Australian Biography: Dame Joan Hammond
One of Australia's great opera stars of the two decades following the Second World War was Joan Hammond (1912–1996).
She established a wide international following as a soprano on stage and as a recording artist.
In her early years, she played violin with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and earned an income as a freelance journalist.
Eventually she became recognised as a great soprano talent after training in Vienna, and by 1946 was singing all the major soprano roles in Europe, the United States and Australia.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Dame Joan, you were born in 1912, what kind of a family were you born into? What were your parents like?
Oh dear ... [laughs] ... They were very nice ... [laughs] ... But ...
... I was very lucky that my mother was interested in music, I was fortunate that up ‘til about the age of seven or eight, that I heard classical music simply because of Mother. Once we were growing up and going to school, of course, then my brothers had all the jazz in the world and ... being played and ... my family — my father said that he used to sing in Westminster but I ... I doubted that all my life, and all ... the time I knew him, because he really didn't have a voice at all. Mother did ... [chuckles], she used to hum and sing around the place but ...
He liked to think he had a voice?
That's right ... [laughs] ... I think he wanted to interest me, and they were wonderful really because we had a ... a lovely background, to grow up with them and a family that up ‘til many years was united, and we did have our troubles later but in the early days of my youth we were a happy family, and as I say, my parents did everything to encourage us, musically.
He was what he called a general merchant, but in London where he was born he was in the electrical trade, and he used to do very fine work too, and when he came out via New Zealand where I was dropped off and I think I ...
Yes, you were actually technically born in New Zealand ... or that you came straight over here?
Well I ... the more I like ... I explain it now is that I was conceived in England, born in New Zealand and brought up in Australia. I think that's the only way I can put it, but he ... changed, I ... I haven't ... really not sure. He went on doing electrical ... in the electrical trade when he came here, and then later branched off he ... he ... I think that's the description, a general merchant, which seemed to cover a multitude of things that he was in involved in.
And reasonably successfully because you had a pleasant, comfortable childhood with support from the family and you went to PLC Pymble ...
... the school on the North Shore of Sydney?
Yes. I had a wonderful youth, really, up ‘til what was known as the Lang Government and Mr Lang was called the Liar Liar Liar — ha! I can remember that so well, and my father came in with, well, unfortunate results in that period and we suffered, we had to sell the home up at Killara and do in another way but we were grown up by then. Well I was, I think, about 17, 18.
Right, this was during the Depression years?
Yes. So your family was affected by that?
Oh yes, yes.
But when you were at school you started developing some remarkable abilities, didn't you? It became fairly obvious that you weren't quite the run-of-the-mill child. And you showed great physical coordination in relation to sport. How did that come about? How did that first emerge — that you were a bit of a sportsgirl?
I ... I think that's a rather difficult question because I sort of grew up, it was a natural thing. I've ... I played all games at school, and loved them — I should have really loved doing more homework and studying what I should have been studying, instead I was often swimming in the pool at PLC when I should have been at class. I think it was nearly always maths, and I hated maths. So I ... in fact one day the teacher sent for me and ... and another girl had to find me and I was in the pool, and this came back on my report, and was read out at the breakfast table with all the reports ... [laughs] ...
And my father wasn't very pleased ... [laughs] ...
So you had a mind of your own about how you were going to spend your time even then?
Oh, I couldn't stand maths, I really couldn't, and if I were not in the pool, I was certainly playing the violin or practising in one of the practice rooms — music. So ... to your question, I should say again, through my mother who was very active and loved games evidently, so she told me, and I ... and I just ... it was like swimming or anything, they say a duck to water or something like that ... well, ha, that was how I was. I loved tennis, I loved all ... all games. Anything with move ... movement, just as I loved my music. I really couldn't separate them at that stage.
And eventually in relation to sport you settled on golf. How did that — how did that get chosen out of all the rest?
... [laughs] ... Well, we had a weekend place at Palm Beach, north of Sydney, and there again my father gave me a little set of golf clubs, as ... a miniature set, at first to try, and we ... our place was right on the golflinks and the ninth green — it was a short course, only nine holes, and the ninth green was right by our front verandah, but the ... our old home is now the clubhouse, and I used to just hop over and practise on the ninth green, and putt and chip and do these things, and then I got a full set. Not only, I think, as we said in those days a driver — you don't call them that today: they're numbered one, two, three and four, etc — but I had a driver, I had a clique, I had a machet and a putter but they were the full, and ... eventually, friends of my father, three very well-known Sydney men who used to come to Palm Beach, I can remember them now, there was Percy Hunter, Alan Box and a Mr Moses, I never knew his other name, and these three men one day they called over and said, ‘Would Joan like to join us and make a four?’ So I did. And from that time on, I made a four when I came back from school in the holidays, this time of the year, Christmas always, I played with these three men, and so my game ... I never had a lesson, but I learned from watching them, and hitting just as they did, and Alan Box was a very good golfer, Percy Hunter was ... not that I knew it, I didn't, I just knew Mr Hunter and Mr Box and ... just played the game and enjoyed every moment of it.
That was another thing, I was very naive, and I went on being very naive for many many many years because I don't know whether they had bets on the go ... on the side, but I expect they do — all the men did evidently — and I never knew anything about having bets, and even in my championship, when I was winning the championships, there the caddies would be betting, and my ... evidently my opponents were betting and I ... betting was going on everywhere, but I didn't know, and for some ... reason, nobody even thought of asking me to put money up or would I play for so much or anything. I had ... I was never asked, they must have known that I wouldn't know what they were talking about anyhow. So my golf improved because of playing with these men, and that's really how I learned to hit through and, you might say, put some oomph into it.
Did it reach a point where you were beating them?
... [laughs] ... Well, I was a good partner, let me put it that way ... [laughs] ... Because we played foursome, you see.
I was just wondering how these men would take it if a young schoolgirl started beating them.
Well, it was wonderful really because once I left school I was at the Conservatorium in Sydney and playing then in golf matches for teams and my club wanted me always, of course, naturally, to play. And our foursomes at Palm Beach gradually had to stop because my life were ... had changed so tremendously, but these three men used to come out and watch me play. I know at Royal Sydney and, well, Percy Hunter was a member there, so was Alan Box, and I didn't know that of course, when I was playing with them, you know, and they would come and watch me then as a champion. And I'd always said I would never be here if it hadn't been for these three men, really, possibly, [and] that's the way life goes, that's the part of the pattern.
Now although you obviously had natural ability with, I suppose, the eye-hand coordination or the physical coordination there, you also actually had a physical disability by this stage didn't you?
Oh, an accident — car, and I was on a bike, and we had a collision, and I pulled the handlebar around to the right, and my left arm got caught in ... in those old-fashioned spoke wheels, of that period, and I'm very lucky to have the arm because the first doctor was going to amputate it straight away, but the ... evidently the pulse was beating and the second doctor that was called in was a surgeon, and he said, no, I'll try, which he did and there was a long ... I was out of everything for a year, and anyhow it all knitted up, but it's much shorter, my arm. The left arm.
And how did that affect your ability to play golf?
Well, I had a natural two-hand grip they called it, the two-handed grip, whereas most players use the overlapping grip, which I couldn't do — one, the short arm made that impossible, the ... would've hurt. But after I did it naturally and of course that's the ... just the natural grip that I've possessed, and I had no idea that it was not the right grip. I just knew that's how I would play the game and many times, you know, people'd come out and so that ... especially some of the pros, just to see this strange grip of this girl, and I ... afterwards when reading golf books, I found out that three of the great Scottish early players — one was James Braid and another was Taylor and Vernon or Verdon [actually, Vardon] — something like that, anyhow, Taylor and Braid both used this straight-hand grip. Why, I wouldn't know of course, they were long before my time so here ... [laughs] ... am I now, thinking back to my youth, so it was an interesting fact for me to read that.
Yes, that you weren't the first ...
Unlike ... no no, not by ...
... to develop this unorthodox sort of grip ...
... and they were champions up in Scotland, so I felt oh well then, ha ...
So how old were you when you became a champion and ...
I think round about 30, 31, 32 ... I'll let you work that out, yeah, I told you about my mathematics.
But I did have trouble counting my card. I could count it and I made quite sure that I got the right totalled in. But I ...
Your maths came good when it really needed it?
... [laughs] ... It wasn't something I enjoyed ever.
So at the same time as you were developing along as a natural young golfer, and eventually to be a champion, you were also developing music interests, but they were a little more affected by the accident weren't they — you had a sort of shift of direction after the accident in the musical front?
Oh, my interest and love of the violin. Yes. But it was, again, a very extraordinary thing because in having that, it helped me to concentrate more on the singing although it was a wonderful thing that I didn't oversing.
I wasn't tempted to.
Let me ask ... let me just ask that question slightly differently so that you can give us the background of the violin, I'd like to ... to ask you: do you remember when it was that you yourself became really interested in music and started learning?
I think I used to sing right from the beginning almost, and at school, my first sort of kindergarten, they'd always ask me to sing for them, I didn't know why, but the teacher would also have me stand up and sing a song or give a tune to the others because I sang in tune, (a), and (b), because I ... had the good fortune to have rhythm, a natural rhythm, and I think those two combined to ... make the teacher hold me up in front of the class to ... say try and emulate Joan.
It is unusual for very small children to sing in tune, isn't it?
I don't rea ...I expect so, yes.
And so right from the beginning you were able to do this just naturally?
... and there was the quality of the voice that had an attraction. I realised that later on. But at that stage not ...
Oh I loved it. I loved it. I loved everything I did actually ... [laughs] ...
Has that continued for 80 years?
Yes, hah, when I'm asked about what I like in the way of music or anything I said I always did what I liked, and I loved what I did.
So you were singing and then you started to learn an instrument?
Well, I had begun to learn the violin when I was very young, just a ... I loved the violin ... and then ...
What was it that attracted you to the violin rather than some other instrument?
Now that is an interesting question, because I can't tell you that. I really don't know. It may have been listening to a record or recordings of violinists because mother had one or two old 78’s, no what were they in those ... I can't remember, but she had some. And I remember hearing Chrysler, and at that time Heifetz, and Heifetz was my absolute joy and I thought ... I'll aim at being a Heifetz, you know playing like Heifetz ... [laughs] ... and he was my first sort of violin idol, and I think in those days you rather worked and you thought, oh yes, I'll even practise. You see, I've spent a lot of time practising the fiddle, and this stopped me over singing when ... it was wonderful really, I was very lucky, because all the hours I put into the fiddle I might have been putting into the voice and ruining it at the same — tiring it. But I sang whenever I wanted to and when ... if I was asked to. But I did put all the hours into the fiddle and to learning naturally theory ... harmony, doing the other side of it. But it was ...
So you were becoming very musical which is very important?
Yes, and then going straight to the Conservatorium of ... the only, the only prize I ever won at school ... [laughs] ... was to do with music, never anything else ... [laughs] ...
Although ... except for sport.
Oh, oh yes, yes I ... there was the swimming championships. Yes, ha, yes.
Trophies for sport and prizes for music. But your schoolwork did get a bit neglected in all of this?
I wasn't that interested, except in geography, yes, history, but I found sitting you know at a desk and that sort of thing, and I wanted to be out and ... bursting my boiler on the hockey field or somewhere like that. I really found sitting for a long time at a desk quite a chore, and a bore.
These days we quite often tell children that they need to specialise a little bit, I mean, you seemed to do such a variety of things, you had all these sports, you had your violin which you were developing to a very high standard, you had your singing — was it ever thought at the time that maybe you were trying to do too much?
No. No, no-one ever suggested that either.
Just as well because I don't think I would have taken any notice.
Do you think there was any disadvantage in spreading yourself across so many things when you were developing ...
Oh no. In retrospect, looking back on life, yes, I would say that I would have been a lot better if I'd concentrated on one or two things, perhaps.
Better at them, but maybe not so good at life?
No, ha, no.
How old were you when you had that bike accident?
Twelve I think, 12, 13.
Yes, so it's ... so it was a big thing to happen to you?
Hmmm. It was at that stage, yes.
Do you remember ... did you feel that this was going to be the end of all the things you enjoyed when it happened?
No, no. I just ...
I just knew that I ... I was in a lot of pain at that stage, and of course I had several operations to it and ... in those days the ... it was called a skin graft, it was taken off my thigh here, and the ... actual, well, you can really work out the pattern that this ... he was a Frenchman who knew he'd come to Sydney, and ...
... he was called in to do this skin graft, which was a separate thing from what had happened in the first place with the surgeon who had to connect all the tendons and everything when I had ... they had to wait because both bones were broken, of course, and that had to ... they had to wait for that — bones to knit first — but this man was brought in as this, as the specialist, to do this particular part of the ... the getting of my arm right, and trying to cover the scar a bit. And the scars of ... but of course, as I say, you can match them, you can tell where they are, it's a ... and I hid it; as you can see my arm's much smaller altogether. And I lost movement of course.
But that ... site on my thigh here, which is from there to there with these scars left by the skin graft, I always felt very embarrassed when swimming; that was ... came later of course. And I didn't know then that I would, that my movement ... hand movements would be restricted, which they were, they were very restricted. But in order to help me get back, you see they ... the hand had to be pulled up like this with a glove glued on it, and rings at the end and a contraption on my bed, and I was so fearful when all this was happening I ... oh, they don't explain, and I think it would've helped me tremendously if they'd just said, ‘look with ... of these sacks of weights here and weights there, and all this, all that we're doing is only a matter of trying to open, to open up your hand, because it was in a set position.’ And I was terrified by these things when one ... it took them quite a long time as you can imagine. And it took a long time for my hand to gradually be brought up into that position. Then worse was to ... [interruption] ... come in trying to get it movement, in the massaging of the fingers and I think that ... all that was more painful because at least with an operation you’re put out ... but this was something I had to sort of sit and watch and feel.
But that's your fingering hand for the violin?
Yes. Yes. And then they said, oh, this all was after a year, ‘try to use the fiddle again and get your fiddle through your hand, and your fingers moving.’ It was painful, but I was determined to do it, and I did. I spent hours in ... at first it was down here, and then eventually I got it around, but I couldn't get it around ... I quite ... can't ... it could never get back into that position, that's why I knew I'd never be able to play properly again, and holding it here, was also an effort. So it all pointed in one direction — that the violin was not the avenue that I would be pursuing.
And yet you continued to play it?
Yes I continued ... I got as far with ... was in the orchestra again, I played in that, and ...
The Sydney Symphony, as it was then, in those days, the early days of the Sydney Symphony.
You got good enough again to play in the SSO ... But you knew you wouldn't ever be as good as you were ... you weren't going to be Heifetz?
