Esther England, who turned down a singing contract with the Metropolitan Opera national touring company – a move that would eventually land her a teaching job at the University of Montana – passed away Saturday.
A 1966 graduate of UM, England dedicated her life to music, never mind she arrived in Missoula in 1962 with dreams of studying animal behavior.
Her 36-year career at the university touched generations of students, and her performances landed her accolades outside the classroom.
“She had a big effect on several generations of singers that came through the university,” said actor J.K. Simmons, who studied at UM in the 1970s. “She had a well-rounded sense of musicianship, artistry, and a respect for what we were trying to do, and a nice dose of common sense. She was a great lady.”
England arrived at UM in 1962 to study animal behavior. She realized her singing talents during voice lessons with music professor John Lester. She went on to graduate in 1966 with high honors in music, and she was offered a soloist contract with the Metropolitan Opera, which she declined.
Rather than touring with the Met, England accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany to study opera at the Musikhochschule München, along with advanced language training at the Goethe Institute.
She remained in Germany until 1969, when she accepted a one-year contract as a voice teacher with the Department of Music at the University of Montana.
“She had a lot of colleagues over the years, like me, who are indebted to her,” said College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Stephen Kalm, who met England in 1994. “She was one of the great teachers. She was really inspirational.”
England was remembered as a beloved voice teacher, mentor and singer. A Facebook page commemorating her instruction lit up with touching and fun-loving memories after her passing was announced Sunday.
As one student wrote, England was “one of the finest teachers ever.” Kalm echoed those sentiments.
“One of the things that’s so incredibly impressive about Esther was how devoted she was to her students,” Kalm said. “She’s kept in incredible contact with them. She could really inspire her students. She did that for so many people and she did it for so many years.”
Maxine Ramey, director of the School of Music, said when England retired in 2005, she endowed a scholarship and a vocal excellence fund for future music students.
When the school held its honors convocation each May to award a scholarship to a deserving music student, England attended the ceremony to personally congratulate the winner.
“She was a teacher we all aspire to be,” said Ramey. “She had a enough love to go around, ensuring each felt special enough to have the confidence to go on to be great opera singers, great teachers and most importantly, great people.”
Simmons remembered the wisdom he took from England’s instruction. Above all else, he said, England taught him confidence, even when nervousness made him feel otherwise.
It’s a lesson he’s used in his own pursuits in film and television.
“If you’re prepared, there’s no need to be nervous,” Simmons said. “It’s obvious, common-sense advice, but the way she imparted it at that vulnerable time in my life, it clicked. It’s helped me for the last 35 years. If you’ve prepared and done your work, you don’t need to worry.”