Ealing Symphony Orchestra Honours Local Opera Singer

Next concert to be dedicated to Keel Watson

Gweneth-Ann Rand soprano and Keel Watson baritone singing Porgy and Bess with ESO in 2018
Gweneth-Ann Rand soprano and Keel Watson baritone singing Porgy and Bess with ESO in 2018


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March 12, 2024

The next performance of the Ealing Symphony Orchestra (ESO) will be held to commemorate the life and talent of Keel Watson, the locally born opera singer.

He died last November at the age of 59 having had a career that included performing with the Royal Opera and ENO as well as been a cherished member of ESO for which he performed in the trombone section on several occasions.

Following the announcement of his untimely death, tributes poured in from around the classical music world and beyond, with praise both for his character and his operatic talents.

Keel Watson was born in 1964 in Greenford, the only child of Jamaican parents Calda and Frank Watson, who had arrived in Britain in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation. Educated at Ealing Junior School, he also attended the Caribbean School at Oaklands Primary School in Hanwell on Saturday mornings, as his parents were keen that he should explore his Jamaican heritage. There he learnt to sing Caribbean folk songs. One day in the school assembly when the music teacher was absent, Keel volunteered to sing ‘A Chi Chi Bud Oh’, a song about the birds of Jamaica. Keel said afterwards that it was the response he received that got him hooked on performing commenting, “There were perks: no more being bullied, no more being punched, the girls actually talking to me like I was someone. There are people who do not know my name but after over 40 years still remember the name of the song I sang and call me by that name.”

In 1975 he moved to Hounslow Manor School and started attending the Boys’ Brigade in Northfields where he continued to sing, but also learnt trumpet and music theory. A few years later he moved onto trombone, joining the Hounslow Wind Band and subsequently the Ealing Youth Orchestra. By this time, he was receiving trombone tuition from Leon Taylor, the principal trombonist with the English National Opera, who helped him achieve distinction in his Grade 8 exam. He went on to study Voice and Trombone at the Trinity College of Music where he came to the realisation that he should pursue a singing career.

He made his debut with the Royal Opera in Billy Budd in 2000 and has appeared with the ENO, Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera and Opera Holland Park, as well as numerous performances abroad.

Keel first performed with the ESO as a soloist in 2016 in a performance of excerpts from Puccini’s operas. His appearance as the menacing Scarpia, walking from the back of St Barnabas to the stage, is described by those that were present as one of those spine-tingling musical moments that, once heard, is never forgotten. He returned a couple of years later to perform the role of Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Keel Watson
Keel Watson

ESO Music Director, John Gibbons, who worked with Keel many times over thirty years said, “Along with members of the ESO, I was shocked and extremely saddened to learn of Keel’s sudden death. We worked together many times, starting early in our careers with Opera Lirica at Holland Park. He was a much-loved member of our trombone section, playing with us whenever his professional schedule permitted. The music world has lost an amazing talent, a larger-than-life personality, and a true friend. Members of the Orchestra were really keen to pay a tribute to him, and it is fitting that we are remembering him with a programme of repertoire that features the trombones so prominently.”

The concert will take place on Saturday, 18 May at 7pm in St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, W5 1QG.

Tickets can be purchased in advance online.

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