Oh no ... and I had to keep on putting my fiddle down, because it made my arm ache so much. But the conductor knew. They were very forbearing with me and put up with it because I was so keen, I suppose. I only got into the second fiddles, I ... never got to the firsts.
And so if you couldn't be in the firsts, you thought you'd better concentrate in another direction and ...
Well I was ... I was studying singing at the same time. But not ... nothing serious ... and not ‘til I was about 17, 18, and ... I was just singing, and I very fortunately ... I was not learning ... [interruption] ... I was just a natural.
Now, I want to ask you, did it ever occur to you to give the violin away altogether because it was so hard and painful for you to keep going?
No, I was told that if I could keep it going it would strengthen my hand all the time. You see that strengthened it, ... well the golf was all right-hand, which is something that still amazes a lot of people, that it's all right-hand. I'm still hitting balls you know and they ... into a net, down the back there.
Yes, an old duck, you know, really. But I do that in order to keep my hands and my my my body's ... I do exercises every day, it's like cleaning my teeth, I have to. I ... once you start you know ...
Well, I know that it's something I've got to do to keep supple and to keep myself going, this is ... I'll do it.
Well, in all these various ways throughout your life, your body's been your instrument, and the greatest instrument of all was the one that you were developing then, in your throat, that was going to be your quite extraordinary singing voice. At what point did it begin to occur to you that your singing voice was indeed an extraordinary gift? Something special?
... I think perhaps when I was about 18 or, yes, 17 or 18 ... 19 because again at the Conservatorium they were doing the orchestra for one of their symphony concerts, they were doing the Vaughan Williams. It has a solo, a difficult ... well on a couple of pages or so, but it's unaccompanied, and I was a complete amateur then, I hadn't started any professional work, but it was after all the students ... the student orchestra and the ... and the conductor, he could not find a singer who could start this in tune and end in tune, because it was the Shepherd's little solo, and the voice comes in off stage, you're not seen, and of course the orchestra have to pick it up so it was very important that he could find a singer who could start it in tune and end in tune. And they were getting rather anxious because the time was coming on and they still hadn't found anybody, and someone told him to go to my teacher's room and ask for a singer there, ask for one of the students, he thought ... that there was one that this man had among his students who could cope, and of course they just came along and asked me would I sight read this and go along and see if I could do it there and then while they were rehearsing in the main hall.
And I was ... you know, I just did it because I was asked, I didn't know what it was for or anything at all, and my teacher said, ‘Well you go Joan, take this, you can cope with this.’ So I did and I finished in tune, and the orchestra came in and there was claps in the hall, and I didn't know what it was for, had no idea all, and I waited there in the wings having sung what I'd been asked to sing, and ... so this . ... conductor said, 'She'll do it, she's the one,' and it was on their ... I think I had three days, it was a Wednesday and the concert was on a Saturday. It was like ... I mean it was just two pages, it was easy, easy sight reading, and easy for me to learn for the Saturday, and as I didn't have to appear on stage I could just have the music there anyhow, and ... I ... I didn't realise what it all meant, I just ... here I was asked to do something and so I did it. And ... of course that was really my first professional ... not that I was paid, so it wasn't really ... professional then, but it was my first appearance of any importance.
I suppose it led to a few things, not again that ... I couldn't specify a particular engagement because I was there as a student and ... playing my golf as well of course ... so really I don't know that I could honestly say it led to a certain second engagement, no I couldn't.
At this stage of your life, on the brink of your life, you were aware that you were a very good golfer, by this stage it was very obvious that you were a very good golfer, you'd also just made this discovery that you could sing something that they'd had a lot of difficulty finding a professional singer to sing properly, and you had all the other possibilities opening up to you, you — what were you earning your living as at that time?
... [laughs] ... Yes, because I had to by this time ... [laughs] ... the things had gone all wrong with the family and that was that. It was ... oh yes, because of my golf, not because of my musical ability, but my golfing ability. I was asked to cover the golf and write for first — I know The Bulletin was second in Sydney — Sydney Morning Herald, I was only on it for a short time because The Bulletin was part of that, and I went on to The Bulletin to do it, to write up the golfing results, and of course I couldn't ... cover my own matches at all ... someone else had to do that, but I covered all the local, the sort of club, results on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Fri, had to ring them all up and get their results in, and write any little special caption or if there was a championship on then I had about a ... they gave far more ... to golf in those days, far more space in the paper than they do today.
Yes that's true, it was big wasn't it?
Oh yeah. Well not that ... it was really not big until I came on the scene and my friend Odette [Lefebvre], 'the fave', who was later Mrs Tom McKay — young people didn't play golf then. It was an old person's game and, in fact, I wouldn't have known that only from my three men down at Palm Beach, and that's how I came to play because they were all, they ... it just wasn't a game for youth.
So these two young girls brought a bit of glamour ... [interruption] ... in the scene.
Oh, and the papers were full of it, we had tremendous publicity ... [laughs] ...
And the golfers didn't know that I was ... anything to do with music, just as the musicians didn't know I was anything to do with golf.
And so you were a sports journalist really?
Did you cover the men’s games?
No, no, I can remember that Hector Morrison was one of the ... because I went to the Telegraph, I didn't stay long at all with The Bulletin, the Telegraph offered me a very good salary and I was only learning then what a salary was ... and I just went along with it and I used to cover the hockey, or any of these sports that I knew about, I could ... they would send me out on occasions to cover them, and I was once sent out to cover a social event, that meant writing up what women were wearing, and I hated that, I thought it was so rude to link ... [interruption] ... and looking at their ... what, jewellery. Of course it came to me later on, I mean, I was looked at and I could see a ... you know, when I was being interviewed, later when I came on tours and things, to see whether it was diamanté or a diamond. .. [laughs] ... so it all came back to me, and I said to the Editor please don't send me on any of those jaunts again ... [laughs] ... He didn't.
It's ... is this something that you notice very much with the height of your fame, when journalists were covering you, did they sometimes irritate you even though you'd once been one of their number?
Rarely because I realised that they had a job to do. And I saw their side, but I remember being met in Darwin on my first trip back in 19 ... 46, having been away for 10 years, and there was this young chap sent out to me, meet me at the plane to get a story, and he kept asking me where my parents lived, and my mother, because it was my first trip home, and tremendous publicity ... I was even sort of knocked back by it myself, I had no idea that there'd been this publicity and I ... that I was as well-known as I was. And that of course came from the O My Beloved Father, the popularity of that one aria, and he ... kept saying, 'but surely you know where they live?' I said, 'Yes I know where they live, but I'm not telling you,’ because mother had written me a very pathetic letter saying how she'd been bothered by people ringing up, and asking her where's Joan, and when's she coming back, and what's she doing and all the questions, and she didn't like it, and she also didn't like them ... pestering her, and she said would I just keep quiet, and I'd write back and say of course I will, I wasn't staying with them, and naturally they had no room, we ... they were in a small flat ... mother and father, and so this boy, the next thing I hear when I arrive in Sydney — 'So you don't know where your parents live?' It had all been twisted around, and it was ... it came out in such a nasty way, and I remember a teacher at the Conservatorium, I could ... tell you his name right now but I won't, he said, ‘Fancy one of our students who's gone away and made a name — famous.'
But back there at the beginning of your career, you had this choice, there you were a journalist, getting established that way. You were a golfer, with a ... obviously a very fine career opening up ...
So there you were in your late teens, a journalist, a very good golfer with a possible career in that, and a singer — you were just emerging as a really quite specially gifted singer — how did you choose which paths to take and, before we come to that, did they ever come into conflict with each other?
No, I don't think so, and I certainly didn't choose, I've always had this feeling that ... I'm a fatalist as you'll probably realise, but the pattern was already being made out for me, and I think events just led me into one and the other, and I have a strong feeling that's why one shouldn't really regret anything or look back because what's meant to happen is going to happen. And I always felt that if a good engagement came and something else in ... was about to put it off, alright, it's ... I was sad and it upset me at the time, but later on you realise, no, it was just as well it happened, and where my ... you might say feelings went, I loved whatever I was doing, I loved it, and I loved the golf when I was playing it and I loved working and I always loved studying, that was never any problem for me, I just loved studying.
Studying music, yes, languages, anything, I really enjoyed studying and that's why I always enjoyed practising golf. I would be seen hitting balls, you know, just hitting and practising when no-one else would be thinking of doing it ...
So you never saw it as a chore?
And the same with your music practise, it wasn't ever a job you were made to do by anybody?
No, no. And I could never understand some of my friends who are, were, made to practise and if they didn't they would be in trouble, and I thought how ... how very funny ... [laughs]...
But that wasn't how you'd felt about your schoolwork, so what was the difference?
Oh, oh, that was ... oh, that was a ... very different.
Could you tell me what the difference was?
I'll try and put it simply, but one such as mathematics — maths one and two as they were called — they didn't interest me, and very few things ... didn't interest me, but they ... they didn't and I think that it followed in a line because ... nothing like that happened after I left school. I didn't have to be in at 9 o'clock or 8:30 or whatever, I didn't have to go and sit at a desk, I had my golf dates fixed, and I had my lessons and my, ha ha, my hourly worksheets for study of the violin or the singing, both subjects I loved, and for me there was a very ... it was as like black and white. The black was having to go to that desk and sit there all day and study things that I wasn't very keen on, as I say, I loved geography and I loved history, and I think that's about the full stop.
And so once you were doing music and golf, you could never be found in a swimming pool escaping what you had to do — you were there on time and ready to go?
Absolutely ... [laughs] ... Yes.
So what happened if you got a golfing engagement and at the same time you were asked to do something with your music ... how ...[interruption] would you sort that out?
... Oh no, there was no conflict there at all fortunately because golf's always in the daytime and daylight, and most of the singing engagements were at night. Mind you, I did have one big conflict later on, but I won't jump ahead now. We're progressing very slowly with my life aren't we?
Yes, you can jump ahead, what happened when you had a conflict?
Well, are you sure now because it's a ...
I was singing with the Carl Rosa [Opera] Company during the war within ... World War Two. I was in Manchester, and the British Open was on, being played over at Liverpool at Royal Lytham St Annes, and I had weeks before, of course, put in my entrance because my fellow golfers at the club that I belonged to in England, Bakersfield, they said, 'Oh you must go in for this, Joan, have a - have a crack you know,' you know my handicap, everything was legal, and I was still playing quite good golf. And I was tempted so I did. I filled in the form, put it in, paid my fees and the time came for the draw to come out, and it was fairly early in the morning, yes it was, because ... I didn't realise — many things I didn't realise but this was a very important thing I didn't realise — that in championships in Europe they played two rounds a day, and we don't here, or we didn't, we just played the one, and I'd never thought of that of course, and who was I drawn against but the USA champ Louise Suggs, in the first round. So I had a performance that night ... [interruption] ...
Did golf and music ever come into conflict for you?
I expect so, but not much, no. Really not at all in my youth when I was playing a lot of golf because I played in the daytime, and I had my music at night.
... [laughs] ... Yes, I had boundless energy obviously. And never thought really that I could be tired, I think that thought didn't reach me ‘til many years later. It's reaching me now.
Maybe you've a right to get tired occasionally now. So in the course of your life, these various interests, you were able to maintain them all ... and did you ever find a situation in which you were committed to one and it created a problem for the other?
Yes, yes, out at that wonderful course in from Liverpool, Royal Lytham St Annes, the British Open was on, and I was playing a lot. I was playing for the Buckinghamshire team, this is ... I'm never good on dates but around about in ... in the ‘60s, I think, about that time, and ... or late ‘50s oh it doesn't ... it's not important, but the thing, the thing was that I did have this conflict on one occasion when ... I was talked into entering the British Open because I had kept my golf going, and I was on a low handicap still, so I felt, yes, I was very tempted and I thought I'd love to play in the British Open. It used to be one of my dreams, so I felt this is the moment. I filled out the form and sent it in, my fees etc, then the draw came out and I realised for the first time when I saw the draw that they played 36 holes a day. That was on land mainly because we only played 18, and there I was booked to sing Tosca I think in Manchester, with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, and my golfing fun was way over at Liverpool, not that far really on the map but knowing I had two ... a performance that night, and two rounds if I got through the first round, it was rather shattering, and I realised that I had to go through with it, I couldn't withdraw with the ... you see, when I also got my opera dates, I didn't realise that the two were going to clash, so over I went, and I was drawn against the champion of the USA, a very very sweet person Louise Suggs, and we started off and I couldn't ... the hole was like a bucket, every blessed putt I hit went in, and the ... that was extraordinary as you know ... can imagine. Ha, and Louise was two down at the ninth, ha ha, I was two up and we had a giggle, and my great friend Lolita Marriott, really, it was then that she came to me at the ninth hole and told me that if I ... I've told you this back-to-front because I didn't know that they played the 36, that's right, I'm sorry ...
And you discovered this at the ninth hole?
I ... yes, she came and told me that if I won my match then, I would have to stay on and play in the afternoon, and that I couldn't ... I could not possibly have got back to Manchester in time, because the performances were all very early after the war. You know, they used to start at a reasonable time like 8pm before the war, but after the war it was anything from 6 o'clock that a performance would begin and it just depended on the city that you were in. Anyhow, she told me that and then I still say to this day it would have made no difference, Louise would have beaten me anyhow, but of course I did have this on my mind, and the hole was no longer looking like a bucket to me ... [laughs] ... but the game changed anyhow, Louise won, and she eventually won the championship so it was a great experience, I enjoyed it and I'd made that silly error.
And Louise has always been grateful to Tosca?
... [laughs] ... Oh ho, oh we had a good laugh about it and ... I've always upheld that I would never've won it anyhow, of that I'm sure, I would have cracked up later — sooner or later. But I ... [laughs] ... I had one big conflict that day.
Going back to the beginning of your career, back there in Sydney, what was it that really, do you think, made the difference for you in giving you an opportunity to develop as a world-class singer?
I had a wonderful fairy godmother — it's the only way I can describe Lady Gowrie, who was at that time Lady Hore-Ruthven, the wife of the Governor of New South Wales. This ... I feel that I'm boring anybody that's going to listen to this program because everybody now must know this story, that her ... to me, I seem to have said it time and again, naturally, because it was the big opportunity, the most wonderful opportunity that could have happened. I used to wonder what going overseas ... I'd only been to New Zealand with the golf team, that was the very first golf team that ever travelled outside of this country, I was in that. The baby of the team, and ... I naturally used to wonder what it would be like to go abroad, then ... there were only flitting things that just flew in and out of my mind at the time, I was so busy with all the other things, that I was having flirtations with: my golf, my singing my ... [laughs] ... my everything, and my writing and ...
