Ellen Chickering at the piano.

Ellen Chickering, who took a midcareer turn as a diva in Boston before coming to Maine to turn aspiring singers into opera stars, died April 19 at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough. She was 77.

Chickering, who lived in Portland, was a member of the music faculty at the University of Southern Maine since 1983 and retired this past December. While teaching at USM, she starred for more than a decade with Boston Academy of Music, later Opera Boston, under the direction of Richard Conrad. Her brother-in-law, Don Tutko of Colorado, said Chickering was diagnosed with abdominal cancer at the time of her retirement and died surrounded by songs shared by former students.

“Music deals with feeding human souls,” Chickering liked to say.

Over a 30-year career, Chickering taught hundreds of singers, many of whom ascended to the stages of the finest opera companies in the land. Among them was Megan Marino, who credited Chickering with grooming her for a career in opera. Marino, whose most recent role was Flora in “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February, flew to Maine to be with Chickering when she learned she was sick and last communicated with her on Easter Sunday, when she sent a recording of “It’s You I Like” by Mister Rogers.

Ellen Chickering and mentor and soprano Eleanor Steber at Chickering’s debut at Alice Tully Hall in New York in 1973. Courtesy photo

“She had a really special way of teaching everybody individually. She was so good at helping to guide and mentor and teach the individual, and she knew how to play to your strengths and knew when to talk about your weaknesses, and she was always very honest,” Marino said. “Toward the end of my undergraduate experience with Ellen at USM, she helped me to see that perhaps I do have a career instrument and temperament and how to be prepared for my next step. She pushed me and opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities that I had no idea were there.”

Laura Kargul, a teaching colleague at USM, said Chickering was a nationally renowned vocal teacher, whose reputation attracted students from around the country to USM and helped raise the national profile and reputation of the School of Music. “The operatic world took her very seriously as a teacher,” Kargul said. “Students just flocked to her. She always attracted very high-quality students because of her reputation. She was able to teach the super-gifted students and prepare them for all aspects of an operatic career.”


In addition to teaching at USM, Chickering worked with young singers associated with Opera Maine.

She was born Jan. 26, 1943, in Miami, Florida, the youngest of five siblings, to Lewis and Velma Slingerland. Her mother taught Ellen to play piano at a young age. She studied music education at Syracuse University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1964 and teaching in public schools. She later returned to Syracuse for her master’s.

An early photo of Ellen Chickering. Courtesy photo

She studied in New York with soprano Eleanor Steber, who was considered one of the great sopranos of the 20th century, and made her debut at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in 1973, and later sang at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. After marrying, she balanced her singing with a career in restaurants, moving to Maine to run a deli in Camden before joining USM in 1983.

Conrad tapped her to star in his productions beginning in the 1990s, reviving her singing career. She sang with him for many years, earning repeated rave reviews in The Boston Globe and other papers. “Chickering certainly lets it all come out,” Susan Larson wrote in the Globe in 1997. “High emotions flow through her as she shakes the rafters with a mighty blast one moment, and floats a diaphanous high pianissimo the next.”

One of her great accomplishments was her recording of the Samuel Barber opera “Vanessa,” released in 2003, which she recorded with National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. “She was 50 at the time – it’s just remarkable that she was able to do something like that at her age,” Kargul said, noting how unusual it is for a soprano to begin singing seriously again in middle age. “That’s like starting a football career at 50. People don’t do that. People are done at 50,” Kargul said.

She was in awe of her friend’s voice. “The voice was astonishingly beautiful, with focus and power and sheen, and she always sang with great emotion and great artistry. She had it all.”

Kargul and another USM colleague, Ed Reichert, visited Chickering two days before she died and shared a video of 18 former students singing the Irish blessing “May the Road Rise to Greet You,” which they had recorded remotely via Zoom. “We showed it to her, and she got tears in her eyes and repeated over and over, ‘wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.’ She said, ‘This is what life is. I love life.’ ”

Donations in her memory may be made to the Ellen Chickering Music Scholarship at USM at this website: usm.maine.edu/chickering. Or checks made payable to USM Foundation may be mailed to USM Foundation, P.O. Box 9300, Portland, ME  04104-9300. Reference: Ellen Chickering Music Scholarship Award

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