As the nonagenarian soprano tottered onto the stage of the illustrious Wigmore Hall, all eyes were drawn to her pink, mink muff and wrap, an eye watering combination on a soprano who fondly remembers working with Caruso, Martinelli and Ponselle, the latter of whom she is famously recorded as saying: “Not a bad voice, a bit wobbly for my liking, but that face, oh that face, she looks like a Neapolitan scrubber whose been out all night plying her trade for tuppence a trick”. Never one to mince her words, she had been forced out of fifty two years of retirement, due to a slump in the demand for forced rhubarb. Many of you will recall the headline in Opera Magazine 1959 when Dame Elsie Scroggins announced her shock retirement at the Blackpool Alhambra after a performance of Tristan und Isolde (where she encored the “Liebestod” with “Una voce poca fa”): “Forget Sutherland’s Lucia, La Scrog retires to grow rhubarb by night”. What can one say of such a legendary, uncategorisable soprano, except that time has not been kind on the tonsils of this once most silvery of sopranos. The audience gave her a warm hand on her opening, hoping that this once in a lifetime performance (I mean, how much longer does the woman have left?) would evoke memories of the “golden age” of singing. After the riotous entrance applause subsided she began her recital of operatic arias as she meant to go on, with Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, transposed down an octave!
What we hadn’t anticipated was the lone Callas supporter who screamed strega the moment she began the second item of the evening, the “Coppia iniqua” from Anna Bolena. Strong-armed out by one of redoubtable Wigmore usherettes, the 80 something protester continued screaming obscenities as La Scroggins got to grips with those rising trills (which I confidently predict to be a damn site better than Netrebko will manage in her Vienna debut in the role). Her composure clearly rattled, she missed the final top E Flat she was aiming for, ending up somewhere off course by approximately two octaves. To be absolutely clear about this, Dame Elsie has no top register except for a single note, a remarkable double top C, no middle at all, but she does possess an extensive lower range which could rival Boris Christoff in his prime. The quality of the voice is quite unusual to say the least – in her youth it was shallow and thin, hence why she was ideal casting as Zerlina, but through sheer grit and determination she forced her voice into submission, thereby allowing her to sing Turandot one night, followed by Norina the next. Imagine Emma Kirby pushed to her absolute limits and singing Elektra (as Scroggins did, a record 711 times in pre-war Slovakia alone)and you have an inkling of what she sounds like. Famously she has never recorded a single note, claiming that “Sutherland recorded all my roles, whilst Gencer took the stuff I wouldn’t wipe my apron on”. Still there are numerous pirate recordings of Dame Elsie singing all of her 926 roles (Mabel from The Pirates of Penzance being the only one she has publicly regretted), with perhaps her finest hour being the live broadcast of her singing excerpts, on request, from Hello Dolly and Les Dialogues des Carmelites in front of Nikita Kruschev at the Maxim Gorky Academic Theatre in Vladivostok, 1953. Surreal yes, but the explosive and thunderous clapping from the combined bureaucrats went on for a record 27 hours (the recording is available on Nightingale Classics on 26 CDs).
Following the finale from Anna Bolena we had to endure a full hour of interminable Scarlatti concertos, played on the banjo by her son cum daughter (he used to be called Brian) Chastity Scroggins, a virtuoso performer in her own right. When Dame Elsie returned it was to announce that she would not be singing “Light as Thistledown” by William Shield, but would instead sing “L’espirit de l’air” from Massenet’s Esclarmonde. Following a vicious flurry of activity on the banjo, it looked like we could hear some of the old magic, but sadly Scroggins was phenomenally over-parted and lost her way continuously throughout this demanding piece. Instead of having a mezzo join her to sing the role of Parséis, Chastity decided to chime in with her resonant and fruity bass. The top Ds which should cap each of the invocation verses were, predictably, absent. But she did manage to release a particularly violent cough at the conclusion which diverted one’s attention from the bloody murder of Massenet’s score. As we all breathed a sigh of relief, I couldn’t help but think of Pauline Viardot’s comparison of Pasta’s voice in her decline to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, as “a wreck of a picture, but the picture is the greatest picture in the world”. In La Scroggins’s case, the picture has been hacked to pieces through decades of chain-smoking and cackling in gin palaces. What talent may once have existed has now been buried under a mountain of foundation, eye liner, lip stick and enough plastic surgery to make Joan Rivers look in the first flush of youth. It is without doubt the most disturbing picture in the world.
After a rocking chair was pushed under her with extraordinary timing (she tottered back following her bronchial spluttering), Dame Elsie announced that there would be only one encore this evening and that it would be the final aria she would ever sing in public (she has since announced her world farewell tour, travelling to 75 destinations in Australia alone – booking until 2027). Regrettably she decided that it should be the final scene from Salome. A papier mache head of John the Baptist was ceremoniously brought into the august auditorium on a tea tray by the Manager of the Wigmore Hall. It reminded me somewhat of Alan Bennett, or possibly his culinary doppelganger, Nigel Slater (I was later told that it was in fact meant to be Rudolf Bing, who famously slammed the door in the face of Dame Elsie when she outrageously demanded a fee of $10 a performance back in 1957 at the Met). Despite expectations of the lowest possible order (yes, even Rufus Wainwright’s utterly woeful Prima Donna was preferable to what I had endured so far), somehow and God knows how, Scroggins was transformed. With gleaming tone and stentorian power she ripped through the final scene with such abandon, that one could only imagine that Welitsch herself would have been hard pressed to match it. If she faltered, it was only at the very end, when she croaked and gasped like an asthmatic running a marathon. She may be a remarkable woman indeed, but when her legion of admirers screamed and shouted for her to sing “La Danza”, I knew it was time to leave. I made my exit mid-applause, knowing that I had witnessed history in the making. She may not have been the best soprano in the world, or the most convincing actress, she may indeed have a temper like a raddled old Navvy, but she was indisputably Dame Elise Scroggins, the world’s oldest living soprano.
Ed: Sadly Dame Elsie passed away during the backstage shenanigans at the Wigmore Hall, where unwisely her fans gave her a bottle of finest Crofts Sherry, which proved to be her undoing. Having not touched a drop since the day the UK went metric (Dame Elsie famously hated Ted Heath: “A fat old queen who should keep his hands off my conductor’s baton”), she downed the entire bottle and began high kicking whilst singing the “Conduissez-moi” from Robinson Crusoe. Sadly she slipped during the rallentando and knocked herself clean out on a massive bust of Lesley Garrett. She never woke up. Luckily for us her genius lives on courtesy of her star student, the celebrated international mezzo soprano, Katherine Jenkins.
Photographs: Dame Elise circa 2000; Dame Elsie publicity shot 1935; A photograph of the family business; Dame Elsie letting her hair down with some friends.