... Lady Gowrie was at an afternoon soiree and ... she said that she was sitting on a very hot day and she could hear the bees and the flies and the everything humming around, and she was almost dozing off to sleep during the concert that was being put on for her ... she told it in such a fascinating way, I can't repeat it in the same manner, but she suddenly heard a voice ... and she described it as a peerless voice, and she said, ‘I woke up immediately, and looked down at the stage and saw this young girl.’ I went off having done my little bit, and I was very unhappy backstage because they ... the committee had not wanted me to be on the program as I was very young, I was not professional, and they had booked professional singers to give a program because of the magnitude of the occasion, having the Governor's wife there ...
So how had you got on the program?
Well this was ... I was pushed on it by someone that always played for me in Sydney, a Miss Lute Drummond — she always was Miss Drummond to me — she was at the committee meeting when they were deciding who should be on, and she thought, ‘this is an opening for this young girl, Joan, whom I play for,’ and she spoke up and put my name in and of course she was told no, not a hope. She went on pushing and someone else supported her. And in the end the committee decided that they'd let me go on and just do one little group in the first part of the program. Somewhere towards the end of it, coming up, and — of the first half I mean — so I went off, hurried off, picked up my bag, because the other singers had shown me all too clearly that I was not one of them, and that I shouldn't have been there, and I was very sensitive, I couldn't have mistaken their looks and their behaviour, and I stuffed my music in a very funny little bag I had, and off I went. As I was going out of the door, a lady came in, a lady came running up to me and she said, 'Oh umm Joan, they'd like you to sing again. Will you go back?' and I, of course, I didn't know what to say, and I said yes, yes, and back I went, and they said the request is also would you sing again The Green Hills o’ Somerset.
Which I see is on your piano ...
Ha, that's by accident, not by ... well, I won't tell you how.
And so you sang The Green Hills o’ Somerset again.
Yes, I repeated it. Then after I'd finished the second time, I knew — I sang something else, I can't remember what it was, but I received a note asking me to go to Government House on a certain date, and this was the opening because Lady Gowrie, Lady Hore-Ruthven then, had expressed the wish there and then on that very day that this girl — to find out what her circumstances were and whether she could afford to go abroad, or what could happen — she was determined that I should be given a chance to be sent overseas to study.
She was so struck with my voice, and that was my big opening. And then she put all her feelers out and worked and of all ... things the golfers came in once she had expressed the wish. Because they didn't know, oh you know, that I was the singer, and everything was done for her, I knew it wasn't for me, of course not. But she was the one and it was she who wanted to see this thing through, and she knew that she could manipulate it, I think, from her position which was also very true, and she got the golfers interested, and they put on competitions some of them went in, and to get money in, and money began to go into this fund for me to send me abroad. It seems a trifling sum now, but it was a great deal of money in those days, a relative ...
... I think it was about 10 thousand.
Hmmm, so in those days there was really no way in which you could have advanced your career without going abroad, was there?
It was the only way out, and everybody knew that?
Yes. Oh yes.
So they rallied behind you and they got this money together, and the golfers lost their golfer though by supporting you as a singer?
Yes I ... I was told I was a very silly girl, to think of giving golf away, and at a stage when I was at the top on the lowest handicap and in Australia ... and I always remember Mr EJ Tate of JC Williamson’s, because he had asked me to play in a mixed foursome with him, and he wasn't a good golfer but he thought he'd like to play with this young kid, you know, heh heh. So I played in a mixed foursome with him, and after that he ... took me aside and he said, ‘You know, Joan, I've been in the theatre world for a long time’ — he was then pretty old, I suppose he was probably younger than I am now, but he seemed very old to me then — and he said, 'You're making a great mistake, going overseas and with this fund being got for you, you should stay here, you should be playing your golf,' he said, 'It's a much much better ... place for you.' But then there was no professionalism in golf in those days, it was all amateur, and I was wanting a career, a profession anyhow. Apart from my absolute determination and love of singing, I had to make a profession and I wasn't happy doing anything but singing by then, so I said yes, and I appreciated their ... his kind words etcetera, I said I'd think about it, but of course I ... there wasn't a doubt in my mind what I was going to do, but I thought it was very kind of him and he gave me a few inklings about the professional world because he knew I was a ... was as naive as could possibly be, and I suppose he saw all kinds of terrible things that would happen or could happen to me in the career that I was choosing. Later on I realised what he ... what he meant and what he was hinting at, but I didn't at that time, and again I say it wouldn't have made any difference.
Where did you go to study in Europe?
Vienna. Went from Sydney to Vienna.
... [The year] 1936, there you are, my maths is not that bad. Someone's sure to correct me and say ... [laughs] ... it was not but it was, 1936.
And how was Vienna, how did you choose Viennas your destination?
I didn't choose it, it was chosen for me. The Vienna Boys’ Choir was out here at that period, the director was having interviews naturally with everybody in Sydney to do with the musical world, and I think the committee that had been formed to ... to look after this trust for me, and the fund and organise it all, thought it would be a good idea to have a word with him, which happened and then they decided with Lady Hore-Ruthven's permission, because she was still the one in charge of everything, that it would ... would've ... would be a good idea perhaps to go straight there. Many didn't want that because they had the idea in those days that the German voices were heavy, and all manner of things which they were thinking for my sake of course. Some wanted me to go to Italy and some I think to England and anyhow it was settled and I went to Vienna, and it was also settled to, help my finances, that I went and lived with the Boys’ Choir up on the mountain behind Vienna, a very lovely position. It was one of Prince Rudolph’s old hunting places, had only one bathroom in it ... [laughs] ...
How did a girl ... from Australia ... get on with only one bathroom?
And the bath, the bath ... ohhh again, I ... this is a story that I ... I think I've told and told because it was a nightmare for me. The very first day, I was shown in and it looked lovely when I saw the two big rooms that I was allocated, and I thought there's a bathroom and toilet, everything there. Not at all. There was no bath or shower, no toilet, it was just a little washroom and I thought, how funny, you know ... and I went looking for them and of course couldn't find them, so I had to ask the rector where could I find the bathroom, and naturally would find the toilet, but I had to go to a strange place for the toilet because the little boys — it was all boys there, you see.
... I was the only girl, but there was a countess living there, and the countess had the prince's rooms which were very beautifully set up, and a huge lovely bathroom, but that was the only bathroom in that house. I don't know how the boys washed, they were down in the basement ... [interruption] ...
No, maybe they didn't ... [laughs] ... well, this rector certainly got a shock when I said I must have a shower every day ... [laughs] ... I think his face'll change colour and he didn't know what to say at first, and then he said I have to have a word with the Gräfin Kinsky, and I ... of course, the Gräfin Kinsky, but I soon got to know her.
She was a charming charming person, and she used to help me with my German, she'd go around, we'd sit in the garden and she'd talk to ... with me all the time, and naturally I got to pick up the language much quicker, and she gave permission for me .. [laughs] ...to go and use the bath.
So you got your bath ... [interruption] ...
... Not really — not every day though.
What about your musical education ... what about your singing?
Well, I ... [Robin continues] ...
Did it turn out to have been a good place for you to go, Vienna?
... Again, that was fate, I mean there I was, the castle was wonderful because I had plenty of room to practise and the ... the director of the boys, he played for me, and I did a lot of work ... learnt a lot of Lieder and did a tremendous amount of ... work up there with him, because I had the time, but ... going to a teacher was very difficult because I had to go into Vienna, and I'd only ever had one teacher, that was at the Conservatorium in Sydney, see he did me no harm, in fact he ... it was just ideal because he neither did me any harm nor did I progress much, but the voice went on naturally, and I think he realised that if he did start tampering with it, [it] could possibly spoil something. Then they took me into Vienna, and I had to go by tram, which took 40 ... 40 minutes into the heart of the city, and from there — which was opposite the Opera House — I had to leave the tram there, and walk right down a street called the Kartnerstrasse, right down to the river, and go over to what was called the second district, and that's where this teacher was that the rector fixed up for me, and of course I didn't know whether she was good, bad or indifferent. She wasn't very good but she was a very sweet person, and that's when it makes it hard, when you know you're not progressing, and you've got to go on.
So you knew enough to know you weren't progressing?
Oh yes, oh yes.
How was that so — because you really hadn't had a great deal of exposure to anything that would have given you a standard to judge by?
No, no. I was very lucky because ... and I've always said, since, 'nature is the best guide of all,’ and I knew that if my ... muscles were aching, that something was wrong. And I was not singing correctly. And I sometimes ... after a lesson I'd find I had aching muscles, and I thought this is not ... no good. And I did most of it on my own. That was quite a time for me because when it became winter, I only had the thinnest of clothes, and the people in charge of me, here, sort of had no idea what winter meant in Europe, of course I didn't ... but I ... you'd think some of the older people did, and would have advised ... sent me off with some warm clothes. And I was wearing thin-soled shoes, my ... I kept little accounts — this is where my great mathematical brain was overused — I made a note of everything I spent every day ... the fares and my having my shoes soled, that was my most expensive item, having my shoes soled, because I walked everywhere. I couldn't naturally walk the tram journey, but I walked always from the Opera House right down across the river, which was quite some walk there and back. And ... my shoes just ... the cobblestones, that was another thing they weren't accustomed to, cobblestones, and the walk from the tram at the other end, up to the castle Wilhelminenberg - it was a long, long 20 minutes.
Having patrons who are paying for you and supporting you, to whom you must be grateful, must be a bit of a mixed blessing. Did you find it so? Were you conscious of the fact of being, as it were, accountable for everything to these women back in Sydney?
I never thought of them as women back in Sydney. I didn't think of anything like that at all, it's strange. I just thought, I am accountable, I must be accountable for all that I spend, and keep a record of everything that I spend, that I knew I had to do, and it was one of the first things I bought myself before I left Sydney was a little book with the pounds, shillings and pence, you know, what do you call them? Anyhow ... [interruption] ... you know what I mean.
Little account book. Yes, yes.
... to make a note of things, and so I really, all I did, I had the one person that I kept in touch with who was put in charge of that committee, and in charge of what I was doing, and she was the ... one of the top golfers and ... one of the leading, you might say, of our ladies’ golfing union. She was very high up in that, and I used to write and tell her what I was doing, what I ... and if I wanted something special, to buy a score or anything, what it was going to cost, and the money, and she would write back and ... the day came when I wrote and said I ... I had to have a fur coat. Well you can imagine what exploded back here in Sydney when they heard that Joan, little Joan, was wanting a fur coat. They envisaged a mink, a sable, you know, oh ...
No, but all the ... all the winter coats in Europe are furs, every one of them. If they're not outside it, the lining is a fur, because it's the only thing in those wintry ... and they're calf fur ... everything, the cheapest, I mean, the cheapest coat of all has a fur inside it in the winter there, and ... mine was no ... no different, I mean, it would have been cheaper than my winter coat back here. But of course I didn't think of saying, well, look it ... it's only going to cost me so much, and it's the fur is in the lining or ... it wasn't a lining it was some ... a cow or calf or some ... I don't know, whatever they ...
Yes, yes. But you could ... but they didn't appreciate this. So did you ... [interruption] end up getting a coat or did you stay cold?
... No, they thought I ... they thought I was, you know, playing the prima donna, which I also didn't know what that meant at that stage. I'd heard the expression but I never thought of it in connection with myself, and you can imagine the heads wagging and saying she must think she's bigger than she is the ... [laughs] ... wanting a fur coat. I heard all this when I came back of course in 19 ... 46, I got the full strength of what went on and how they'd said how dreadful ... wasting the money that had been put in the fund for me to learn how to sing, to me wanting a fur coat at that stage. But I was, I suppose, the coldest person there who ever existed at that stage, and it made a big difference to my health later on, because I got cold after cold. I used to arrive up at the castle with my feet soaking wet because I didn't have boots.
... So did you ever get your warm clothes?
Oh, I got a warm coat in the ... in the end I had to.
... I also ... because I didn't know about warm underwear. You see you don't think of those things out here, naturally. I mean, our youngsters going abroad now must always think of the winter over there, it's very severe.
So what happened when you decided that your singing teacher wasn't quite up to scratch?
I had to make that decision of saying that I was not having any more ... lessons because of the cost. And ...
No, oh well ... I did eventually, but I didn't go to one in Vienna. It was very hard, but I knew that I had to do it, and I can understand how students come up against this when they become attached to a teacher and they know that teacher is not ... really doing anything for the voice, and that they're not making the slightest bit of progress. And many of them fail and cannot ... haven't got the strength of character to say ‘I've got to change’.
... but you found that strength of character, and you did say that you would stop lessons?
... Yes, oh yes. Oh, I couldn't see any other way, I had to do it. I knew she was very upset, and I explained and I said I'm not going to anyone for a while, I'll just have to wait and see what I can do.
But in the meantime, it wasn't just the weather that was going cold in Vienna, because this was the period of the rise of the Nazis and the Anschluss in Austria.
That had already really begun before I arrived in Vienna, as I discovered later on from the boys at the castle, once I could begin to converse with them. I went around with my little dictionary, just as one of the senior boys did, and we used to quickly, you know, thumb through for the words we were wanting, and I didn't know ... I ... just as I was naive about so many things, I was about politics. I wasn't interested in politics, not a scrap, and this was going on really under my nose for a long time, until I realised that many of the boys there that I was talking to were all Nazis. That I ...
Well, because it was a growing concern in Vienna, Nazism, and it wasn't openly discussed, but the boys used to talk about it, and they would ... the question of the Jews kept coming up and you see my ... the teacher that I was learning from, this second district as they called it, was what was known as a Jewish district, and she was of course a Jewess, and I didn't ... I mean, that fact never occurred to me, and still wouldn't if I were there and wanted to go to a teacher, but I realised later on how involved they all were, and I'd just been going blithely along, getting on with what I wanted to get on with, which was studying roles, going to opera performances, and learning all that I could learn. And so this sort of idea of politics didn't hit me until nearer the time when Hitler did come to Vienna on one occasion, and while I was there, and it was all this ... I was just told, as I was in Florence, when he and Mussolini met there, I was ... I had the same thing happen only that was later, and ... those ... the full thing didn't really hit me because I wasn't interested.
... that was again ...
You describe the girl who went over to Viennas very naive ... it was a very strange time for a politically naive girl to find herself in Vienna. What did you make of the Nazis? Did you have any contact with them?
