Contralto Helen Watts was a leading member of that school of Welsh singers which came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Nurtured in a British Isles atmosphere that had turned from insularity to international performance, Watts became the leading British contralto (or mezzo-contralto) in the post-Kathleen Ferrier age. Though never wanting in artistic temperament, she was a model colleague, always well-prepared and ready to sing a fully invested performance. Her voice, of medium size though firmly focused, had a plushness that often made it seem larger than its actual size. She began by specializing in Handel and Bach, but grew artistically to become an exemplary singer of Mahler and Wagner. Watts did not neglect the works of Britten and Tippett either, performing and recording them as a part of her exceptionally extensive discography.
Watts studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and made her debut as Didymus in Handel's Theodora in a production mounted by the Handel Opera Society. She followed those performances with both Juno and Ines in Semele. She also sang in Rinaldo, an opera which she repeated at Berlin's Komische Oper and at Halle in 1961. By the early 1960s, she had established a relationship with the English Opera Group and played an important part in performances of Britten's operas, assuming the title role in The Rape of Lucretia during the EOG's 1964 tour of Russia. She sang at Covent Garden from 1965 to 1971, offering her richly vocalized Erda and First Norn, portraying Mrs. Sedley in Britten's Peter Grimes, and offering a commanding Sosostris in a revival of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage. At the Welsh National Opera, she also performed numerous roles suitable for a contralto, among them Sosostris, Mrs. Sedley, a delicious Dame Quickly, and Lanina. At Salzburg in 1971, she was well received as Farnace in Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto and in 1978, she sang a moving Arnalta in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea with the Scottish Opera.
However busy she may have seemed in the opera world, Watts was busier still in recital and concert work. Her initial performances in Handel led to a recording of Handel cantatas and then a flood of discs of wide-ranging repertory. She made numerous recordings of Bach, paralleling her live performances throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, and America. Her years at Covent Garden coincided with the musical directorship of Georg Solti. Taken by her sumptuous voice and quality of musicianship, he employed her services for several recording projects and afforded her the international prominence she deserved. Aside from her First Norn in his Decca Götterdämmerung, he engaged her for his recordings of Mahler's Second, Third, and Eighth symphonies, all widely distributed and warmly praised. When Solti assumed the directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he brought Watts to Chicago for a series of memorable performances, including Mahler's Second Symphony and Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
Watts' Sosostris was recorded following the Tippett revival, the electronic medium greatly clarifying the composer's extremely thick orchestration and allowing her glorious singing to be heard. Watts was virtually on call to recording companies during her prime years, valued for her amazing consistency and unfussy approach to studio work. Her Angel in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius ranked with the best, and her interpretation of the contralto part in the Colin Davis recording of Handel's Messiah (including "But Who May Abide") is regarded by many as unsurpassed. Her recordings of Lieder were likewise exemplary, especially Brahms and Wolf.