwynn Parry Jones (a noted Mozart singer who achieved a degree of celebrity as a survivor of the tragic sinking in 1915 of the ocean liner Lusitania by the Germans).
In 1952, Miss Kern, as she was known, joined the Opera for All touring company, where she continued to hone her craft; and in 1959 she joined Sadler's Wells (which later became the English National Opera), making her debut in Dvorak's Rusalka. For 10 seasons, she was a member of the company, her most notable successes being Rossini's Angelina (La Cenerentola), Rosina (The Barber of Seville), Isolier (Le comte Ory) and Isabella (L'italiana in Algeri). Also a regular guest star with the Scottish Opera, she made her Covent Garden debut in 1967; and her American debut in 1969 in Washington.
One of her colleagues in the 1960s was the English tenor John Wakefield – now 79. "She was an exciting singer," he says, "and she had the best coloratura of any mezzo I have heard in my life. Not aspirated. It was clear, clean coloratura – and legato, too, and she knew exactly what she could do with her voice.
While not a particularly glamorous figure on stage, she made up for it in her acting, stage craft and voice – a voice that was healthy, warm and technically solid from top to bottom. It was also extremely agile and even throughout its range, which made her ideal for the rollicking roulades of Rossini opera buffa. And as she got older, her voice grew in depth, making her perfect for Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff, with her deep obsequious obeisance as she repeatedly uttered "reverenza" (your reverence). She ended the main part of her career at Glyndebourne, singing the role of Mrs. Herring in Benjamin Britten's comic opera Albert Herring (she sang more than 100 performances of the role throughout her career).
The late Canadian conductor Mario Bernardi was at Sadler's Wells at the same time as Miss Kern and conducted several performances with her. He was also partially instrumental in bringing her to Canada and the Stratford Festival, which was performing opera at that time as well as theatre. One of her early performances at the festival was as Cenerentola (Cinderella) – one of her signature roles – and Mary Lou Fallis, the Canadian comedienne and soprano extraordinaire, was there: "I can still remember her Cenerentola in Stratford," Ms. Fallis says. "Gosh, she was funny … with a great sense of humour and comic timing. I can never see a production of La Cenerentola today without thinking of her performance."
As her eyesight was not very good, Miss Kern always wore glasses off stage. On stage was another matter. "But Mario said that he never had to worry that she couldn't see him in the pit," says his wife, mezzo-soprano Mona Kelly, "because she was a fabulous musician and she really listened." But if she took her glasses off while at home, says Ms. Kern's daughter, Nadya, "you knew you were in real trouble."
In the spring of 1968, Miss Kern met her husband-to-be, David Smukler, who was working as a theatrical vocal coach at the Stratford Festival, in Ontario. After a fine romance of five months, they married (though she continued to be known as Miss Kern). Their only child, Nadya, was born in 1970 in London, England. Six years later, the family moved to Pittsburgh and then to Toronto in 1980. The bulk of her performances took place in Britain, although she sang internationally, from Geneva and Chicago to Hong Kong. She made her Canadian Opera Company debut in 1973 in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. This was followed by Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, in 1983, and Britten's Albert Herring, in 1991.
For many of her students, Patricia Kern was viewed as a "complete singing teacher." She would often work with her husband, with him focusing on the theatrical side of a student's education, to address the varied needs of a singer. "Together they were a complete force," Ms. Stilwell says. "David is a fine teacher. He introduced me to some wonderful acting techniques and challenged me, and Patricia was a great supporter of his." In 1980, Miss Kern was appointed adjunct professor of voice at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music, where she taught for more than 20 years.
As a voice teacher, she had particular success with lower voices, such as baritones and mezzos, and produced a number of outstanding Canadian stars – such as baritones Russell Braun, Brett Polegato, Gidon Saks and James Westman, and mezzos Jean Stilwell and Kimberly Barber. "Miss Kern," Mr. Polegato says, "also had an incredibly strong work ethic, which she tried to instill in all her students – making them learn through hard work and discipline. And to this day, I attribute my technique – especially my breathing – to her. She always took my best interests to heart."
Miss Kern was young at heart with a generous spirit and a generous – often ribald – sense of humour. When she found out that some students called her "the Kern-al" (for her demanding ways), she enjoyed the joke perhaps even more than they did. She was also fiercely proud of her Welsh heritage and, not surprisingly, she was a straight shooter who spoke her mind freely.
But what she was mostly was a singer. Or as she once said, "I sang and danced from the age of 5 … I love the theatre; I love the stage. It's what I've known since I was 5, so it's in the blood."
Patricia Kern leaves her husband, David Smukler; daughter, Nadya; son-in-law, David Lawson; and her family of dogs, Chimo, Jack and Sander. Miss Kern was predeceased by her only sibling, conductor Terence Kern, who died on April 28 of this year.