Pamela Helen Stephen, mezzo-soprano whose repertoire ranged from Purcell and Handel to Wagner and Glass – obituary

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Pamela Helen Stephen with Robert Lloyd in Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House in 2012 - Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
Pamela Helen Stephen with Robert Lloyd in Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House in 2012 - Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Pamela Helen Stephen, who has died from cancer aged 57, was a versatile mezzo-soprano who appeared in opera houses and concert halls across the world; her most recognised roles included Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Sestro in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, but she was seen in a wide range of repertoire, from Haydn to Philip Glass, often conducted by her husband, the late Richard Hickox.

She made her debut with the Royal Opera House company in 1997 as Mrs Bubble in a semi-staged performance of Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress at the Barbican that the critic Rodney Milnes described as “simply superb”. She also appeared at the Proms on a dozen occasions between 1995 and 2012, her versatility meaning that she could be in the Proms premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers in 1997 and Wagner’s Parsifal three years later.

Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki and Dina Kuznetsova as Madam Butterfly in the ENO production at the London Coliseum in 2013 - Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images
Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki and Dina Kuznetsova as Madam Butterfly in the ENO production at the London Coliseum in 2013 - Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images

Pamela Helen Stephen can be heard on more than 30 recordings, including Britten’s Owen Wingrave for the Chandos label in 2008 when she sang the role of Owen’s fiancée, Kate. Reviewing it in The Sunday Telegraph, Michael Kennedy noted that “she follows in Janet Baker’s footsteps in vividly depicting a character so alien to her personality”.

Pamela Helen Stephen (she always included her middle name to avoid confusion with Pamela Stephenson) was born in Solihull, West Midlands, on January 27 1964, the anniversary of Mozart’s birth. She was the daughter of William Hay Stephen, a marketing manager who was later chairman of the Aberdeen Fish Producers’ Organisation, and his wife Audrey, née Brown. The family moved to Bieldside, near Aberdeen, when she was 10.

She played the flute and appeared in school productions at Cults Academy, Aberdeen, including The Sound of Music, before studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. An English Speaking Union scholarship then took her to Aspen, Colorado, and she completed her studies at the University of Toronto.

One of her earliest professional outings on the British stage was for Opera North playing Mozart in The Jewel Box (1991), an attempt by the critic Paul Griffiths to provide housing for several homeless arias during the composer’s bicentenary year. Rodney Milnes described her in Opera magazine as “the sensation of the evening”.

She returned to Opera North several times, including in Benedict Mason’s Playing Away (1994), an unusual “football opera” based on the beautiful game in which she was Cynthia, the star player’s mistress.

Pamela Helen Stephen as Penelope in the ENO production of The Return of Ulysses at the Young Vic in 2011 - Alastair Muir
Pamela Helen Stephen as Penelope in the ENO production of The Return of Ulysses at the Young Vic in 2011 - Alastair Muir

Overseas, Pamela Helen Stephen appeared in Verdi’s Rigoletto with Los Angeles Opera, but in Australia her husband, who was music director of Opera Australia, was criticised for casting her at the expense of local singers.

Although she never spoke on the subject, he was unapologetic. “My wife could be having a spectacular solo career,” he told The Age in Melbourne. “I think we both perform better when we’re happy and centred and we’re not on the phone on different continents.”

She also appeared with other leading conductors including André Previn, Charles Mackerras and John Eliot Gardiner. In 2012 she returned to the Royal Opera playing Hécube, Queen of Troy, in David McVicar’s staging of Berlioz’s Les Troyens conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Pamela Helen Stephen as Penelope with Ruby Hughes as Minerva in The Return of Ulysses in 2011 - Robbie Jack/Corbis
Pamela Helen Stephen as Penelope with Ruby Hughes as Minerva in The Return of Ulysses in 2011 - Robbie Jack/Corbis

That same year she was Suzuki, fussing effectively around Mary Plazas’s petite Cio-Cio-San in Anthony Minghella’s mirror-strewn staging of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly for ENO.

Ill health led to her withdrawing from a Proms performance of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time in 2016 and thereafter she largely retired from the music business.

In 1995 Pamela Helen Stephen married Hickox, becoming his third wife. He died in 2008 and she is survived by their children, Adam, who is a conductor, and Abigail. She is also survived by her partner, Stephen Lumsden, who is chief executive of Intermusica, the agency that represented her.

Pamela Helen Stephen, born January 27 1964, died November 30 2021

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