“For true singing artists, when the moment of performance arrives, the act of singing should be an act of faith. They should be able to trust all the work they have done in preparation, to activate the imagination, to open the spirit to the possibility of inspiration, and sing from the heart.” -Thomas Hemsley
Thomas Hemsley was born April, 12, 1927 in Coalville, Leicestershire, England and died April 11, 2013 in London. Originally trained as a physicist, he studied singing with Lucie Manen and made his operatic debut at the age of 24 as Aeneas in the opera Dido and Aeneas at the Mermaid Theatre in London. Reviewers noted his “heroic dignity” and his “noble tone and clear enunciation.” From there, he became a leading baritone and performed over 150 operatic roles at major opera houses throughout the world. Notable roles included Don Fernando, Count Almaviva, Dr Malatesta, Masetto and Beckmesser. He had the honor of originating the role of Demetrius in Midsummer Night’s Dream under the baton of Benjamin Britten himself. He also established himself as a leading interpreter of German lieder (art song). After a singing career that lasted almost 50 years, Hemsley taught voice at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Trinity College of Music, Royal Danish Academy of Music, and the Darlington International Summer School.
Hemsley’s celebrated book, Singing & Imagination, was published in 1998 and is an excellent resource for singers and voice teachers. As a vocal pedagogue, Hemsely respected the importance of voice science and anatomy knowledge for teachers of singing but was devoted to training singers in a holistic fashion, magnifying the power of imagination to influence the mechanics of vocal production. He felt that some schools of singing had become overly technical and had made the mistake of separating vocal function from emotions and intention. In his book he wrote,
“Let me be quite clear. I am not belittling the importance of technique. On the contrary, a well-established technique is essential for singing. I am not suggesting that anyone can sing if his musical and emotional intentions are sufficiently strong. Although there are specially gifted individuals for whom that is undoubtedly true, for the vast majority it is a very dangerous notion. I am suggesting that frequently, what people understand by the word technique can be misleading, or even counterproductive. Technique in singing as we understand it, should be a matter of learning how to mobilize, strengthen, and refine the impulse to express emotions and thoughts through vocal sound; to improve the connection between the imagination and that vocal sound, and to communicate what arises from the music and the poetry. This cannot be done if the vocal activity is separated from that impulse. I myself was trained as a scientist, and I am the last person to decry science…An understanding of anatomy and physiology, if accurate, can be of help to teachers in dealing with singers’ problems; but too much concern with anatomy, and the purely mechanical, anatomical aspects of singing on the part of singers, can actually inhibit their ability to sing. Indeed frequently, this over-concern with anatomy can be the cause of those very problems.”
Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker on Singing & Imagination:
“I couldn’t put it down. Hemsley treats the subject seriously; everyone who is genuinely serious about singing, teacher, pupil, or listener, will find, as I did, extraordinary wisdom and truth within its pages…His ideas should have far-reaching influence on the teaching of singing…”
- Thomas Hemsley, Singing & Imagination, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).