The car accident that stole Esther England's singing voice would be fully tragic, in the operatic sense, were it not for the good it has done.

In 2000, the now-retired professor emeritus of voice at the University of Montana was severely injured in the accident. It robbed her of her commanding singing voice, the one that has guided hundreds of students over her 36-year career in the School of Music and as a professional mezzo-soprano.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, England turned tragedy into teaching moments.

The settlement from the crash has, for the last seven years, funded the Esther England Scholarships, given to promising operatic vocalists in the School of Music.

"I ran the Opera Workshop for 25 years, and we never had any money," said England, who retired in 2005 but still maintains a studio and connection with the School of Music.

That changed in 2001 when England opened her checkbook.

"You know, that money should do some good instead of just sitting in a bank somewhere," is how England put it.

But today, England is getting some big help as the School of Music embarks on a fundraising mission to endow England's scholarship, and create another in her name to bring opera to UM.

The England music scholarship will continue to go toward students, while a new "enrichment" fund will bring guest artists to UM and other opera exposure.

The endowment campaign is chaired by television and screen actor J.K. Simmons ("Spiderman" trilogy, "Juno," "Law & Order") and Pam South, soprano with the San Francisco Opera Co. - both of them former students of England.

Those are just two of the names that have been put up in lights around the world, thanks in part to England's guidance.

Another is Michelle Berger, a former student and professional mezzo-soprano who performed for nearly three decades in Europe, notably as a lead with the Zurich Opera.

Berger, who now lives in Great Falls, is giving a concert of Gershwin tunes on Friday at UM to begin to fund the England scholarships.

Berger, who also gave a master class to voice students on Wednesday, said England's instruction was priceless when she was a student at UM in the late 1970s.

"For me, there was no other choice," she said. "There was no one else I would have studied with in the whole state."

England demanded the best of her students, and would simply not tolerate a lax attitude or less than her students' best efforts.

"I don't think she was the 'nurturing' kind of teacher," said Berger, who still performs in Europe and across the United States.

"God, she's going to shoot me when she reads this, but she was more about pushing you to do your best and expecting the best out of you in a 'stage mother' kind of way."

England isn't likely to shoot Berger, given that her former student "has an enormous, enormous, beautiful voice and all the mezzo color," she said.

England is honored to have the scholarships in her name and the efforts of the School of Music and others behind funding their endowment. The idea was the brainchild of Sue Stanaway, a Billings resident and former student of England.

The campaign's star power - Simmons and South - will certainly help in funding the endowment. It's important to have in this relatively remote school, said England.

"We're pretty isolated here, but we have some wonderful singers," she said. "We'll be getting them out into the world and bringing the world here."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at

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