ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29

‘Passion, passion is what she has’

~ Mary Anne David needs little introduction. Here Kumudini Hettiarachchi speaks to the inspiration behind so many voices

Pass a quaint home with a wooden fence painted white down Ramakrishna Road in Colombo 6, and voices raised in song can be heard most evenings over the rumble of traffic and the thud of waves on the shore. Passion, passion is what she has and passion is what she instils in whoever comes within her ambit when it is about song and music.

And when we met her in her home, after a hectic but also fulfilling performance in Bangalore, India, it was music which greeted us as much as her warm smile. She needs no introduction really because hundreds have passed through her sphere, many reaching great heights not only in Sri Lanka but also abroad.

She is none other than Mary Anne David. Now preparing for the Christmas concert, Mary Anne and husband Andrew -- the pillars on which the Merry An Singers (by the way the name has been coined with part of Mary Anne’s and Andrew’s names) have been built up, strongly supported by son Andre -- chat not only about what has been but also about what they hope and wish for in the future.

Mary Anne and husband Andrew David
Celebrate the Gift, the Christmas concert by the Merry An Singers will be held on December 20 at 7.30 p.m. at the Lionel Wendt.

There is a lot of talent out there, says Mary Anne referring to outstation schools, but their performances are sometimes limited to the beautiful clothing they wear. What is lacking among these talented children is that they have not been taught breathing techniques, there’s no phrasing. Adds Andrew: “This is because most of the teachers are not singing teachers but music teachers who double up.”

That is why Mary Anne wishes that she could take a group of seniors and tour the country holding workshops for these teachers who could then be the core group from where the ripples could reach far and wide. At 56, Mary Anne who started teaching at the tender age of 18, taking over the students of Lorraine Abeysekera who was her teacher as well, when she migrated to Australia, speaks of the challenges that young singers face. The moment a boy’s voice begins to crack and he can’t take a top note, he needs to rest his voice and later be part of a different section of the choir. “But most boys keep singing, attempting to take that high note, because teachers don’t want the choirs to be depleted. What happens? The boys end up with two singing voices as adults.”

Will Mary Anne set up a singing academy? Sri Lanka is well set with so many schools but I would like to set up abroad because our experience in Bangalore was that 8, 9 and 10-year-olds don’t perform. There is also not much voice projection, is her answer. The Merry An Singers who took part in the Bangalore Festival of Choirs on December 8 and 9, were given “pride of place” singing one and a half hours each day while other choirs had only about 20 minutes. The 30 adults and 16 children of Merry An Singers with the youngest being seven years and the oldest 74, had received standing ovations.

In Sri Lanka, the Festival of Choirs held recently at the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour was very impressive, according to Mary Anne, and once again she feels that there is a need for all the excellent choir conductors in the country to get together and either take the choirs for a season each or do one big work with them. “That would help produce world class choirs right here.”

Mary Anne who has ventured into techniques of switching the oriental singing voice to a western singing voice says that she worked with two lovely voices – that of Indika Upamala who took part in Khemadasa’s Agni and Indra Chapa Bulathsinhala who did the same and has now made good as an operatic singer abroad.

With a “bionic ear” she concedes that even if there are hundreds in her class if one person pitches a note wrong she knows who it is. At concerts, if she was in the audience, her students would look at her eyebrows and would know whether the pitching was good or bad. “If my eyebrows are knit together, the pitching is bad,” she laughs.

Many are the famous singers who have passed through her school. You name them, he or she has come into contact with Mary Anne……..Sunil and Piyal Perera of the Gypsies, Indrani Perera, Bathiya and Santhush, Christopher Prins, Ishu Sobhraj, Neranjan de Silva, Soundarie David, Gayathri Patrick, Kishani Jayasinghe….the list goes on.

Back to the time when Bhathiya and Santhush were under her tutelage, she recalls they met in her school. Wasanthaye was based on a song called Breezy Bar learnt in her classes. “I know what their singing voices are capable of,” she explains adding that Santhush has an operatic voice and can sing in the largest hall in Sri Lanka without a mike.

“Both of them need to aim for the bigger audience.” Whenever she walks into a hotel lobby or a concert and hears a voice that she has trained it feels wonderful “that I have contributed to that voice” and when they dedicate a song to her it is an extra bonus.

For Mary Anne, how did it all start? All the minutest and most personal details, are beautifully crafted in the colourful ‘Merry Voices Raised in Song’, authored by Rienzie Pereira and published by Smart Media headed by Vijith Kannangara, this year. Both Rienzie and Vijith are proteges of Mary Anne as well and the publication is “a celebration of 25 years of the Merry An Singers”.

The “whole” Mary Anne and not just the “gifted solo soprano who became a teacher hardly older than her pupils” comes to life through the book. How a “little tousled-hair pixie of a girl” just five years old, without any formal piano lessons but after just imbibing the music of the household, which was in abundance, sat down and played ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ making the Christmas of 1956 special for the Roberts, her family name; how her surprised aunt, a music teacher, wanting to find out whether it was a fluke asked her gently: “Now can you sing as well?”

From then on, it was the musical path for indomitable Mary Anne, even though stricken with polio compounded by an unnatural skin condition. With exemplary parenting she learnt to live life to the fullest. At seven years, hardly able to sit on the high stool she was being featured on programmes of Radio Ceylon.

There was no turning back and in 1971, it was her call to take over the class of Lorraine. Soon after finding romance in the first flush of youth and disregarding the voice of reason of her parents tying the knot only to live a life of misery and despair ending in divorce.

Mary Anne, not only through the book but also at lessons has a word of advice for teenagers: “I say – please, please listen to your parents –they see beyond what you are able to –they see that person you think you are head over heels in love with, in a more practical light. Never let a mother weep for you. You will weep a hundredfold for the tears you make her shed for you.”

But romance came into her life a second time when Andrew David, actor and producer, at that time riding on “an iron steed”, a motorcycle swept her off her feet, the wedding taking place in Fiji, the family circle being complete with Andre’s birth in 1983. Mary Anne’s achievements are too numerous to mention, suffice it to say that they are many, also singing with many of the greats on the scene.

She misses the likes of Lylie Godridge, whom she considers her foster Dad, Rohan Joseph de Saram and Ruwani Seimon whom she calls “rare people”, whose loss Sri Lanka will not be able to overcome. Explaining that her singing school has gone from strength to strength because as soon as anyone walks through the door, they are equal and she disciplines them, Mary Anne whose love of children is evident says, “I thought I had patience but I’ve found someone who has more patience – my son Andre who loves children.” Andre has just taken up the baton as Deputy Conductor and official choreographer.

What makes Mary Anne sing and sing to her heart’s content?“It comes from above. God puts people on earth for a reason. He is the one who makes me sing,” is her simple, unhesitant reply.

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