Meet the Sheaf Singers mainstay who has no intention of retiring... even after decades as producer, director, arranger and conductor
At 90 years old, Olive Sutton is showing no signs of slowing down.
For 75 years, she has devoted her life to the promotion of opera and singing, and it’s a passion that still burns brightly.
As producer, director, musical arranger and conductor of The Sheaf Singers, the choir she formed in 1985, she works tirelessly – at regular rehearsals, in one-to-one singing lessons and organising numerous charitable concerts each year.
“When people get older, the general feeling seems to be ‘Isn’t it time they stopped?’ but while I have my faculties, I don’t understand why should I sit alone at home moping,” says Olive, from Handsworth.
“It would be different if my health was failing, but I feel great, and I believe I still have a lot to give.”
It’s satisfying to have a rehearsal with the choir and see them get to the stage where I want them to be
Olive has been involved in singing at Victoria Hall Methodist Church, in Norfolk Street – where the choir rehearses – for 60 years.
From 1945 to 1970, she sang as solo soprano with numerous operatic societies, performing in hundreds of productions. In 1969 she founded The New Opera Group in Sheffield, designed to give everybody the opportunity to take part in opera. Between 1969 and 1984 she was music director and solo soprano for more than 50 productions.
With The Sheaf Singers, she has been able to dedicate herself to passing on her musical knowledge, as well as her love of opera, with hundreds of productions that have raised thousands of pounds for charities such as St Luke’s Hospice, Lupus UK, Help for Heroes and Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind.
“I just like getting things out of people,” says Olive.
“It’s satisfying to have a rehearsal with the choir and see them get to the stage where I want them to be. It’s rewarding when you have a concert and people appreciate what you do, and the charities appreciate it.”
And it was this dedication that led to Olive, at the age of 86, being awarded the British Empire Medal, for services to music and charitable fund-raising.
“It was a real shock, I had no idea it was coming and I was very humbled by that,” says Olive. “I thought it was a hoax at first, it left me dazed, but people were so lovely and I received so many phone calls and cards.”
Olive grew up in Hillsborough and began singing aged 15, studying first in Sheffield, and then in London under the tutelage of famed singer Constance Shacklock.
She explains: “I’ve loved music my whole life. The New Group came about because there were certain roles in opera I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do professionally, so I set the group up so I could perform some of them, and people really embraced what it was all about. I only ever intended to do a one-off show, but I suddenly found myself with quite a big chorus of people who all loved performing as I did. This went on for about 15 years.”
Olive retired from singing when she was 75, though admits she still sings at home.
“Sometimes, I’ll have a little warble around the house,” she laughs. “Or sing in lessons and rehearsals to make sure people are singing the right notes, but that’s it now.”
Olive and her husband Arthur, who died 30 years ago, never had children,.
And so it was with her Sheaf Singers family that Olive rang in her 90th birthday last October.
“I arrived for rehearsal and all the lights were out, so I thought the caretaker had forgotten us,” she recalls. “It was only as my eyes adjusted that I saw all the people in the darkness and then the lights came on and everybody was there.”
And Olive is quick to confirm she will be working with The Sheaf Singers for a long time to come.
“I won’t give up teaching any time soon, it keeps me out of mischief,” she says.
“I have always joked that when my time comes, I want to be sitting at the piano stool at the Victoria Hall.”
Surviving the blitz
Olive appears in Paul Clark’s book, ‘Bombed But Unbowed’ which features a series of first-hand accounts of the Sheffield Blitz.
According to Paul, a friend of Olive’s and treasurer of Hillsborough Tabernacle Congregational Church, Olive was on her way to the original Tabernacle Church in Hillsborough on the evening of December 12, 1940, to help her older sister Flo set up for a girls’ brigade Christmas party the following Monday.
Paul said: “Olive, who was just 15 at the time, was on her way to the church when - in her words - she and her sister saw a red glow in the sky over the city centre and could hear the first bombs being dropped. Her older sister, Flo, insisted Olive go home and be with their mother, and said she would continue on alone.
“When Flo got to the church, whoever was meant to come and open up for them hadn’t shown up, and so, being locked out, she went and took shelter in the tram sheds.
“The next morning, when everyone emerged from their various shelters, Hillsborough Tabernacle Congregational Church has been completely destroyed. Had the sisters been there, they would certainly have died.”