Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ellen Repp

Arriving in New York City in late February 1980, finding a voice teacher was a top priority for me.  Through recommendations of friends and colleagues, I called Miss Ellen Repp who lived near Lincoln Center.  Her resonant and warm voice answered the phone, “Hello, Repp here!”  That was a bit of a surprise way to answer the phone.  I quickly learned she always answered her phone calls with, “Repp here” or if she called me she would say, “Kathy? Repp here”.  Amusing and quite telling of her humorous warm personality.

Our conversation proceeded when I introduced myself, explained who recommended her as a teacher and then asked if I may please audition for her voice studio.  A time was agreed upon for a week later and I was assured she would have a pianist on hand to play for me. 

I arrived at Miss Repp’s apartment, knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman in her 70s with red hair beautifully arranged on the top of her head, dressed elegantly with a shawl over her shoulders.  Miss Repp invited me into her living room where her grand piano took up only a small portion of the room.  She seated herself in her favorite chair, the pianist and I conferred on my repertoire and the audition began.  It went well and she agreed to take me as her student. 

Miss Repp’s warm and inviting apartment became my voice lesson home for the next six years.  Together we would work on vocal exercises.  I would sing repertoire during which she would give insightful vocal corrections and style suggestions.  I left each lesson with something new to work on. 

Over the years of studying with her, I learned that prior to her becoming a professional singer and voice teacher, Miss Repp had been a social studies teacher in the state of Washington, her home state.  Her prize student was Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington state.  The two stayed in touch and he credited her with his love and understanding of government.

Ellen Repp studied voice, moved to New York City in the 1930s where her career took off as an oratorio soloist, church soloist and with forays into opera.  In 1947 she appeared on Broadway in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene performing the role of Olga Olsen.  She returned to Broadway in 1948 in the musical Sleepy Hollow in the role of Wilhelmina.  She traveled to Europe where she sang in Wagner operas. 

Miss Repp had a wicked sense of humor and could catch you off-guard with some of her slightly off-color jokes.  Always with a great heart-felt laugh, she let you know she was not being offensive.  She enjoyed her daily "after work" cocktail with her neighbor down the hall. 

At the time I studied with her, she taught nine months of the year in New York City and two months of the year in Germany where her students performing in opera houses there had lessons with her.  When she retired in 1993 at the age of 91, she informed her students she was going to take up dancing.    She died in 1999 at age 97.  She was a force of nature.

Of course, in my blog postings there is a connection to Gena Branscombe.  Quite to my complete and utter surprise I recently found out that Miss Repp knew Gena Branscombe and performed an aria from her dramatic oratorio Pilgrims of Destiny on a 1940s WNYC radio broadcast.   

Several months ago I obtained audio files of the acetate records of the broadcast.  I was excited to hear how Miss Branscombe had conducted her score.  With my own piano/vocal score of Pilgrims of Destiny open in front of me, I began to listen to the broadcast with all its scratches and blips of old recordings.  The announcer explains the plot of the upcoming scene, the names of the characters and the soloist’s names.  “Singing the role of Dorothy Bradford is Ellen Repp”. 

I thought to myself, “Yes, I know that person” but didn’t give it any further thought as I concentrated on listening to the music.  My husband, Dan, said, “Kathy, that’s your former voice teacher, Ellen Repp!”  I stopped playing the recording and went back to make sure we were right.  Miss Repp’s rich voice filled the haunting lullaby with the emotion of the pilgrims’ long journey and their children’s unknown future. 

Yes, Ellen Repp knew and worked with Gena Branscombe in 1940.  I was stunned as I put our story together.  I had no idea in the early 1980s, while I studied with Miss Repp, that during the late 1990s I would discover the music and life of a woman composer named Gena Branscombe.  Surprises like this one ….. there are no words to describe them.  

Gena, “Repp” and I are all connected now.