Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Buried with her baby in her arms and her coffin draped with the Spanish Republican flag: Conchita Supervia (1895-1936) Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Willesden

I first visited the Liberal Jewish Cemetery in Pound Lane in Willesden in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019. I was intrigued by an unusual grave in which a large circular altar-like stone block is supported on the back of four tortoises. Despite a plaque saying the grace had been ‘restored by her admirers in 2006’ I couldn’t read the name and had no idea who was buried here. Meller and Parson’s ‘London Cemeteries’ gave me a bit more detail; in the cemetery “the most unusual memorial dated 1936, comprises four stone tortoises which support a curved sided pedestal confined between two discs, the upper inscribed with the name Conchita Rubenstein who ‘Died with her daughter’.” This was as far as I got with my research; I parked Mrs Rubenstein intending to come back to her when I had more time only to find Sheldon from the Cemetery Club getting in there before me. In his blog post just a few weeks after I visited the cemetery Sheldon revealed that Mrs Rubenstein was in fact Conchita Supervía, a Spanish opera singer born in Barcelona in 1895. Some sources say she made her stage debut at the age of 15 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and others say that she was only fourteen when Richard Strauss himself chose her to play in Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera in Rome. She sung all over Europe as well in South America and the United States. She made over 200 recordings and even had a film part as singer Baba L'Etoile in a 1934 British production called Evensong based on the life of Dame Nellie Melba. Some accounts of her life politely say she married twice but none of them mention the name of her first husband by whom she had a son, Jorge.  In 1930 she converted to Judaism, married a Mr Benzion Rubenstein and came to live in London. She died in childbirth at the age of 40.  

The Aberdeen Press and Journal of Tuesday 31 March 1936 gives an account of the distressing circumstances of her death under the headline ‘Famous Prima Donna's Sudden Death’;

Madame Conchita Supervia, the famous Spanish prima donna, died in a London nursing home yesterday. She was the wife of Mr Ben Rubinstein, an English timber broker and fruit farmer. Madame Supervia was expecting a baby, and only on Sunday went into the nursing home "very happy and very well." At 11 a.m. yesterday the baby was still-born. A clot of blood developed, and. despite the efforts of the doctors, Madame Supervia died.

A few days later the Dundee Evening Telegraph gave an account of her funeral:

With the body of her child in her arms, Conchita Supervia, the coloratura contralto, was buried at the Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Willesden, to-day. Her coffin was draped with the new Republican flag of Spain red, purple, and yellow, and rested upon arum lilies sent by her husband and her son from the garden which was such a source of pleasure to her at her home at Rustington, Sussex. The ceremony was according to the Jewish rites, with its centuries' old traditional prayers, but there was no singing. Many of the wreaths on the wet grass by the graveside were without names, and were from admirers who had heard but never forgotten her voice. One of these: typical of others, bore the inscription—"That I may sometimes hear the echo of her voice in the moonbeams." About 200 people were present at the ceremony, and they included Senor Dr Perez D'Ayala. the Spanish Ambassador, and his wife. The mourners included Mr Ben Rubenstein, her husband, and George, her 17- year-old son, together with numerous other relatives and friends. Rev. M Perizweg recited the committal words, first in Hebrew and then in English. As his voice pronounced the words—"May she come to her rest in peace," Mr Rubenstein dropped earth into the grave and the son performed the same symbolic action with the recitation of the prayer of resignation to the will of God. Among the masses of spring flowers was a wreath of tulips, lilies and daffodils from the Spanish Ambassador and his wife. Others who sent flowers included the directors of the Royal Opera House and Violet Lady Melchett, whose wreath bore the inscription— "In loving remembrance of darling Conchita."

Her memorial is designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was also responsible for the Phillipson mausoleum in Golders Green.


  1. Dear Graveyard Lover,

    we are "Grateful Cat" from Berlin and we just finished our new video "Postcard from the Graveyard" - with Graves and a Ghost in it.
    So we thought we send it out to people who are interested in this subject or work at cemeteries.
    If you like it, maybe you share it with some friends or even post it somewhere.


    Greetings from Berlin,
    Gwendolin and Franky

    1. Thanks Gwendolin and Franky, nice tune and video! Good luck with the album.

  2. I meant to leave a comment for you some time ago. Supervia was a wonderful singer, full of character and charm. Apparently she made her operatic debut at 15 (!), which seems beyond belief but true. There's a complete set of her recordings on Marston Records and plenty has found its way to YouTube. Depending on what you like, her Rossini, Bizet, and English songs are there.

    She had a son in her 20s, with a man she wasn't married to, and had been warned by her doctors not to have another. She converted to Judaism to marry her husband and that's why she is buried where she is.

    Some recordings:

    Oh, no, John: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzQRtZFc274

    Non più mesta (Rossini): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfaanEaFyKI

    Carmen Habanera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGCSsZFr8TM

    I love her but will mention her very prominent vibrato, which some other Spanish singers of the period had.

  3. Where exactly is placed the tomb? How to find it? Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Hernan, the first thing is to make sure you go to the correct cemetery. There are two of them, adjoining each other, in Willesden. The Liberal Jewish cemetery is the smaller one and the entrance is where Pound Lane meets Harlesden Road. Once you are in the cemetery you will see a red brick prayer hall to your right, The grave is in the part of the cemetery behind the prayer hall. There is a path directly behind the prayer hall, walk up it to the small roundabout and the grave is in the block to your right, 3 or 4 rows in from the path. It isn't hard to find. Give me an email address and I'll send you a rough map to help you locate it.

    2. Thank you so much for the info. This is my email: contacto@hernantalavera.com