With the Merry An Singers making a comeback with ‘The Masters and the Musicals’, Duvindi Illankoon stops by at Colombo’s most well known home of music where generations of singers have been groomed by Mary Anne David Sitting down for an interview in the David household is like paying a visit to your favourite aunty. [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Thank you for the music


With the Merry An Singers making a comeback with ‘The Masters and the Musicals’, Duvindi Illankoon stops by at Colombo’s most well known home of music where generations of singers have been groomed by Mary Anne David

Sitting down for an interview in the David household is like paying a visit to your favourite aunty. Mary Anne David has produced more locally and internationally renowned performers than we can keep count of. Yet it’s her easy warmth and charm that will have you instantly won over. As her guests we’re settled in with a slice of her fabulous homemade date cake and freshly squeezed orange juice before we can do anything else- “Eat. You must eat before we talk!”

Mary Anne’s first class at Collingwood Place; Mary Anne is at far left and far right is Lorraine Abeysekera

Her husband Andrew, the dashing man who set plenty of hearts aflutter as a renowned thespian in his day is seated across us at the round table because “a round table can do great things, you know.” Next to him is son Andre, the young David most well known for his slick choreography for his mum’s choir and for founding and running his own school for the performing arts.

It’s a few weeks before the umpteenth Merry An Singers concert and we’re seated in the very room that many of these shows have been nurtured in. As the Davids begin their journey back in time to an age when music and theatre were in its heyday and Sri Lanka was a hotspot for culture, we listen enraptured. It’s a tale that has been told many times yet one rarely tires.

Mary Anne David (nee Roberts) was born to a family of music lovers. Her mum Hyacinth was a talented singer, Aunt Phyllis was a superb piano teacher and accompanist and dad Alston had a wonderful baritone which “he only used in the shower, unfortunately”. So it should have come as no surprise when a young Mary Anne, aged an adorable five, sat down at her Aunt Phyllis’ grand piano one Christmas eve and played ‘Silent Night’ like a pro-except this was a child who had never been taught to play a piano! “They all thought I was practising on the sly so for the next few days they would suddenly throw tunes at me to pick up,” Mary Anne grins. “Dad would whistle a tune and somehow I’d be able to pick it up and play. I guess I just had a very good ear for music.” Then there was the less logical, more Sri Lankan explanation. “They all said that it was my grandmother-she had passed away a short time back-whose musical talents had manifested in me!” She likes the former theory much better.

From then on it was a heady journey of discovery and self-made fame for Mary Anne. Funnily enough, she never properly qualified in the very thing that mattered to her most; teaching music. “As of date, I’m probably the only choral director in Sri Lanka without a qualification,” she tells us. Though none would dare contest her fabulous track record and expertise in churning out the industry’s best vocalists, she wistfully adds that she would like to qualify if only for her sake. “I know, I know, I’m pushing sixty. But it would be nice, you know? I wish I had the time!”

Time is what Mary Anne finds of the very essence. Her days and nights are a whirlwind of classes and rehearsals for the upcoming concert, The Masters and the Musicals. Supporting her through it all is Andrew, who has been through the mill many times over the three and a half decades they have been together. The two met when Mary Anne was taken on as a pianist for one of Andrew’s plays back in the 70’s. She grins as she remembers the excitement of getting to work with her teenage heart-throb. “Andrew used to judge competitions when we were in school,” she remembers. “All the girls would get highly excited when his motorbike zoomed in through the school gates. Andrew knew we were watching him, so he’d take his helmet off in slow motion and strut around..”

A triumphant return: Andrew, Mary Anne and Andre David

Andrew vehemently denies such theatrics, but Mary Anne laughs as she recounts that first meeting. “When Andrew’s pianist on My Fair Lady had a rumpus and walked off I was asked to come in as a replacement.” Was it a magical moment, meeting each other properly for the first time? Well, no. “He was so snooty! After the rehearsal he looks down his nose at me and says ‘well thank you for helping us out’. I considered walking off in a huff myself!”

So it was with trepidation rather than enthusiasm Mary Anne found out that they would be working together again. She was starring in Oklahoma! and when her on-stage boyfriend had to leave the cast-she was rather dismayed to find out that she would be working with the ‘snooty’ Andrew David from then on.

To no one’s surprise, it was a change of plans that worked out rather well, with the two growing closer over the production. They married in 1979 in Fiji (where Andrew was posted), accompanied by Johann, Andrew’s son from his first marriage. Andre came along in 1983 and the David family was complete.

They were good times for the Davids who moved into Collingwood Place in Wellawatte to bring up their brood. It was in the early 1980’s that the Mary Anne School of Vocal Music and the Merry An Singers took root and became a fixture in the local music scene. Mary Anne, who was already an experienced teacher, had her many years of training with renowned teachers, vocalists and conductors to draw on.

Andre picked up on his parents’ vocation from a very young age, singing before he could walk and performing aged five. “I think that being directed by my parents as well as being taught by them played an important role in what I am today,” he says.

Andre trains the youngsters in the Mary Anne School, and his own school, the David Academy of Performing Arts offers a multitude of courses in the performing arts-be it dance, music or theatre. It’s his talent for working with and relating to young people that makes him such an asset to the Merry An Singers, says Mary Anne. The Merry An Singers were the first to introduce dance to a choral performance in Sri Lanka, so Andre’s talents as a versatile choreographer are perfectly in tune with the choir’s vision. And of course, it helps that “he’s much younger and has a higher rock music tolerance than I do,” she says wryly.

Together the three have been instrumental in bringing the Mary Anne School of Vocal Music to where it is today. It helps that Mary Anne has generations of former students willing to go the extra mile for her. Her earliest pupils who made it big are the five Perera brothers of the Gypsies, who came to her for lessons when she started teaching at 18.

“I remember the mad escapades those fellows got up to,” she recalls with fondness. “And now their kids come to me for lessons. It’s lovely to have taught generations.” Her other star pupils include Bathiya, Santhush and Ashanti of BnS fame, Rajitha Rupasinghe of Misty, Soundarie David, Preshanti Navaratnam, drummer Christopher Prins, Gayathrie Peiris, Kishani Jayasinghe and even Gamini Fonseka, whom Mary Anne trained for the stage production of Sound of Music. The two built up such a rapport that Gamini refused to go on stage if Mary Anne was not in the wings.

Nowadays, it’s with Gamini’s granddaughter Yasara that Mary Anne reminisces of those times over lessons. This harking back to the good old times is something she is often privileged enough to do, with her older students sending their kids to her and some even returning for this show. Mary Anne and Andrew love entertaining all of them in their Wellawatte home down Ramakrishna Mawatha; the students rehearse in the spacious mirrored living room, where plenty have made memories and formed friendships and even bands before them.

There is no distinction between the kids, well-off or not so, the extremely talented and the average when it comes to discipline in the David household and lessons. Don’t you dare try and call in special treatment because you’re certainly not going to get it. “The Davids are toughies,” says Mary Anne “and poorer for it!” laughs Andrew. Having taught three generations of singers-the aspiring, the talented and the already established-Mary Anne and Andrew David could well rest on their laurels with no regrets. Yet it’s not something the two plan on doing for a long time.

With this show, the Merry An Singers are making a triumphant return to the stage.

The Masters and the Musicals will be staged on May 30 and 31 and June 1 at the Lionel Wendt. Tickets and box plan for the show are available at the venue.

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