Oh, I must have had so much contact with so many without even knowing. I couldn't at first, of course ... no-one could tell who was and who was not. I did realise when my singing teacher though ... there in Vienna she had a son and daughter, an extremely nice family who were all very nice, and the boy, Karl, well he was a young man, he ... did on occasions when I was talking to them after my lesson, just before leaving ... if he were coming in ... he was in army uniform, and I didn't realise that he was what they called a mischling, he was half-Jew, half-Christian. But he was so anti-Jewish. That was my first sort of realisation of how they felt, and how vehement they could be.
Was this self-protection for him?
I don't know, it could have been, because the mischlings were caught up in the knit when the Nazis eventually came in and took over Vienna. There was no difference, they were just the same as a Jew as far as the ...
Did you ever find out what happened to Karl?
Well I ... first of all, I'll just say that he used to complain about the family upstairs, the noise they used to make, and they were very solid homes there and that ... everybody could practise ... this was what was really wonderful in Vienna in those ... they were all flats, nearly all flats that they lived in, but big, big flats and very thick walls, so I would be having a lesson there on the third floor and ... possibly down underneath was a cellist or something else. The ... the flats were all used as the working places as well as their homes, and Karl would ... go mad at times about this family up above, saying that they're ... they were 'Juden,’ they're Jewish and all ... it was foreign to me, it was ...
What did you think of it, what did you feel about it?
I find ... I thought he was a bit peculiar, quite frankly, I didn't understand what ... why, why the Jew, why why was he making such a fuss ... about a Jew and a Jewish family. Again, of course, it was my naivety that led me into all these nice thoughts that there's some ... that it couldn't be what I was thinking, that they couldn't really be so anti anything or anyone. Then ... I left the mother, of course, and eventually I didn't hear any more, the ... oh, the Anschluss, the coming into Vienna took place and, as you all probably know, that the famous Kartnerstrasse the next day almost ... they had to put outside in Jewish, Yiddish, that their shop was Jewish-owned, and nearly every shop of course in that particular street was under Jewish control. It took place so quickly ... and the changeabout. The only thing I noticed was in the coffee house that I used to go to — for just a cup of coffee that didn't cost me very much I could read the daily papers because they were all there ... [laughs] ... you had ... I got them for nothing in other words if I had ... sat there and had my coffee and read a few papers while I was at it, and this changed for ... because again that was Jewish-owned — and the couple of weeks later when I went into my old haunt, it was ... there was no nice lazy atmosphere about it at all, everything was very brisk and, you know, you had your coffee and that was that, and there was no sitting and reading a paper then, the lazy life had vanished, I think, almost overnight.
But ... when I went back in 1946 ... I suppose I was one of the first to go back to sing in Vienna, of the foreigners, and ... one of the first things I did was to walk down and go over the bridge and ... but the building that they had lived in had been destroyed. I couldn't find anybody that had [met] or knew anything about them, until I met a — quite by accident in the street in Vienna — another student that used to go to this lady, and I asked her did she know anything that had happened to the family, and Karl and Maria, the son and daughter. And she was able to tell me that Maria and her mother had gone to Salzburg, but she had a feeling that the mother had died. Maria was still there. And Karl, of course, she didn't know what had happened to him, because she thought he was in the army but whether he was or what happened I wouldn't know. So I really lost all contact with them.
... [question repeated] ... Did you ever hear Hitler speak?
Oh yes. I certainly did, much to my chagrin. I can say that very honestly because when I was then singing with the opera company it was put on the noticeboard, what they call a 'generalprobe', which is a general rehearsal, and everybody but everybody in and to do with the opera company had to attend and we all sat in the auditorium, anywhere you know, we just sat anywhere, and I can remember there were three Norwegians and myself, and a Greek, I think a couple of ... Yugoslavs. We were the foreigners with the company and I was about in the eighth row back in the stalls, and one of our conductors was sitting along from me, and it came on the screen. And there was Hitler delivering his speech that we all had to listen to, whether we were of Austrian, German, Australian, Yugoslav or what, we had to be there, we had to be present.
Oh I ... I thought he was mad, I mean, he used to ... his voice would go rising up here and then one way and his hands would go up and then he'd drop it down and he had a funny voice really to me. It was a very peculiar little voice.
Was your view shared by your other ... friends?
Oh no, I don't think so, all the locals you know ... the Norwegians ... the couple of Norwegian girls they, I think, were with me, not that we could express anything or say anything or do anything, but they didn't go mad like ... as the others did, and I was very surprised to see this conductor getting so excited, and they were all sitting on the edge of their ... the seats there, and looking at this face on the screen, with absolute — it was ... just as though he was an idol, a god, and they all obviously felt this. But I thought the ... he ... at that time he was raving too about Chamberlain and the British, and of course that's when I wanted to sink down, I'd say 'God listen to that', lower in my seat, and oh he ... really raved on about it. And the whole thing was, they were all looking in to ... see what my reaction was, looking along the ... the row, ha, and I never like attention in that sense. I'd never minded being on stage and everybody looking at ... that was different, but in my personal life I always just wanted to be seen but not seen.
Did you feel the danger of the situation?
No, no. I didn't at all.
So you just felt embarrassment, not danger?
Oh, when they [the Nazis] came in, all we were asked to do was to wear a little British flag on our lapel, that the consulate handed out to us. We had to wear that, and ... it was all so quick, the night they sort of walked in and took over, it ... you might say it was like an organised rehearsal and a performance taking place. It was so well-organised and so ... you know, everything very military, and even the ... I mean, the next day the difference was so noticeable because it, as you know, there was ... not a shot was fired, nothing happened in that way at all, it was just a change. The whole city took on a different atmosphere, different mood — they couldn't change the people overnight but there must have been a lot of gnashing of teeth and weeping, I should imagine, in many many homes after that event. No I wasn't ... I had no fear whatsoever.
Oh yes. Hmm. One of the most important things of all ... I ... [laughs] ... I was just beginning to wonder what did make me leave. Of course, I had a very important engagement — two, three in fact — offered to me in London, because when I'd gone over for a holiday that, again, my fairy godmother Lady Gowrie had arranged that I should go to London, for the coronation, and she wanted me to be there for that so she had separate little ... bit of money put aside to pay for my fare and I was given accommodation in London. I was there for that and while I was there I auditioned and I sang for the ... I gave an audition for Sir Thomas Beecham ... and [Stanford] Robinson on the BBC ... and, as a result of my audition with Sir Thomas, he had sent me, through an agent in London, a contract for the Messiah, to sing the soprano solo in the Messiah. There was that and the BBC booked me for I Pagliacci and I'd sung I PagliaccIn Vienna — in German of course, everything I had to learn in German — but they offered me the contract if I would sing it in English when I came over, and I of course I did; that was my first opera in English you might say. But ... when the time came in '39 for the Promenade [Concert] — that's the opening of the promenade season in London — Sir Henry Wood, he booked me on hearing me. It was rather ... I often thought, I don't know how but, I ... I was, yes, a good musician, I did know my work, and I had the voice, and I think these things combined must have been really the reason that I was booked ... I didn't think at the time, I just thought oh lovely, I'm booked, wonderful.
But it was a bit extraordinary, this girl who hadn't really had any very good training up to this point, was never-the-less being booked for the very best engagements?
And so you went across for the Proms in ...
... for the Proms ...
I had no ... now, this is the other funny thing, well funny, it's actually very serious, because ... I had not thought of war or the imminence of war because I was reading the Austrian papers, and naturally if ... perhaps I got the Manchester Guardian or something that I used to be able to read on occasions, I could never afford to buy it, but if I saw a copy somewhere in a coffee house I'd look at it. But if I had been reading my own country's papers I would have known that things ... [interruption] ... were very serious.
The British ... The British Embassy didn't do anything to suggest that you might get out?
Oh no, no. No no no.
Right. So you were back in London for the Proms, so why didn't you go back to Vienna then if you had no sense of danger?
I couldn't ... I'll tell you why. When I had arrived in London, I went to the rehearsal and I heard all the chat going on, of course, about war and what was happening, and my ears were ... antennae were really on the TV ... because I had no idea of the situation. None whatsoever, and I was so sort of brought up ... like pulling a horse up at a gate or a water jump. I suddenly realised what was happening, and my things, my few things that I possessed in those days, were in Vienna, and here was I in London.
I hope you had your fur coat with you.
... [laughs] ... I can't remember ... [laughs] ... And this extraordinary thing about to burst. Then I had a cable from Lady Gowrie who again said don't go back to Vienna
So, in retrospect, given how naive you were, it was just as well you had a fairy godmother?
Oh, in so many ways and right throughout my career, she was always behind me. Wonderful.
So back there in Australia, she was able to work out better than you could on the spot?
Oh yes. Oh well, so were the ... I mean people ... I had not, well, I didn't know that many people of course in London then, and everybody there, that I mean ... the whole ... everybody's conversation was about what was going to happen, the inevitability of war. In the ... that became so and I realised that I would have to think seriously. I would have been interned of course if I'd been in Vienna. So ...
... there's ... there's another extraordinary thing. My career would have gone in quite another way if I had remained in Vienna. I would have been a, more or less a Viennese singer, and not coming through the sort of British avenues at all.
I would never have made O My Beloved Father if I'd been stuck in Vienna. There was so many things, so many ifs that ... I just think, no, therefore, that's the pattern. That's what's going to happen, so ... I really never struggled or to go against what took me this way or that way. Though I seemed to realise that there were forces working that I had nothing to do with and I just had to go that way or that way, according to what was put down.
So what then happened? During the war you spent the whole of the war years in England?
And what happened then? What ... did you participate in the war? What was your contribution to the war effort?
My contribution? I began ... I tried to join the WRANS [Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service] first. That ... that's the Women's Royal Navy because of my love of the sea and yachting but, believe it or not, I had what was called ... not a defect ... my arm.
Disability. And they never took on anybody that had a disability. Mind you, towards the end of the war, they would have taken any or all of us on who had disabilities or no disabilities, but at that stage that was the ruling and I remember a very very sweet person that I was interviewed by saying, well, perhaps it's just as well, you can get on with your singing. Like that. Well of course with the singing everything stopped. The theatres were closed, no ... nothing, nothing in the world of entertainment was going on at all, once the war was declared that ... all my ... I had contracts for the — which I was very thrilled about — Three Choirs Festival, and I had quite a lot of small engagements, but good ones, and that was one of the plums, they were all cancelled.
What about entertaining the troops?
That came later ... after about ... I suppose ... in what we call that first year where everything was sort of, nothing happened, it was ... they had a special term for that year of the war when the Canadians, the Australians, they were all arriving in England, the troops, and there was no war going on for them you know, so ...
So the first big thing that started up was ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association] ... and ENSA — that was the organisation for entertaining the troops — after ENSA there was another one that I ... worked for ... this, well it'll come later, anyhow they started doing concerts ... in the most incredible places, in ... I can see this big block of flats down by the Thames, and there was the cellars and the underground ... the basement, right, I mean if a bomb had hit it, it would have been like a pack of cards coming in on us, these shelters, air-raid shelters they were called with sacks of sand, you know, piled up and it was all so rushed and nothing really would have saved us, of course, but there we entertained some troops and we were ... went out to gun sites, all very ... [laughs] .. .I won't say ...
Not a good environment to sing in?
No, not at all.
And everybody was so happy because there was no fighting and nobody really thought of bombing then. That hadn't begun, but we were just ... it seemed a sort of farcical situation really and I was asked to sing Roll Out the Barrel and of course I wouldn't, and I said I haven't been trained for that, ha ha.
Oh dear, as though it mattered. But ...
You need a lot of training to sing Roll Out the Barrel.
... [laughs] ... I said I can sing it — but I won't. The ...
But later of course you did get a full ... great opportunity to use your craft?
Oh heavens, yes.
Once the war began in seriousness, and I mean we were being bombed and everything, sudden ... everything changed. The theatres began to open, opera was one of the few things that didn't get going until about 194 ... not a ... not just Covent Garden, that became the mecca, the big mecca coffee place, and it was used for everything but singing and opera. It didn't return really until about '46, '47, ‘til it was used again for opera. But the Carl Rosa [Opera Company] started up, and that's how I first got back into singing what I would normally be doing, opera. And they were the ... it was the only company and it went on tour, it was wonderful really what they did.
And you also began recording, didn't you?
Well, that happened in 1942, I think, '41 ... I auditioned for that again ... there was a New Zealand bass called Oscar Natzka, he had a lovely voice, and Oscar though ... you know the New Zealanders and the Australians, we used to meet in Australia House sometimes and in odd places, and Oscar said, 'Joan, you must go and audition for EMI' and I didn't know what even EMI stood for then. He said, 'You know, Parlophone,' he'd just auditioned for Parlophone, and His Master's Voice, and Columbia. I said, 'Oh yes,’ and so I applied and I went and auditioned, and I was turned down. When I was turned down by the man to do with classical, a man called Oscar Preuss on the EMI was also present, and ... he afterwards said, 'I was very glad when Walter Legge turned you down,' he said, 'because I've got a contract for you with Columbia' and ... I was ... there you are, one of those things. And this came off and so ... Legge was then instructed later on, once I'd come out on Columbia, having a big success, and he had to have me under the classical, and it was a very interesting period. So ...
What did you record for Columbia? Was that where you did ... O My Beloved Daddy?
No no. No, that came later. I think my first one was ... Green Hills I think was one ....
... The Green Hills o’ Somerset.
... And I've ... oh ... if my mathematical brain's not working neither is my other side ... [laughs] ...
That's alright, it doesn't matter, so when ... so later you did O My Beloved Daddy?
That was the first aria, yes.
... when I had an operatic side come out, and again my ... Walter Legge was the one I had to deal with for that.
And he didn't want this little O My Beloved Father; the selling side was going to be Love and Music from Tosca, that had been settled, that was the record, and that was what was going to sell the record was Love and Music, but we had to find another short one. I'd already got the three shortest, the last act [of] La Boheme, and there was one other but it all the Puccini arias and they were never very long, but we wanted the shortest to go on the other side of this. And I kept on saying this Gianni Schicchi, and what did he have against it, but he thought it was no ... it was even too small a thing, and not known enough to even go on the flip side as they called it then ... Anyhow, it got nearer the time of the recording session, and the conductor was quite happy to have the O My Belovedand we still couldn't get Mr Legge's approval, and so it went on, and then in the end he had to because ... time beat him anyhow, and so it was ... it was just more or less put on against the will of one of the directors.
Why do you think it was such a phenomenal success? It really was an amazing success, wasn't it?
