My Tribute to Ellen Faull
by Jay Eugene Fraley
I believe it was in 1990 that Ellen Faull moved here, to the Portland area, to be closer to her daughter, Judith, (who had moved to Eugene). It seems that many in New York thought that Ellen was coming out West to "retire." What ended up happening was just the opposite. She moved here with a determination to make a difference. Ellen put her "Major League" experience, as one of the top voice teachers and sopranos, of the 20th century, to work. Rather than running all over the Northwest, doing master class after master class, with limited lasting effect, quietly, in a very Ellen like way, she began training up her own army, instead. I wouldn't say that she was cloning us, exactly... but if I could be a "clone," even 1/100th a clone, I'd be fortunate and honored. It is astounding how many of us, who studied with her, are full time teachers, either in home studios, Universities, or both. The fruit and legacy of her efforts is seen, and will be seen, in the success of not only her singers, but especially that of the grandkids," ("The grandkids" was what she would call the singers that studied with one of her students), for decades upon decades to come.
Along with the singers who studied with her, Ellen also influenced NW singing culture by establishing two events, both held here in Portland. In 1992 she launched "Bel Canto Northwest," an intense operatic workshop, bringing in top-flight coaches from New York and, of course, with herself being THE main attraction. Then, in 1995, she sponsored, with her own money, The Ellen Faull Gordon Vocal Competition. This "regional" competition strongly reflected her deep desire to help young artists further their careers, as well as to create a living memorial in honor of her late husband, Dr. Maurice Gordon. Dr. Gordon was a prominent Psychiatrist in New York City. The EFG Vocal Competition was open to opera singers between the ages of 25 and 35 who could prove residency in Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Arizona. The reason for the competition being "regional," as opposed to "National," was because she felt that the "East" had allot more opportunities than the "West." Again, this was her way of trying to make a difference, "out here," where there were and are far fewer opportunities. The EFG competition became so high profile that singers would try to cheat to get in... either by saying that they lived where they didn't, or a by lying about their age, (this is why they had to provide legal proof of both residency and their age). I am very, VERY proud and honored to have been the Director/Coordinator of her prestigious competition for five of its seven year existence. Sadly, the financial burden got to be too great and the last competition was held in October of 2001.
I came to meet Ellen a couple of years after she had already moved here. A dear friend, Dr. Susan St. John, tricked me into coming to meet Ellen at one of her lessons with her. Of course I knew of Ellen, but never got up the courage to sing for her. Meeting her, at Susan's lesson, seemed a "safe" way to see the "great teacher" in action. However, it was only about fifteen minutes into Susan's lesson when Ellen said, "Susan tells me great things about you... why don't you sing something for me!" I was petrified, and tried to get out of singing for her by claiming to have nothing prepared. Susan reminded me that we had just performed Handel's MESSIAH, the week before... so she "suggested" that I sing something from the MESSIAH. There was no escape. As it turned out, that ended up being one of the most important days of my life and the beginning of a relationship that would last the next fourteen years.
Ellen was one of the most benevolent people I have ever known... a great human being. Her generosity was largely motivated by her desire to help singers pursue their dreams and potential... but it was also motivated by the fact that she, too, had been greatly helped, along her way, by the generosity and patronage of others. I don't know too many of her singers that benefited more from her generosity than I did. While with us, Ellen wouldn't have wanted this to be made public, but I am proud to now say that Ellen Faull was my Patron. For twelve of the fourteen years I studied with her... Ellen charged me nothing, but freely poured into me everything she could. The actual dollar amount of her patronage would be astronomical... in the $60,000+ range. She tried so hard to "put me out there," (professionally), but several unfortunate circumstances, including the closing of my "window of opportunity," (my age), didn't allow for it to happen.
One day, while on my way home from Willamette University, i get a call from Ellen. She asked how I was doing and said she "sensed" that she needed to call me and check up on me. Accusing her of being a psychic, I confirm that I had had a tough day of teaching and was also feeling a bit discouraged about not having the professional singing career I should have had. I was feeling like I had arrived at the dock, but the ship had set sail without me. I then started to say, "Ellen, what I'd give to roll back the clock..." but she interrupted me and said, "yes, I know... what you would give to be able to roll back the clock and have someone like you teach you what you know now." It was kind of spooky, because that is exactly what I was going to say! She then added, "you know how much I wish I could roll back the clock for you, and I would, if I could. BUT - you can be, and probably are, 'that person, that teacher' to someone you are teaching right now!" Leave it to Ellen to say the perfect thing, at the time I needed to hear it the most. That was truly one of the most profound moments in my life, for it was then that I realized that she was challenging me to be like her... to be an "Ellen" to someone who studies with me! Those are BIG footsteps to follow. It is because of all these things, and much , much more, that I feel the obligation to teach what I have learned and to make a difference in the lives of the singers that I am blessed to work with... this is the great debt that I owe to Ellen for all she gave to me.
Jay Eugene Fraley