Father Claver, the singing priest who spread his love for music

By Geoffrey Alagaratnam

October 14, 2011 marks the first death anniversary of Father Claver Perera, the artist priest. In the 60s and 70s, he was one of Sri Lanka’s leading tenor voices having performed both as soloist as well as with other leading operatic voices, the late Lorraine Abeysekera, late Lylie Godridge, Mary Anne David and Navarajani Olegesekeram to name a few.

The performance in 1972 of Verdi’s Requiem under the direction of Raymond Adlam had as soloists Lorraine Abeysekera (soprano) Father Claver (tenor) Lylie Godridge (bass) and Kathleen Brown of Ireland as contralto.

Father Claver's influence on choral singing was significant in that his arrival from Rome after his ordination by Pope Paul the VIth on January 6, 1966 saw a renaissance in choral singing at St Peter’s College, Colombo 4 and St. Mary's Church, Bambalapitiya. Incidentally in Rome whilst carrying out his priestly studies at the Papal Seminary, he was the obvious tenor soloist in a close to 50-voice strong choir of repute of seminarists, who had come to do their priestly studies from all parts of the world Father Claver created the "St. Mary's Choral Group" while he was an Assistant Parish Priest to Fr. Joe de Mel, at St Mary's Church, Bambalapitiya.

This all-male choir was adjudged winners in an all-island contest for choirs in 1968 and gave several public performances. Subsequently, their repertoire apart from the religious also included operatic, classical, Negro spiritual, modern as well as the famous Italian mountain songs.There were many public performances in which Father Claver conducted his creation the "St. Mary's Choral Group", comprising mainly Peterites and Josephians.

The regular accompanist was the piano great Prof. Valentine Basnayake, a much sought after accompanist especially by visiting international soloists. Prof Basnayake as accompanist was truly inspirational especially in the feeling and mood he brought into his keyboard versatility, sensitive to the performer and following closely rather than merely adhering to the music and carrying on regardless. In later years the Choir and Father Claver were accompanied by Neranjan de Silva, the accomplished keyboard performer and accompanist.

While at St. Mary's Bambalapitiya, Father Claver was encouraged and driven to use his vocal ability by Father Joe who even went to the extent of "clearing" the "issues": of Father Claver performing in public with the late Thomas Cardinal Coorey, as the Cardinal was weary of artistic priests, partly due to an unusual episode that had occurred then concerning a talented film- producing priest. Though Father Claver started initially singing solos with his back to the audience he gradually overcame this timidity and sang facing the audience.

At St. Peter’s, Father Claver was responsible for an artistic revival where choral singing and theatre gained momentum. It was during his tenure at St. Peter’s that Jerome de Silva joined him and took Peterite theatre to new heights as was seen in the first production of the musical "Oliver" – the lead role played by Shannon Raymond.

Father Claver's influence on successive generations of Peterites as well as youth and choirs was decisive. He also imparted an abiding sense of discipline, commitment and punctuality. Being the artist that he was, he pushed his demands for perfection even to a fault though his constant refrain was "I am a Priest and not a performer". He could be temperamental and especially prior to performance go through immense stress. Deep down however, he was a good human being.

Memorial mass

The St Mary's Choral Group together with those who were close to Father Claver will be singing at a memorial mass at 6.30 p.m. at St Mary's Bambalapitiya on Friday, October 14 followed by a tribute by Oktave, a mixed voice group of eight well accomplished singers most of whom have been in some way influenced by Father Claver.

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