Emma Small was short in stature. But there was nothing small about her glorious mezzo-soprano voice.
"She was tall in the rich sound she produced and the musical way that she approached all the repertoire that she performed," Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of VocalEssence, said via e-mail from London. "Hers was a voice of depth and warmth that listeners loved to hear."
Those listeners included the congregation of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, where Small sang in the choir and was a frequent soloist. Her voice also was heard in many other recitals, concerts, operas and shows in the Twin Cities, including "South Pacific" with the Minnesota Opera, where her performance as Bloody Mary was praised in a 1987 Star Tribune review: "Minnesota Opera veteran Emma Small gets all her laughs without schticking it up or turning into an ethnic joke."
Small, 85, died suddenly on April 2 of respiratory and heart failure.
She grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and came to the mainland to study at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where she met her husband, Howard Don Small. After graduating, the couple moved to California for his church music career before coming to the Twin Cities in the early 1970s when he accepted a position as organist and choirmaster at St. Mark's.
Small also was a highly regarded voice teacher. "Her strength was her capacity to diagnose what a student needed at any given time," said Rick Penning, a former student and later a colleague at Macalester College, now at Carleton College.
"She had a wonderful sense of what a voice could be, its potential," Penning said. "On the human side, the voice is such a vulnerable instrument, and she was empathetic, caring and compassionate."
Brunelle, too, admired her skills as a teacher. "She had an excellent way of working with voices that were in trouble, helping them to recover their unique sound and do it in a healthy way," he said. "She was admired and beloved by the singing community, and rightly so."
Penning considered Small a mentor, and he still makes use of her "Emma-isms — little expressions to bring a point across more clearly," he said. If a student got wrapped up in technical virtuosity to the point of losing the emotion of the song, Small might say, "Don't get so artsy-fartsy," Penning recalled. "It was about being true to the music, to your voice. … The one word that describes her is integrity. It was the way she lived every day of her life."
Small retired from academia in the late 1980s, Penning said, but she continued to give private lessons in her home in Minneapolis. "She was planning on teaching the day she died."
And she continued to hone her skills. "She was constantly working to update and upgrade her own knowledge of the voice. She was endlessly curious," Penning said.
She also was "without ego in the most positive sense," he added. "Many voice teachers zealously guard their studio from outside influences. Emma was the opposite. If another teacher had something to offer a student, that would come first." A significant number of Small's students went on to become teachers and to have successful international singing careers, he said.
Small loved to entertain, and "many of her students became close through Emma," Penning said. "She was just a very special person to a lot of people."
She was preceded in death by her husband in 2007. Survivors include her daughter, Margaret Small, and two brothers.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. June 15 at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, 519 Oak Grove St., Minneapolis.