Yes, it was, yes. I ... you see, it was given to fathers ... and the daughters and the sons would make presents of this to their father ... became a sort of family thing, and I can only think of the words because I had to sing it in English. Everything, by the way, during the war years had to be sung in English. Everything. And remember for me that wasn't that easy because I'd had to learn everything in German, all the ... my repertoire there, everything: Tosca, Butterfly, Boheme, whatever I sang all was in German, so I was now in the period of getting them in English and I was always very keen on diction, clear diction. I think this had a bearing also ... that the words, they could follow the words, and the words sank in, perhaps my interpretation, all had ... anyhow, poor Tosca was not the happy side ... you might be interested to hear that during a performance of mine at Covent Garden of Tosca, that after the Love and Music, the aria, a voice came after the applause was dying down, shouted from the ... one of the galleries, 'And now let's have the other side of the record!' — ha!, meaning O my beloved.
Oh it was ... everybody laughed of course, the audience burst out laughing it was so funny. Yes. In the middle of the opera.
Did you have a great sense at this time of being very much loved by the audience?
I was getting it. In the concerts that I was doing around the place, I knew then that I was gathering a following. You can ...
What does ... [interruption] ...
You have a feel, a rapport, somehow with an audience, and I always knew when it was going to be tough for they ... were not taking to me in foreign places when I was about to sing, I could sense it, you sense it when you go on stage and you first bow to them, and then on the other occasions, in fact everywhere in the British Isles, I always knew I had this wonderful warm applause, and I knew that I had that love then, but in a lot of other places I had to make it, I had to earn it, before they acknowledged that I could sing.
Where they ... where I was not known, you know, or perhaps known through my recordings but ...
What does it feel like to have the whole audience rise up in a standing ovation? What are the feelings of the singer when that happens? What were your feelings?
I can ... the ... yes, I was just ... about to say I can only speak for myself here. It may sound strange but I hardly ever realised then the ... the great noise of the audience clapping. I really, I stood there and acknowledged it, but I didn't realise the depth and the sound of that applause. Just as on one occasion in Liverpool when with Sir Malcolm Sargent I'd finished singing the Elgar, oh it was on the 11th of November, a special concert for that date, and the armistice, the memory of it all, the For the Fallen was the Elgar piece that I did before we did the Verdi Requiem — that was just for soprano and orchestra — and when I'd finished and Sargent's baton was still, there wasn't a sound, it's the only time that I've had that feeling where there was no applause, absolutely nothing, still ... so still. No-one moved, and then suddenly they all jumped up. That was the ... one of the most amazing things that happened to me in my career, because it was quite amazing, the ... as a rule when the conductor finishes and that's the end of whatever it is we're doing, applause comes immediately, but on this occasion there was that ... to us it seemed like minutes but of course it wasn't.
What sort of emotions did you feel ... is it feel? Is it very emotional when you stand on stage?
That was very emotional, yes. And so it is when the audience stand up and come right down to the stage. Right down to you. Hmm. And I think I ... underneath my bravado I was always saying thank you anyhow as I bowed, but I think I was very thankful about so many things.
No, I think I could quite honestly say no. I went through a period when I wasn't very happy with myself and I thought I was better than I was, but I knew that I was going down the wrong route, and I ... pulled myself up in time.
That was soon after the war, I think, when ... everything was a bit ...
Things really took off for you?
Hmmm. And don't forget the rationing was still going on, went on for many years after the war, in England. I think it was readjusting, and I think I got a ... a bit swollen in the head, but thank God that I realised it, and knew that I must ... it was so foreign to me anyhow, my behaviour, and I just took stock and thought no, you're not ... this is not you.
Well, of course a lot of people assume that's how prima donnas are going to be. Don't they?
Do you know I put it down to the fact that I was insecure, and I think that was the entire secret behind my behaviour. I was insecure because I wasn't very happy with my voice. I wasn't happy with the way I was singing, and ... I realised that the war years, and what I ... the strain, the emotional strain, and the nights of the bombing when ... I must admit I was pretty frightened on many occasions, I think it all ... it was taking its toll and .. I was trying to get myself back and my voice was not ... because I wasn't eating as I used to eat, we didn't get the butter, and you know in Germany and Russia, singers were on the hard ... the labourers’ rations, they got the full rations, but of course we didn't. But they were as ... a hard ... a worker was on full, what they called full, rations — only the army and the services and people doing hard, hard work were on full ration in Britain, but we were just the same as you or anybody else who were not singing. Nobody took into account what singing does and how much energy ... energy it takes. And I think all that because I did ... for you ... I ... soon after, I think putting it all together, that's what happened.
Yes, and that was the insecurity of my work. My voice ...
... And so your behaviour became more assertive and got a touch arrogant, but it was really because inside you felt the opposite?
In trying to cover up.
During the war you didn't just sing, did you? You made other contributions to the war effort, you were an ambulance driver at one stage?
Oh, I'd joined the ambulance when there was nothing happening straight away and ... I didn't do anything either. I was first in Clerkenwell, near Saddler’s Wells there, then I was stationed down at ... in the East End, and then I saw another side of life that I didn't think existed. I learnt a lot in that time with the ambulance.
Well, I saw a side of life that I had never known existed, for instance, I ... had to go to one call where there was only one tap in a building of seven floors, and one tap right down in the basement that everybody in that building had to go to get water. Well, I didn't think that existed ... in perhaps Charles Dickens' time ... [laughs] ... I'd ... it must have been sort of a throwback from there, the same building, because really I had no idea, and to get the stretcher down was a nightmare, and well, two girls, only two of us, and I had this trouble. I ... I was the driver, but I had to help out on occasions with the stretchers, and that's when it really upset me because of my arm, and I wasn't meant to do that but all [the ] many things that you are not meant to do, you have to do on occasions.
So, all of this was a strain, and you used to go to and from on your bike, didn't you?
Yes, ha, from Chelsea, ‘round that area there, and I had my poodle at that stage, I'd been given a poodle, and I thought now how ... I'm not going ... I'm not leaving — Pippo his name was — I'm not leaving him anywhere, where I go he ... he came to concerts in Wales and he sat under the piano while ...
After the war was over, you got an opportunity to return to Australia for the first time in 10 years. How did you feel when you heard that there was the chance to go there?
Oh, I was elated of course, and the big problem was that I had no idea of my popularity out here until I arrived. I came out on one of the flying boats, you know the ... landed at Rose Bay, right opposite my old golf club there, the Royal Sydney, where I played most of my golf, and of course the number there to welcome me, it was absolutely overwhelming, I couldn't believe it. Then down to work it was because I had to give 12 recital programs in ... in those days they did a half-program, put it over the air, the ABC, and then they did the other half of a concert, and they all had to be different programs, naturally. That doesn't happen today, yes, singers haven't got that sort of work, but I had to ... study and plan out, and it takes some planning, recital programs, you've got to have a change of mood, a change of key and ... it's wonderful, it's wonderful work fitting in and thinking, now, oh, what would I like to think here or there, and how fast, how slow, and the words as I said when you're doing it. You become so involved that what happened with me, I had a very favourite key, which is the key of F major, ha, why I couldn't tell you, but it just was one of my favourite keys and ... so everything that I was choosing happened to be in F major; of course that meant a lot of chopping and changing, so it went on.
So part of your role as a singer was to help in the whole arrangement of the actual concert programs?
Oh yes, it, the programs were entirely up to me.
And, of course, then translations: if it was a German group or Italian whatever ... French, I had to put in ... do the translations for them from home, and the programs were beautifully got up really, so the audience did have the original, and they could quickly look up if they wanted to — the poet and the poem and the words.
So with this great optimistic feeling, you set out on what was a very arduous program of work for you. Was it a great success?
You mean the tour?
Oh yes it was, and ... monetarily it was I'm sure for the ABC but for me it ... did bring about a ... a physical strain and tiredness, and eventually a vocal strain. I had ... to take it easy towards the end of the tour, but it wasn't so much that I was as worried vocally, and I left here, not feeling at all right, and I knew that when I got back to London I would have to, you might say, like a car, put it in for ... and having its plugs cleaned and scraped or whatever. Ha.
There had been a lot of emotional strain too, hadn't there, during that time ... [interruption] ... It hadn't been ...
Oh yes, yes. Especially seeing my family again.
What was the emotional strain connected with that?
Um, oh they ... a tremendous amount really, and there was a great deal of friction at the time, so many things that I had to pick up and find out what had gone on in the 10 years and, as with them, it was ... it drained without my being really aware of it going on because these things happen, you know, and it's such a slow silent manner that you're not aware of your bodily reaction, which eventually begins to show and I'm ... I went on and it was a very tiring tour.
You'd left a very happy family behind when you ...
And it wasn't quite the same when you came back?
Were there tensions between parents or between your brothers or what was the pressure there?
Dame Joan Hammond
Oh, there were tensions everywhere, I think. Ha ha. And the ...
... The war had taken its toll ...
... I've, yes, and I've ... I left very ... with a very unhappy feeling family-wise.
And then also in relation to Australia itself ... Although many people took you to ... to their hearts, and you had this great welcome when you arrived, there was also some criticism wasn't there?
Oh ha ... with us there's always criticism and the higher you go the more critical they become. I think this is a sort of natural way of .. people's reactions somehow. They ... I learnt I think, more ... from the general feeling of critics then than ever before, because in Europe you don't get so much criticism at all, the papers don't give over that much to the musical criticism, and what you wore, how you looked and that sort of thing. But here ... as in America, it's a very ... important item for the singer to remember what dress you wore — I kept a little book of course of every dress I wore for every concert, and the place which I did, right throughout my career, but of course here it was very important, and oddly enough, men were more critical about clothes than the women. Or the dress, if you wore the same dress twice, and they seemed to be on the ball about that, as I say, far more so than the women.
So they went along to look at you as much as to listen to you?
I ... ha ha ... I used to wonder which it was at some stages ... [laughs] ...
What things did they say about your clothes?
Oh no, I ... that ... what dress I wore.
Yes, but what did they say about your dress, what kind of criticisms did ...
... Well, I ... it only happened once, and it never happened again, in fact I'm not even sure in retrospect whether it happened here or in Europe but men were ... noted what you wore, the colour, the type of dress, was it off the shoulders, a V-neck or whatever, and it surprised me, and when one quoted what I'd worn at some concert, last concert or whatever, I thought to myself, this is one thing you must be careful about and never slip up on. Then my little book was really kept completely and utterly up-to-date. I didn't let the ... a day go by until I put the dress down that I wore the night before, because you know these things slip out of the memory especially if you're doing concert after concert.
Yes that was ... my programs were criticised. First of all in Sydney, that's where I began. They were too highbrow, I did not — and of course I did not — sing the arias at the end, they didn't get O My Beloved Father, for instance, and they had Hugo Wolf to contend with and Richard Strauss, Schubert, Schumann, well, the ... and they wanted the arias, and I wasn't aware of that when making up my programs in England.
You thought they might like to hear some good singing?
Well, I was asked for the best, and would I like to do Lieder recitals, and I said yes I would, and so I gave the best programs that I could plan, and I mean the list was it ... to me, now, I feel tired at the thought of it, but ... what happened then, sort of two bands started up of people in Sydney, and went around with these banners saying program's too highbrow, Joan Hammond, you know, and then another lot went around saying we love them, we appreciate them ... [laughs] ... so it was, ha, it was good publicity, and certainly not manufactured by me ... it was the last thing I would have thought about. And I couldn't understand why they didn't like the programs, so of course then I realised the popularity and how I'd gained all my popularity was through the O My Beloved Father, for instance.
So the people who had supported you when you went away as ... on your ... for your student days, were they all waiting to greet you when you got back?
Oh yes. Yes. Some of them were no longer with us but yes, oh well, indeed.
Oh yes, yes.
And did they support you through this period of criticism?
Oh, they didn't come into anything like that, really, once I was there and working, I didn't hear much because the fund as it was, at it ... it had finished, I was on my own, earning my own little bits and pieces.
Did you feel, though, that you owed something to them, to make the Australian tour really work well?
Oh, I'm ... I would ... I mean, right throughout my career, I never forgot the fact that’s how it was that I went abroad, how it was I got that big chance. No, that's something I never forgot.
Now, during this time people were worrying about your clothes, they were ... what dress you were wearing ...
... And they weren't very fashionable, I don't ... oh fashionable, yes, but the ... I didn't spend much money on clothes, and indeed I didn't even think much about my clothes, it was only later that I realised that, now, when I was getting better fees, that I could think about spending money on clothes. You see I ... coming up from nothing, you might say, and saving every groschen and every Austrian schilling, I ... had become very careful with what and how I spent my money, and ... a little bit would come in and it had to go out ... [laughs] ... as soon as it came in, and I was ... actually broke once in London, completely broke, it wasn't a very nice time, but I learnt a lesson, and I think all these things happen, you've got to learn from them, and I learnt that I must always keep something aside, no matter how small, I'd have to ... put something aside.
So when you were on the Australian tour ... there were people who criticised your dress, and people who criticised your musical program, and there were other sort of criticisms, but you, yourself ... what was worrying you was your voice. What was actually happening to it?
For me, it wasn't vibrant, it was losing its ... what I call ... I was overcritical and I always have been, and always will be, about my singing voice, and I was aware of this really ... it's a ... you know, when the voice, I always call it tonic, I use the word tonic such a lot, I always have done, I've said no, my voice is not tonic today. Which meant that it wasn't ... ringing, the tone was not there, and some people used to say, oh, my voice is back or my voice is down the throat or something. I knew it wasn't down the throat, but I also knew that it wasn't resonating as well as it should.
And this was something that you really had no control over?
You couldn't by will make it better?
No, well, by practising, and doing certain scales, that was how I always got it back. I said ‘off the rails or on the rails’, and I always got it back on the rails, it had to ... well the voice has to be out of the throat, that's number one and the most important thing of all. A throaty voice is a sick voice, and if you go on singing when it's back, then of course it gets worse and worse, and mine was getting to my ears and my ... the way I knew it should be, it was really worrying me, coming up to the end of the tour and I was so relieved when it was over, but I also knew that I wasn't going to do much when I got back home but put it right again, and rest. Rest is one of the best things out for the human voice.
So when you got back, what did you do to make it better?
Quiet ... [laughs] ... yes I did, I kept very quiet, and I had to be patient, and that's another thing that you have to try and drill into singers, that the one thing they have to do is not to use it, and of course the one thing a singer wants to do when their voice is sick is they use it, to try to find out if it's still there.
Were there other ... [interruption] ... were there other techniques you had to master?
Oh ... techniques?
In order to in ... at this stage, with this voice problem, were there things that you needed to learn then in order to make it right?
