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.


  1. How wonderful that I happened upon your writing here, Kathleen. Ellen Repp was my great-aunt, and her whole family would agree that she definitely was a "force of nature". I enjoyed your description of her, and her life in New York.
    Best regard,
    Kari Ellen Merner

  2. I studied with her in her apartment in the early 1970's traveling weekly from Baltimore...she was a wonderful teacher with the best sense of humor and when I asked about a great tenor I heard on a recording of the Bach B minor Mass...she said I know him...he just retired and is now teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music...in 1978 went to study with ....told him in lesson I wanted to be a priest...he said he studied from age 13 to 22 to be a priest..left...he encouraging me to do....because Miss Repp told me about Leopold Simoneau I add to her to my list of those God directed me...Monsignor David Link...was cantor for Pope Jihn Paul visit to San Francisco...have a YOUTUBE..the American singing priest...they would be proud.

  3. Repp was my vocal godmother and my good friend. I studied with her for several years just prior to her retirement ;She offered me free lessons in exchange for light housekeeping (« when you get ready to make the bed, call me » she would boom from the other room; «  it’s easier with 2 » She once asked me what then top earning voice teacher Ruth Falcon was charging, and when I provided the dollar amount stated with a slight huff « Well I never charged HER that much « (While other voice teachers’ rates continued to climb above the $100/hr mark, she steadfastly maintained the rate of $50). She rode her stationary bike every morning, frequently walked in Central Park and was impeccably dressed and coiffed at all times. She was in the habit of tossing outgoing mail on the floor in front of the door, knowing that whichever student or accompanist found it there would mail it for her (I once encountered Christine Baranski picking up a pile on her way out). She was one of the only truly sensible adults I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing; she aged so gracefully because she continued to do the work at which she excelled and loved, while consciously acknowledging her limitations as they presented themselves and never hesitating to ask for help. Every year on her birthday she threw an extravagant party, dressed to the nines, fielding calls from students all over the world, singing (beautifully) when prompted, and throwing the masses of roses presented to her into a partially full bath tub so as to avoid the distraction of finding vases while she was entertaining. As an earlier poster mentioned, she closed each work day enjoying her preferred cocktail—scotch and milk—with a neighbor, and then frequently went out to dinner and/or the opera. I have only one bone to pick with Repp: That she left New York too soon, for once making an error in sensible judgment; she didn’t want the cliched, compromised old single woman dying alone in Manhattan story, and believed that the responsible thing to do was to go « home » to Washington state where her relatives could care for her. Her one blind spot seemed to be that 1) It was her true home in New York that gave her life, and 2) That her many grateful students would have leapt at the opportunity to care for her every need. I remember, just before she left, that she presented me with a copy of Willa Cather’s novel « The Song of the Lark », telling me that it would teach me about the soul and the struggles of a singer; I have reread it many times. She also presented me with a draft manuscript of something called « Written on Bark », written by the pianist who accompanied her on a harrowing recital tour through Alaska during the very early years of her singing, before moving to New York. It is one of my greatest regrets that I did not make good on my stated desire to write her biography ; the world so desperately needs to here inspirational stories like hers. Her New York Times obituary read simply « Ellen Repp, Great of heart and loved by all; brava, maestria ». I doubt that I will ever again encounter anyone remotely comparable to this remarkable woman.