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DEATH OF LAWRENCE FOLLEY (article first published : 2007-01-15)

Lawrence Folley, described by conductor Graham Scott, as “the greatest baritone that South Africa has produced”, died in the UK last night (January 14) after a long battle with cancer. His wife Jacky was at his side.

As the news circulates around KwaZulu-Natal and wider afield, the tributes to this popular and respected singer are unanimous in their praise of his professional stature and skill.

“Lawry was really the greatest baritone that South Africa has ever produced,” says conductor Graham Scott, friend and colleague for over 30 years. “He was a truly noble man as well as a noble artist. He always gave a tremendous amount of his time and care in terms of offering advice to young singers. He contributed enormously to the quality and standard of opera in this country.”

Lawrence Folley was a well-known figure in KZN during the years of the Natal Performing Arts Council’s (now the Playhouse Company) permanent opera company and appeared in numerous productions. Marking his retirement in 1993 at the age of 64 before moving to the UK, he made his farewell appearances on a South African opera stage in NAPAC’s presentation of Tosca.

The programme notes read “Mr Folley’s chilling Scarpia speaks for itself, a fitting final showcase for his considerable dramatic powers and towering stage personality …Five times a Nederburg Opera prize-winner, with an Artes Award for his celebrated portrayal of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Folley was voted South Africa’s most popular male opera singer in a 1988 opinion poll conducted by the arts magazine Scenaria – endorsement of the respect and affection he commands, both with his audiences and colleagues.

“A South African by birth he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Morely College in London, where he won a scholarship to the Opera School. Following his appointment as principal baritone with Sadler’s Wells for nine years, he returned to South Africa in 1968. Since then, he has appeared in numerous operas, operettas and musicals for all the Performing Arts Councils. That rara avis, a genuine Verdi baritone, Folley has enjoyed success with many of the composer’s most demanding roles.“

Lawrence Folley was born in Benoni in the former Transvaal in December 1928. In an interview with David Lloyd in the Natal Mercury on February 10, 1993, he remarked: “My father had a pleasant baritone voice, and on Saturday nights our relatives and friends – forty or fifty people maybe – would gather round the piano in our lounge for an evening of ballads and things. I had lessons from various teachers in Benoni and Johannesburg and went to work for the Benoni municipality. Then I met Marie, my future wife. She had just returned from England where she had been studying violin. After we were married, in the early 1950’s, we went to England on a honeymoon which lasted for fifteen years.”

In the years to come, Lawrence and Marie were to have three daughters all born in England before the family returned to South Africa in the mid-60’s when both PACT (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) and CAPAB (Cape Town Performing Arts Board) offered him contracts.

Neels Hansen is the co-founder with opera legend Mimi Coertse of the Black Tie Ensemble. A stage director and costume designer by profession, he is a former resident director for PACT and artistic director at the State Theatre. “I knew Lawry since 1969 when he had just returned from England,” he says. “Lawry started his career here and grew into the first baritone in South Africa. I did many productions with him as a director and he was superb in every role. He brought a new dimension to each one – he had that ability, which is very rare. It was a glorious voice and it was a loss the day he left us for the UK. He was wonderful colleague, extremely loyal and really tied to his children.”

Lawrence was always happiest singing Verdi and in the aforementioned interview with David Lloyd, he remarked: “My voice is best suited to the Verdi baritone parts. One should try to avoid singing a lot of parts which strain the voice. … I like to think that I have contributed to the growth of opera here in South Africa, the country of my birth.” When asked about the future of opera at the time (a year before the birth of South Africa’s new democracy), he stated: “I feel it’s going to take a long hard slog. I think somehow, opera will survive, but not in the present conditions because funds are being channelled in different directions. But we are trying to woo blacks to see and hear opera performances. And it’s wonderful that there are so many black singers with glorious voices.”

Following his farewell appearances in Durban, Lawrence Folley emigrated with his wife, Marie to Europe. After Marie died, he returned to South Africa and married Jacky Vermaas, former head of drama at Technikon Natal (now Durban University of Technology). In recent years, they have been living in the UK.

“I am very grateful that Lawry returned to share his knowledge with the young black singers,” adds Neels Hanson. “He gave freely of his knowledge. It was a wonderful experience to see him and Mimi working with youngsters on roles they knew so well. It’s a personal loss for me as he was a close friend. I think he suffered so much in the later part of his life. We’ll miss him but I think he’s at peace.” - Caroline Smart




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