I came to a very big crossroad later on — what I call these crossroads were vital and I did have a bad period when it was a follow on, you might say. I started again and went, oh, I was singing operand recitals — I was doing both, which I went on doing all my life really, all my singing career — I ... had an illness, bronchitis, and I stared too soon, which is always a fatal thing, you must let the chords really get back to normal because they're so relaxed anyhow after singing, and doing a lot of work, and then you suddenly stop everything, so it's like an athlete or anybody, you ... you work up to a pitch and your ... the tension’s in your body, the right tension, and your muscles, everything, but once you stop, of course, they stop, and just get flat and the same happens with the vocal muscles, and the larynx of course, and everything becomes relaxed, and you've got to ... slowly, and I emphasise the word slowly, bring it back by working on scales and exercises with a great patience, and really a lot of patience, and a lot of tears and ... thrown in. Well, that did happen, but it ... in the end it was a wonderful thing, because it made me more conscious of my instrument. It made me realise that for the future, to stop it coming on again, that I must know exactly what I'm doing, and in fact I took my voice to pieces, you might say, and built it up again, in my own way. I taught myself and this, although it was a long and unhappy period, it was a wonderful period, and I gained tremendous knowledge through that, which has been really great you know for me ever since.
And you had to do this for yourself, you had no-one else to ... ?
No, no. And I knew I had to do it, I knew that I had to know my own instrument. You may have read or heard of singers going around with their teachers. Well, of course, a lot of them do and have to, but to travel like that, I think, in the old days, perhaps before my time, old days now, but it was my youth, but before my time, I believe Melba went around with a big entourage, even her own chef. Well, the tennis players do that today, don't they in a way. But we normally can't afford that sort of thing, and I certainly couldn't, nor did I want it.
Now, after you rebuilt your voice, as it were, and put it all ... mine's going [interruption] ... put it all together again, you actually then launched on, really, the very major part of your career, and you travelled to almost every country in the world, singing. Was that a very adventurous time for you?
It was a very interesting time because I went all over South Africa, and to places that no ... where no recitals had ever been given, and in Asia and Malaysia, I mean, I went to a little place called Ipoh right up the north there and I ... they'd never heard of a recital, never heard of such a thing, and I ... everywhere I went I realised how it was, how I had become so popular in these places where they'd never had music like that. O my beloved, that record went everywhere and as a result I went everywhere. There wasn't a place that didn't know that record, and of course [at] the concerts I always sang them, at the end, and I'm sure all of the people came to hear that at the end, and not the whole, whole boring rest of the recital program. No, actually, I'm ... I don't mean that really ... [laughs] ...
But the Australian tour had taught you that you ... there was a certain element in the audience you needed to please?
Oh yes, oh indeed. It also helped me — I designed a different type of program as a result of my Australian tour, because going to places like Tanganyika [mainland part of today’s Tanzania] — all the ... I use the old names you'll note, not the modern ones for these countries — they keep changing their names don't they? Anyhow, I realised that my programs, I must make sure that I put in something for everybody, I couldn't ... I wouldn't leave out ... I'd put a group in that I knew would please the serious concert-minded person, and I'd put a more popular group — I'd mix them up and put in something that everybody knew and liked at one stage or another.
Africa must have been quite a dangerous place in that post-war period?
It was indeed. Especially ... um, I don't know why I'm laughing, I really don't, it was very serious because I had an agent and put ... the London agent got in touch with this agent in Africa who was doing it all and arranging it, and he really was a bit mad ... I didn't realise it until after this had happened, but he took us for a drive, and I had Mr Ivor Newton as my accompanist ... and one place we went, out to where they were using all the ... that ... what was it called, oh ghastly, you know, the natives, they were all ... they were fighting.
The Mau Mau [Kenyan rebels against the British colonialists].
That's right, exactly, thank you. And he took us out to see a tobacco farm, way out, which he should never have done because we went through all these villages and we were looked at in such a way, I thought, if the car breaks down — and he was the most hairy scary driver, I don't think he'd driven a car before. Anyhow we got out there, saw the ... it was very interesting and lovely, and on the way back dear Ivor couldn't stand this man at the wheel any more, and he said, ‘Joan, will you drive? I cant stand this.’ He said, ‘I'll die, I'll do anything, I'll jump out of the car’ ... [laughs] ... And I thought, I can't have my accompanist lying out in the back blocks so I did, I took over, I just said to this man (I've forgotten his name), but ‘would you care if ... for me to drive, I'd love to drive and try this car,’ and I knew that Ivor was sitting at the back then, purring as much to say, thank God, so he, well, he agreed straight away, he didn't say 'oh no no, no-one drives this but me', and that's why I'm sure he'd never driven it before, it may have been a hire car for all I know, but anyhow I got to the wheel and I drove back and that part went fine. That was over. Then when we were in ... it's extraordinary how these names are avoiding me today ...
Were you in the capital of Kenya [Nairobi]?
Yes, and we went to the falls.
... and we went to Nairobi, yes, but ...
... and the big Victoria Falls ...
... in Tanganyika ... but anyhow, we went to the falls, and then we were taken for another hairy scary flight in a small plane, over Uganda where you can't go, you ... you can only see the wild animals from the air in other words, and we were taken in this little plane across and, again, Ivor I think was having heart failure, that was wonderful but I ... it worried me because we seemed to almost take the giraffes' heads off, you ... we were so low, and that was another exciting episode, and a final one was at a camp at night arriving at one of the big ... game places, where we had the head man, it was all arranged that he should take me out, we left the hotel at about 2 o'clock in the morning, and we went out to this camp so ... 'cause you have to see them at dawn, the animals, and he ... we arrived at the first stop where we were to have coffee and a bit of something to eat, and Ivor again ... [laughs] ... everywhere we ... everyone had gone on in and Ivor ... I turned round to see what was happening, why he was hanging behind, and he was very ... he was frozen, absolutely frozen, and he pointed down at his feet saying, 'I was ... what's, what's been going through my legs? ' ... [laughs] ... and it was a cat. He thought it was some wild animal, you know, about to attack him; it was the camp cat. What else? Oh, so much happened in those ... days.
How did you get on in America?
Oh well, of course America was very civilised ... [laughs] ...
But professionally. Did you take ... did you get a lot of opportunity in America?
Again I think ... [interruption] the first tour was alright. I think what killed me eventually was the fact that I had to cancel the tour through illness and ... extraordinary ... in Europe of course a singer has to on occasions. If you don't you, well, it's wonderful to go through without anything happening, but again I think I had bronchitis, I couldn't go anyhow, and my agent there in New York wrote to me saying, ‘I can't book you at the same places,’ well, and ... in fact, I think I rang her and I said, ‘What? Why not?’ She said they won't have any singer who turns them down once ... [laughs] ... That was a strange lesson and I thought what an extraordinary thing, she just said, no, they just won't. If you've had to cancel, that's that, and I had to go and get engagements in all different places, so that it was ... a very unexpected sort of slant on a career.
It wasn't the only thing that you found yourself having to turn down in America too, was it? There was another time when you turned down an engagement that you were asked to do — you were asked to sing for somebody?
Oh. You're probably ... you've read my history a bit too closely haven't you? You ... you can remember things that I can't now, would this be Mrs Roosevelt?
Through my dear fairy godmother, Lady Gowrie, that it was arranged. This was like a door really slamming in my face, not that I knew or expected such a thing, but Mrs Roosevelt, being the First Lady, asked me to go to a luncheon and to sing at a luncheon for her, and it happened to be on a day of my opening night of Tosca, and I had the rehearsal in the morning, orchestral rehearsal, and the performance at night, so I declined as gracefully as I could because I realised it was like the Queen — rejecting to sing for the Queen — and I just knew that it was something that I couldn't do, that I didn't want to do vocally, I didn't want to spoil my performance ... my singing at lunch, which I ... something we don't do anyhow, but that was it, and I, well, I thought, well perhaps she'll ask me another day, when she knows what I'm doing. But not at all. I never heard again and I realised that I had slighted her ... which was a surprise and upsetting of course, I was very sorry about it and I wrote and told Lady G all about it, exactly what had happened, but that was ... those were my principles, just as I don't do anything much on the day I sing if I ... sometimes I have had to rehearse on the day, many times in fact, so you save your voice as much as you can for the performance at night, and Tosca's not the lightest of roles, it's not as though it's just a few pages.
Did you regret that? Do you feel that was a mistake ...
... in the sense of your career?
Oh, I have regretted that, but I still think and I ask myself if it occurred again, what would I do, and I think I would've done the same thing because the performance to me at night was the most important thing.
So did you always feel you never did quite as well in Americas you should have?
Oh yes, I'm sure. I really ... and I blame myself.
... I really do.
Would that have made a big difference to your career? American success.
Oh. I should think so, yes.
Well, I think America's very important, and I loved being there, and I loved the people, I always have and always will, and there's a ... I don't know, I can remember a chap saying to me 'democracy,’ I can't take his voice off, but I can always hear him saying, 'There's nothing like it. America. Democracy!' So, ha, oh lots of things happened, lovely things and funny things, and it was from New York that I tried to get up to Canada, during a very awful period when the flights were all cancelled because the weather was too dreadful, and I was ... I'd come from Chicago and I was in New York and I had to be at ... in Toronto the next morning. Well, it was no no no and then they rang me and said, look, a bus is going to try and get through and to go by bus. We can get you by air to somewhere or other ... I don't know, it was a short flight then into a bus, and that bus got me sitting all the ... into Toronto I think about 8 o'clock in the morning, somewhere like that, and I remember having a quick shower or bath or whatever, and changing because the rehearsal was at 10 o'clock. I got there, I wouldn't know why because it was ... an afternoon, a matinee, and that's why that I, ha ha, that was perhaps good because I didn't have a chance to get on the bed and go to sleep. In the afternoon I would have, and probably woken up feeling so awful, but anyhow.
Do you think you pushed yourself too much?
Well, that wasn't my fault, I couldn't help that. It was ... that's one of the few things ... in America, when you arrive, if say you were arriving at the New York the ... your manager, they send you out an itinerary, and some of the things down there such as the Verdi Requiem. I hadn't even brought my score because they hadn't advised me that I'd even been booked to sing the Verdi Requiem. One performance was in Philadelphia and another was in another place altogether the next night, two nights running, and when I saw this in this little itinerary book I thought, oh oh dear, so I had to ring home and get them to post off my score to me — all the things that can just happen because they don't consider that you should be consulted, whereas we are accustomed always to being consulted before the contract is agreed upon, to, well, will you sing this or will you sing that and where, what time, but not over in the States, no, as I say, you're sold like a tin of sardines or something.
So you felt like a commodity there rather than an artist?
I think we'll just stop there for a minute because when, earlier on, when we were talking about ... [interruption] ...
You've told us how your voice was like an instrument that you carried around with you, and that you had to look after, and that you'd learned a lot about how to look after it after the Australian tour and the problems you had then. Did that mean that you had no more problems with your voice after that whole retraining and relearning of your voice technique that occurred when you returned from Australia, or did you ever again have a difficulty with it?
It would be very silly of me, ha ha, to say I didn't have anything happen after that in such a long and full career, but of course ... I can recall one very unhappy incident at something that was quite beyond my control or even that I could have any knowledge about. For some unknown reason I was in Manchester singing away, and suddenly my voice went. And ... I had come to the end of a group, and I went backstage, and it was just croaky, completely croaky, so I had to go back and apologise for the rest of the program and say how sorry I was, that I had had a cold, and I had no cold, nothing at all, but I had to say something, so that's what I said, and suddenly it was back again. So I continued, I went on with the program and I had a day in-between, and nothing, it was quite normal, and the following night I had to sing again, and the same thing happened, not at first but during the program, and of course I really was getting concerned, more than concerned, and then it kept on coming and going, coming and going, the voice. And I think ... thought this is most peculiar, isn't it, I've got nothing wrong with me so I rang my specialist friend in London, and explained that, and he said, oh, he said, 'You must have some sort of cold or something.' I said, 'No I haven't, not a thing.’ He said, 'Well when you come back, come and see me.
So, of course, when I got back to London I went straight to see him, and he looked at the chords, he said, 'No they're perfect, there's nothing wrong with them.’ I said, 'Well, what is happening? I can only tell you that it goes as though I have a cold, and completely croaky, and ...' I said, 'My speaking voice as well, naturally, same chords.’ So he said, 'Joan,' he said, 'could you be ... hmm ... becoming nervous?' and I said, 'No, not a chance. No.’ He said, 'You ... is anything worrying you?' I said, 'No, no. I know my work, I'm up to date with everything.’ And he said, ‘But it must be,' he said, ‘it must be sort of nerves.’ I said. 'It just cannot be. I'm always a little nervous before I go on, yes, always,' and I said that's because I hope and pray that I will remember my words and the music and that nothing like that will occur, that I could forget anything, and I'm just nervous ‘til I get on the stage and the voice comes and out — then I'm settled. Well, it was a puzzle for him and of course a big puzzle for me.
I had to go off the following day to Amsterdam, sing Verdi Requiem. I got to Heathrow, feeling fine, everything alright, and then suddenly my voice went again. Thank God it was before I got on the plane, but I got on the phone immediately to Ivor and I said, 'It's happened now and I'm just about to catch a flight to Amsterdam,’ and he said suddenly, he said, 'Are you on any pills or anything?' and I said, 'Yes, I am, I damaged my knee up in the woods the other day, I lifted a big seat and I lifted it on my knee,' and I said it gave me a terrible jolt, and that upset it, because I was doing Madame Butterfly, I had three or four performances and I ... I've been through two and the third one I had this trouble come during a performance, and the doctor, the local doctor, said, 'Oh don't worry, I'll put that right, I'll give you some pills for it.’ And he said, 'What are the pills?' So I said, 'Just a moment,’ and I picked up the box and I read Cortisone, and I said ‘Cortisone'. He said, 'Oh my god.' He said, 'When was your last period?' I thought, what on earth does a woman's period have to do with all this? Well, I said, ' It was during this period yes.' And he said, 'Now don't sing, cancel everything until your next period, and come in and see me immediately.’ So I hung up and I rang my agent to tell them they'd have to get someone else to go over and sing the Verdi Requiem, and into town I went and saw Ivor, and he looked at the chords again, nothing wrong with them, nothing wrong. He said, 'You could sing six Aidas if you wanted,' and I said, 'No, I just want to sing at the moment' ... [laughs] ... It wasn't funny at all but he's a very wonderful chap.
But it really brought home to you that the instrument that you play is dependent on the whole of your body
That must be a big responsibility?
Did you find that any kind of activity particularly had to be avoided to preserve your voice?
