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Sylvia Olden

Female 1917 - 2004


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Obituary: Sylvia Olden Lee

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer - 18 Apr 2004.

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) - April 18, 2004
Deceased Name: Sylvia Olden Lee

World-renowned vocal coach and pianist Sylvia Olden Lee, 86, who coached opera and spirituals divas Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, and Marian Anderson, died of pancreatic cancer April 10 at her Germantown home.

"Sylvia amazed me with her breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for teaching," Norman said Friday in a telephone interview from her London home. "No matter what the subject - baroque, spiritual, you name it - Sylvia had been there, done that, and was willing to share with us.

"There are so many of us who consider ourselves Sylvia disciples," Norman said. "It is hard to imagine a world without her."

Singer and godson Bobby McFerrin said Friday: "I don't think there are enough adjectives to describe Sylvia's boundless energy. She was on fire all the time.

"Sylvia was one of the best-known vocal coaches in the world. Her knowledge about Negro spirituals was boundless," said McFerrin, whose parents - singers Sara Copper and Robert McFerrin - were coached by Mrs. Lee.

Sara Copper McFerrin said, "She taught me musical phrases and nuances" - lessons that were delivered with wit and humor.

Battle had one proviso before agreeing to perform in a television special from Carnegie Hall in 1997: that Mrs. Lee be her coach.

Mrs. Lee's musical journey began in Meridian, Miss.

At age 8, she accompanied her mother, opera singer Sylvia Alice Ward, and her father, James Olden, a classical singer and a minister, on the piano.

By age 10, she was giving piano recitals outside her home.

At 16, she sang at the White House for President Franklin D.
Roosevelt's first inauguration, in 1933. She was invited to sing in the White House a second time, in 1942, at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1938 she graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, which she attended on a scholarship, and later taught at several institutions of higher learning, including Howard University, Oberlin College, Columbia University, and Dillard University in New Orleans. During this time, she also toured throughout the South with Paul Robeson. And
in 1952, she was a Fulbright Scholar, studying at Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome.

She had been a singing coach on the staff of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for a year when she encouraged the Met to invite Marian Anderson to perform. In 1955, Anderson became the first black person to sing on that stage.

In 1944, she married violinist and conductor Everett Lee Jr.

Mrs. Lee and her husband worked in Germany for seven years starting in 1956. He could not find a job conducting in America so he accepted a post in Sweden in 1963. She moved to Germantown in 1970 to become a vocal coach in the opera department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

The couple divorced in the early 1980s. She was on the Curtis faculty until 1990.

With sass and spontaneity, Mrs. Lee continued to coach opera singers at the Met and conduct master voice classes at universities throughout the world until shortly before her death.

Her daughter, Eve, said her mother knew 1,000 arias, 500 of them by memory. "Mama didn't use music," she said.

In addition to her daughter and former husband, Mrs. Lee is survived by a son, Everett 3d; and two granddaughters.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 26 - on what would have been her 87th birthday - at Union Baptist Church, 1910 Fitzwater St., Philadelphia.

Memorial donations may be made to the Sylvia Olden Lee Voice
Scholarship, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio 44074.

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