No no, but I'll just finish this, because right to the day of my next period, I should say within an hour, my voice was even clearer than it had been in between these spells, when it was ... it was so remarkable. It was an unusual case, and it came out in the British medical magazine, it was such an unusual case of Cortisone reaction. In fact, there have been — since then one's heard of a lot of strange things [that] have happened when you're on Cortisone. Coming back to your former question ... your entire body ... that's why everything you eat, drink and the atmosphere you're in, you see, it all passes down between the larynx, in other words, so anything too hot can give you a slight form of ... goodness, what I call not being able to sing clearly, the voice is slightly muffled and unpleasant, and anything too cold ... an iced drink after singing, when everything's hot and your ... all your system is hot — when you come off stage and then you drink an icy drink, that can affect, it's like burning, a slight burn. You know when you drink soup, you take it to your tongue, the tip of the tongue gets burnt? The chords, that's just what happens, to the larynx, and it's an extraordinary thing because it just burns. After about 12 hours it's gone, it's alright, but if you don't know what's caused it, it can make the singer very unhappy and wondering what's wrong, and whether they've got laryngitis or what. It's almost that sort of effect that it has, of laryngitis. So you have to watch your food, your drink, and naturally you have to keep yourself in good condition, jolly good condition, because of the breathing — nerves affect the breath and the breath is our lifeline. There's so much with the ...
... when you're travelling and in a new country. I mean, in Spain, the butter's made from peanuts, you know, nut oil, peanut oil. That upset me, oh dear, and I had ... I had a performance of Onegin on Christmas night, 'cause they work in Europe on Christmas Day, Christmas. Oh, most of the performances, big performances, are on Christmas Night. And I remember I had .. I just ate bananas all that day to keep myself going because you burn up the energy and you've still got to put it back, no matter how you feel, and bananas became my really staple mood food, I mean in Spain, for a time. But all these things — wine can upset you. You've got to ... a good manager in each place you go to will always advise you, about the wine and the food and what to be careful of, and when you learn the hard way, which is going there first for ... when you're not known, then you know all these things, which is a great help, but if you don't, you've got to be very careful wherever you are travelling, about food and drink.
It's clearly a very physical activity that you're involved in and I suppose we've always thought, there you were, this very strong, sporty girl, very good at golf, very gifted physically, really, in the way you were born, and yet you actually did have quite a bit of ill health and problems associated with it during the course of your career. Do you think there was ... what was it that sort of undermined that robust young girl a bit, and gave ... made her get bouts of bronchitis and a few problems later on?
Well I was ... a hayfever sufferer, very much so, and asthmatic, which came on from time to time, but only in the night. I say only, it was bad enough, but fortunately I believed that one could sing through. Now with the hayfever I've had a friend blow a ... there was some hayfever cigarettes on the market in Europe for a long time, which helped to dry the nose, but what helped most of all with hayfever was singing, but of course I couldn't sing all day and all night to keep it dry, and I'd get to a performance down in the ... I can remember down at Brighton for instance from London, oh it was dreadful one day and it was a Sunday and I had a recital to give in the afternoon, and my nose was just streaming, and I thought, oh nose stop when I get on the ... on the platform, but of course it does the more I sing, and the drier it is — it's wonderful because all the little mucus membranes all dry up in the nose and, as I say, the moment I finish back it comes, and Chester was a very bad place for me, one of the worst of all, but there ... the hayfever, and I've been surprised to read from time to time of singers saying they couldn't sing because of hayfever. It didn't affect my larynx, it was an irritant yes, but it vocally was not affected, so therefore I knew that I could go through with an engagement, but I had to put up with the running nose that the outpouring had until I went on stage, and then I was right.
Now in relation to the musical side of your career, what have you enjoyed singing most? You've sung opera, you've sung concerts, you ... what aspect of the music has appealed to you most?
My simple answer to that is I sang what I loved, and I loved most ... mostly everything, so I enjoyed opera, I enjoyed concert work and orchestral concerts, I enjoyed them all. I say enjoy — on the day you wouldn't think it was an enjoyment until the ... the event was over, which was true, because there's always a certain amount of a concern until one goes on that platform. For me it was ... making sure of my music, and I always thought I mustn't let the composer down, and the last person I didn't want to let down or didn't know, never thought, never never thought about letting down was myself, but it was the memory, that I wouldn't forget anything, and that my voice was tonic, which meant that my voice was in ... into good form, and that I wasn't going to let the audience down. Those are the sort of things that you worry about all day, on the day of a performance.
Did you have a favourite opera role?
Not, really no. All the roles I sang are ... I loved.
... I hope I’ve ... I'll just say one little thing there, Madame Butterfly perhaps was slightly ahead of the others. Could have been, yes.
O My Beloved Father was this great success and an aria that has been associated with you all through your life. Was it something you sang from the heart because of your own relationship with your father? Were you particularly close to your father in ... a family of boys?
No, no. Not at all. In fact, I never thought of my father, and it really ... in the opera, yes, she's pleading with her father, because she wants to marry this young fellow, they've been very close ever since their youth, and she was pleading could she, and if he said no, that she would throw herself off the Ponte Vecchio. Well of course I knew the Ponte Vecchio so well, having studied in Florence, lived there, and I think that had a closer ... because I could see all the places that ... and where it all occurred, and in that most other operas I couldn't. But that I could. And that brought another side of it to me. But I didn't think of my father at all, not when I was recording it.
You grew up in a family of boys, and yet you never married. You never ...
What [would] four little boys have to do [with marriage] ... ?
... they might have put me off ...
That's what I was asking ... perhaps ...
... marrying ... [laughs] ...
... [laughs] ... I was wondering about your relationships with men. Did you ever think of marrying? Did you ever have a romance?
Oh, I had romances, yes of course, but I never, no, I was married to my work. I can put it that way, and anything that might have come in between myself and my, the voice, that was out. My voice was really what I was married to if I can put it that way. I had a dedication, and I think the fact that I was sent away with ... on the generosity of other people, with their money, that had something to do with my conscience, always, that I was sent for a purpose, and that I had to make a success in order to repay them, in the only way that I could repay them, and I think all these things, it was complete dedication.
You'd started ... you'd had that period of being short of money and you said that had taught you things about taking care of money and so on, later on, when you became famous and you got a lot of bookings and you had a lot of money to spend. How did you feel about that? Was that something that, you know, gave you a great deal of pleasure, that suddenly you didn't have to pinch pennies anymore?
Yes ... [laughs] ... I was inclined to have it come in one hand and go out the other, ha, I enjoyed spending it, yes. But I always had a what I called a careful side to me, and thought of putting a little away. It was really ... I can say not through my parents because they were ... we were ... and I was struggling too at the same time; my elder brother and I kept my parents for many, many, many years. And ... I had the wonderful support of my great friend Lolita Mariott and her father, and Mr Mariott was the first one that kept saying to me, 'Joan, you have to put money aside for the time when you may not be earning it.’ And he was the first person to get me some shares, after I came out here on tour and I was with them here in Melbourne, and it was Mr M always on at me about when I perhaps could not earn, or something went wrong, that I had to have some money put aside, and he was the first person to buy me some shares, and he looked after my affairs for quite some time, it was wonderful, and of course, his daughter has the same way of going about things, she's very good financially.
Yes, you've described how other opera stars had great entourages of management and so on, all travelling around the world with them. You had Lolita. Could you tell us how ...
... I'm sorry but when I was referring to ... that was Melba's time, because I don't think it happens with singers as much today. In fact, I know it doesn't, but that period of the big entourage was really in Dame Nellie Melba's period and the singers of that time ... Tetrazzini ... but I cannot, I don't even think Callas did, or the big big money spinners. I don't know about Pavarotti and co, they probably do but it's certainly not a general thing that happens with singers today. In fact, you're in so many places, different places, it's not as though you go to a city and you've got a tournament, and you're there, you know you're going to be there for so long. We don't, we go from place to place all the time.
Could you tell me what role Lolita has played in your life and career?
Well, a tremendous role. I can trust her, and this is where I consider that I have been more than lucky, more than blessed, because some unfortunate artists can go through their lives without having an .. the trust of anybody. So if you have one or two people you can trust, it's an absolute godsend, a blessing, and I had someone that I could trust. That I knew that I could, and I mean many husbands and wives cannot trust each other, it's a extraordinary thing, but it happens, and especially in our world, where you learn not to trust people, because you're let down so so often. And I had it happen to me long before I ... you see, I knew Lolita before I left here in 1936, oh, our relationship now is near 60 years, and our friends say, 'What on earth do you find to laugh and talk about?' Well, ha ha, we do well, still laugh and talk. I would say that was one of the greatest blessings that I've been given, was someone that I could trust, that I knew that I could relate to, that I could tell and discuss everything that I had to discuss, and my clothes, my, my ... well, after a performance, I naturally would turn to her and say, 'How was the voice tonight?' ... this you can do with few people because there are hundreds that come around and say 'Oh darling, you were wonderful' all ... and you knew behind that something was not quite wonderful, ha, well mostly you can't trust them because it is a surface and a ... I don't know. I've heard it so often, with others not just with myself, and then I've heard them straightaway, behind my back, they, well ... ‘what a ghastly performance it was’ and it makes you think, you know, if this is the human being and it is, they just react that way, and of course a lot of the basic thing about it is jealousy. If it's another singer, you know jolly well that the tongue would be in the cheek, and therefore, oh, with innumerable things, that word trust, you are lucky in life to have someone you can trust. I think that's one of the greatest assets that you can have.
Lolita actually joined you and started travelling and living with you in 1946, so that was something that came out of that Australian tour, wasn't it?
That's correct, yes, yes.
And has she been as ... has she played a role in actually assisting you with your career as well as with your personal ... has she been someone who's helped you with managing things and also ...
Oh yes, oh yes indeed. She was my personal representative and she would go ahead of me, she went to America first and she did lots of things like that. Oh yes, the whole thing was so intertwined that ... interlaced ... very very closely, I can only just repeat how blessed I have been in that regard.
There's been a pattern in your life, that you've described yourself as a fatalist, where at times things that look bad came out of the ... something good came out of a situation that looked bad and you said that you felt that things were meant, and that you had to accept what fate dished out. On the other hand you've been a very determined person, and you've gone after your goals. How do you reconcile these two attitudes that you have, of being both a fatalist and somebody who is very determined?
But don't you think a fatalist can be a somebody very determined? Must. Otherwise I couldn't exist could I ... because to be fatalistic, it doesn't mean that you're not a determined person. I always think, well, if you've got a strong chin you are not obstinate. I suppose I could be, ha ha, but characteristically speaking, I should say, determination could well go hand in hand with the other, with fatalism.
There've been some crises in your life, there was the one we heard about, that time you lost your voice, which must have felt like a crisis at the time?
Oh, it was indeed.
And then later towards the end of your career, you started having some health problems — could you tell us what happened at that stage?
I think ... it's a stage that I have tried to forget about because I wanted to forget about it, I wanted to feel that it hadn't happened. You might call that part of my determination as well. It ... there was again something that came on slowly. I just got these pains and they kept coming back and when I lifted my arms or wanted to lift something I got them and it got so that, in the end, it was ... it was there, there was something wrong with the heart, and I was rather ... surprised when they said it was a coronary, not that I knew anything about a coronary, but I know about it now, and ... it was another term, angina, you know, I had to carry around which ... I still do a little white tablet, you put one under the tongue and it immediately gives relief, but ... I was told what to do and what not to do, I was booked to sing ... in York Cathedral, to record with the boys’ choir [who] were doing a lot of Handel, different, a program quite unlike any I had recorded before, with organ. The whole ... it would've to my way of thinking been a lovely, lovely experience, that ... broke me up completely when I found I couldn't do it. I was rehearsing and bang, got this blessed pain, which had stopped ... I had to stop singing. Then I tried again and the same thing occurred and the doctor said, ‘Oh look, if you want to go on living for a while, just give it away. It's obviously too emotional, too much for you.’
So that was really the end of the story for me, and I came out here on a long sea voyage and took time, took my time, and slowly slowly ... for a year I think I can honestly say that I thought I would never, never, get well again. I felt complete lassitude and none ... didn't want to do anything, and then slowly I began to pick up, and oh indeed, I picked up alright. I mean that the teaching career has, ha ha, is like another career anyhow, and that's very demanding, very ... tiring but I've got ... I'm well into that, but it's not so emotional. It was the emotion of singing, expressing myself through my voice, obviously that I just couldn't cope with again, and facing the public. Or not having to cancel. Really, having to cancel took a tremendous amount out of me. I hated that I always thought of the people that had paid to come to hear me and I was letting them down ... couldn't help it, but it had that effect. So ...
You got your energy back together and started, really, another career as a teacher and someone who's been a great supporter of the arts and of other artists, and at 79 now ...
Oh, not again. Haven't you told me this before? I don't believe it.
I'd be unhappy if I were not.
Could you describe what your working life is like at the moment?
Oh, getting up early, going for a walk first thing, and ... going to the college, taking my little packet of lunch with me, just as when I went to school many many years ago with my lunch down under my arm, and I started long hours, I worked five days a week, and I was Head of Vocal Studies for a long time, many years. Now I've cut it down to three so you see I'm really cutting things down a bit now, and just going in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday but it's quite enough. As I'm also writing and wanting to get another book finished, my days are long and I ... in fact the days are not long enough for me. I find at night, each night, I think oh dear, I seem to have wasted time and I haven't done all that I wanted to do today ... There a very ... important reason which I may discuss later during our talk today, but again I love teaching. Once I knew that I could — I taught for a time during the war in London when my ... the only really ... the only teacher I can say that I had I learnt from, learnt certain things from, was Dino Borgioli. I forgot to tell you this earlier on today but ... then I had a big argument about the breath ... [laughs] ... I couldn't have been easy, you know, and I often think of it — no wonder I only ever had three teachers, that I could really say that I had where ...
You always thought you knew best really.
Yes. I suppose so, yes. Well, I certainly did about the breath because I was critical of his breathing ... [laughs] ... and so I knew jolly well that my breath ... breathing had to be much better, and I also knew where the voice, the placement had to be. I'm a strong believer in nature, and nature cannot be argued with, and especially about the voice. Nature tells us so much, and we're just the fools if we don't follow.
So when your own pupils say that their nature is telling them to do something different from what you're telling them, do you respect it as much in them as you did in yourself?
I haven't come across it yet but I'm ... [laughs] .. .I haven't come across ... I mean it's wonderful the ... I always tell them that they must ask me whatever they want to, any question at all, because I've gone so thoroughly into my subject, and I know that I can help them, and I know where their weaknesses are because I've been through it with myself. I can tell them if they're heading for danger vocally, that dreaded word the nodule, I can tell them all these things because I've been through it, and this is if you can inculcate that, I think also that you ... anyone just can't teach ... teaching is a gift as well, I've realised that. You either have that ... and you've got to have enormous patience, which probably would surprise people that I've got enormous patience, but I have with teaching. Very much so.
What is it that you really love about teaching? What is it about it that makes you really get pleasure?
Hearing a voice and especially a sick voice; if I can mend a sick voice. If I hear that voice and I know exactly, I can almost see the chords and where the trouble is by hearing. They only have to come through the door and speak to me and I know what to expect when I hear them sing, because their speaking voice already has told me whether it's tonic or sick, whatever, forward or back.
You were saying earlier that you ... that singers sometimes express views that are reflective of their jealousy. Have you yourself ever felt jealous of anybody else's voice?
Not of their voice, no. No. I could have felt a ... oh oh, I think ... I don't know ... that's a difficult question to answer because I think I would be lying if I said I was never jealous, of course I've been jealous, but I'm not sure what about. Not with other careers, no. I might have thought, oh I wish I could have looked like that, and that’s what I call that sort of secret jealousy, I wouldn't ... yes I'm finding it difficult to answer as you are well aware now because I'd lie if I said I had not been jealous, but if you wanted to know specific cases, no, I couldn't tell you, or ... perhaps I've been jealous of ... my students even, like that could well be. Yes. And although I'm the first to say you must change if you're not happy, few have, but that would be so, because you might even say that I'm over-confident. That I know that I can teach, that I know that I can improve them. That could well be. Mind you, I haven't looked into this subject but I will, ha. And perhaps later on I might come back to it.
You've always, whatever the circumstances, kept a really good face on things, even when things were going badly for you. You always fronted up and always put on a good performance, and you were telling us earlier that during a period of a crisis of confidence, if anything, it made you more assertive and a bit more pushy and you had to pull yourself back from that. Did you learn at an early stage a strong view that the way to get through life was to always make sure that, whatever the circumstances, you put a good brave face on things? Was that something that you started to develop as a way of going through things at an early stage, and do you think that's necessary for a performer to have that attitude?
... No, what I ...
... perform even when things weren't good inside, you know, to ...
... Oh yes. That you have to do. Oh heavens, yes. I mean a contract is a contract and if you have to perform that night then you have to perform. That would be to follow, as we say, night and day.
What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?
... [laughs] ... You do ... sort of think out some lovely questions, don't you? Very juicy question this one. The worst thing ever that happened, has happened to me, was the 1983 bushfire that raged along the coast and Lorne. I'd been up in Melbourne, I had lunch in Melbourne, it was a terrible day, and Melbourne was ... it was black, the sky was black and getting blacker. I was lunching with the director of the college [Victorian College of the Arts], we were talking about the future, and then we left and got back to Jumbunna, the name of our home there at Aireys Inlet, we got back at about half-past five or ten to six, and I ... the journey down was terrible. I mean, you have the cooling system in the car but nothing seemed to cool anything that day, and the wind was already pretty fierce, but we'd heard that the fire was along at Lorne, it had gone over through the mountains there above, and ... how fierce and dreadful it was, but it was not mentioned that it was coming along the coast at all, because the wind hadn't changed, so we just didn't give it a thought. But in the interim, by the time I got in, I said I'm going for a swim straightaway, and I was in the process of undressing and they came along and said ... well, I think we heard it on the air, the wind had changed and the fire was coming along the coast.
But even then it didn't seem ... I mean, it was a long way between Aireys and Lorne, and then the phone went, and it was our local doctor. He said, ‘You'll have to go,’ and I said, ‘go where?,’ and he said, ‘You must leave the house,’ and I said, 'John, what, what are you talking about?' He said, 'The fire, the bushfire. It's coming along, it's coming very fast and you must leave the house.' So I and he knew by my voice that I wasn't taking any notice, and had no intention of going. Which was quite correct, I had no intention, and about 10 minutes later, he rang again, and I answered, and he said, 'Look you ... I really mean you must go,' He said, 'Haven't you heard, haven't the police spoken to you?' I said, 'No, only you,’ and the police had evidently gone up the hill and everywhere, but we couldn't hear them where we were, we were quite a distance from the nearest house, and they'd advised everyone else but not us.
So he said, 'Well, I'm telling you now, you have to leave.’ I said, 'But John, the insurance company, everybody said our place is the one ... the best place for water, we've got all the dams, these huge three of them, and I and we were even told that we could stop a fire in Aireys.’ He said, 'This is a different fire,' and, you know how you ... oh well ... you don't think seriously and I'd never been ... yes I had in Tasmania, that was wrong, I had been caught in a fire when I was down there with the two pianists in my one of my first big engagements, going around from Adelaide and it was very hot in Adelaide, and there was a fire in from Launceston, and we had been out to see where all the little prisoners were, all the poor things sent out from England, the terrible conditions, and we'd got caught in one coming back. That was a nasty experience, and I said, ‘We're not going.’
He said, ‘Look, you've got to go.’ So we ... just put the phone down, I did, and I still made no effort, I went and got into an old pair of slacks and some comfy blouse, just any old thing, and I hadn't even taken my things out of the car, they were still in the car because I'd been away, a make-up box and things like that, and the next thing he was ... came up and around the drive to the front door and he said, 'You've got to get out, you've got to go now. And I mean now!' and he went off again. And it was in that moment that I went out into the courtyard, that I heard this terrible roar — oh, it was frightening, in fact I what I call froze. It had only happened to me a couple of times before, once when I was in the surf at Palm Beach and a shark, I saw the actual fin go by, and I froze. You think it's minutes but it's seconds, and I then of course was ... I galvanised into action, I called out, shouted out, 'Look, we've got to leave. We've got to leave.' So there was the man up in the cottage, I rang through straight away, and told him. He said, 'Yes I've heard,’ and he collected what he had to collect.
We got into ... Lola got into one car, I got into the other, and when we got down to the gate we were going towards the fire, we had to get out of the property, and the road — it was an exodus — the road was packed. Everything, the cars piled up with this, that and the other. Of people fleeing from the fire, and of course they let us in, we infiltrated it, and that was ... I think it was then, possibly, the roar frightened me, yes, but I realised that it must be a very serious thing that was coming along the coast. So we went off and we came to Urquharts Bluff, and as a rule you can just turn off there and go down to the beach, and many had the same idea, and we did that, we turned in and thought well ... we'll go down to the beach, that'll be safe enough. We'd no longer got there ... all turning to go down the incline, when the police car came roaring along the road, and blaring its horn thing and saying, 'Get out! Get going! Get out!'
So of course, we all then turned back and had to get into the queue again to go along, and the next stop was Anglesea. Well it was just panic there, and I had to get petrol, I saw that I was low. The other car we knew was alright because we'd just come down from Melbourne in it. Then I pulled off into the garage place, and there were these poor devils that had come from trying to firefight, and they were putting buckets of ice on their head, and doing everything to try and cool themselves down, and they were just nodding their heads and saying, ‘it's ghastly,’ and their expressions of course are far more dramatic than that, and it all ... it hit me then what a dreadful thing was going on along the coast.
So we then decided we'd go to ... Geelong for ... to try and get accommodation for the night, we had ... thank goodness, I did have six animals, and five had already [died of] old age. They were all strays, all animals that I'd saved from the time we'd arrived there, and I hadn't bought one, and ... really didn't want that many, knowing if I had to travel a lot, I didn't want them. But they ... five had already died, and there was the one, Kim, left, another stray, had a terrible beginning, so Kimmy didn't want to get in the car in the beginning, we had to push her in for once because she loved it, but she — we had to actually push her in. We went to a hotel and said about the dog ... oh, they didn't care, evidently every hotel and place in Geelong was full of people with their animals and ... that had come from the fire, and ... we turned the television on in that room and the first thing we saw was a plane going over and showing all the trail of disaster left behind, and Lolita said, 'I'm sure that's our balustrade there,' we still didn't think much about it, but it certainly looked like it, and we rang through to tell her family and a niece said, 'I've just seen a picture that shows up Jumbunna on the screen,' and she didn't say anything else, we thought right that must be it, and we had to order dinner up and couldn't eat it, ha, needless to say.
Well, it was a night of sort of sitting and thinking and listening to the ... they said there are only ... there are two places that don't exist anymore, one is Aireys Inlet, and the other up in the mountains ... Cockatoo, they said these two villages don't exist anymore. So we thought, well, we're out of Aireys, we're not in it. So we didn't even then give much thought to it. Next morning, of course, we set off to go back, go back home, and we'd been stopped at the top of the hill leading ... going down into Anglesea and ... we were asked whether we belonged here, and we said yes, and then we were told we could go, they were turning all ... everybody else down, all the people that wanted to go and see what had happened. At the base of the hill going ... leading up, that led out of Anglesea, another policeman stopped us and he recognised us and he said, 'Oh I've got bad news for you. Oh,' he said. 'Yes,' he said. 'You're burnt out, your home doesn't exist.'
And I think even then ... one didn't have a full sort of feeling that it had gone, the whole house and everything. You felt, oh yes, perhaps burnt, you know, roundabout and all the trees and everything, the bush. So as we went along, of course the road was as bit ... oh everything was black, and things were smouldering, all logs and trees, and it was unrecognisable. Then when we came to Cutsias [sp?], the sand looked just like diamante, the whole thing was all sparkling. That fire had gone right down to the water's edge, and no-one would have survived, that alone would have snuffed us out, down on the beach. Then we turned the corner and I said, 'I had no idea there was a house up in there' ... I really looked and thought, fancy us not knowing that place was in the trees there, and it was the remains of ours. It was like a great big long log burning. So we went on and we got to the gates, and of course everything was gone, the gates, all the trees. And we turned in and it was hard to find our own driveway to get up to the house. And as we turned, where we normally got a full view of the place, then we knew that it had just — nothing was there. This big, big, long log, that seemed to go for miles.
We turned around and ... managed to ... the heat alone, under the tyres, everything was, it was ... quite something you would see possibly on a film and think, oh, they've exaggerated it, the smouldering, and as I say the heat still there in the ground. This was hours after it had gone through the night before. No sound. Not a bird, not an animal, not a sound. And it was a beautiful day, that following day, absolutely beautiful. It was still and ... as I say so quiet, and we just thought the sooner we can get out the better at the moment. Which we did. We had to think of what we were going to do — our life.
It reminded me of one of the bombings in London, when I was at that stage in a muse cottage, and a bomb — a part of the shell of one — came through the ... the little bathroom muse window. It was up above the bathroom if, ha, you could call it that, but it was a nice little muse cottage, and it had come right through into the bath, and I'd been in that bath 10 minutes before and the bath had almost been cut in two, and I though, oh, hmmm, ha ha. You have these afterthoughts of ... of what you've just missed. But it was a similar sort of feeling. Then, that day I suppose, we were stunned you might say. You think of your toothbrush — the silliest things — everything: dusters, all things, brooms, anything at all, name it. But you forget that all your clothes have gone as well, and I was still in my old slacks that I'd bought, by the way, up in Alice Springs when I was there, because I didn't have any slacks when I got there, and I needed them for where we were going on our trek through ... and I was very attached to these pants, I've still got them by the way, I'll tell you that. They've been mended and mended but they're still intact ... and going into Melbourne ... dressed, ha, I mean I never thought ... I just hoped and prayed that no-one would see me, no no panic though, nothing, nothing.
But that wasn't the worst of what you'd lost, was it?
No, I'd lost my life almost, you could say that, I felt I'd never existed, because I had everything down there — of mine. There were a few things, a very few things were up in a small flat that Lolita had in Melbourne, and I had been out to a dinner prior to that, the night ... oh by, well, I suppose it must have been a week before, and I'd left some evening clothes up there, and it was a night that I had to wear medals, so my medals were up there, and ... I think I had a couple of dresses in her wardrobe, a few few things, fortunately, that I had there.
Oh they all ... I had nothing like that up at the flat, they were all down at Jumbunna, everything — everything went! All my music. I did have, by the grace of God — for the first time that Christmas I'd left some music at the college, but under lock and key, because normally I took it all away when the Christmas break came because it was the only thing to do We all knew that we ... anything you valued you didn't leave at the college for that holiday period. And ... I had decided that the music, it's so heavy, I only had my ... what I call my secondary scores then ... the things that I didn't treasure much at all; everything else I treasured was down at Jumbunna. And my Russian scores, my Russian records, everything that I really valued I didn't take to the college. But I ... was glad that I'd left some there, but ...
Oh my letters, my address book! And a lot of people ... took months and months to get ... because I couldn't contact them, and they thought that we were okay, because they'd rung from London, they'd rung from America on hearing where it was, at Aireys, and our phone was giving the answer signal, but it was burnt, it was gone, but the lines were underground, and they were still going tyum tyum, you know, tyum tyum as though the house was standing. There wasn't anything.
I think I was rather, as I say, stunned at first. I just thought, well, we've got to get something to live in and we've got to start building again. It was slow, it was a very sort of slow coming together, and I did gradually feel that I had never ... never existed. If I could have had my passport, I think I would have got on a plane and gone back to England. But I had no passport, and that took weeks to get, it was unbelievably slow, in fact, everything, everything of value that you wanted, and had to do with the money, with the ... you can't imagine, and the number of times that I had to go up and have everything signed by Justice of the Peace, I think.
How did you deal with it emotionally because when you've had several times in your life where you've come very, very close to death, and you've been saved in extraordinary ways at the last minute, that's given you a lot of chances to think about death and what life means. What — how do you feel about death now?
Well, I know it's inevitable. And we all realise that. I also know there are times when I think I haven't completed what I'm here on earth for, I haven't got time left, I must hurry, I must — that's how I feel at this very moment, that I haven't completed what I want to do. That I've got to hurry. I've got to get things done. Can you understand that? And ... I think then when it all slowly sort of seeped through, when I began to realise just the enormity of it, of losing all those things, and you see I was mad on books. Just as so I was mad on music, but I was mad on books. I read a tremendous amount and I had a very lovely collection of books back from England. I mean, even today I can't pass a bookshop without going in ... I had a lovely library there, and the thought of it, and some ... some of the pages of a score of mine burnt ... and all burnt ... I've still got them, were found miles away from Aireys on a beach where the wind had taken them. Miles away, past Anglesea, and some kind person found them, and thought that they could only come from my fire, from our home there, and very sweetly posted them back to me. And the smell, you know, the burnt music, the ... but there was a biscuit packet of Arnott’s, I could see it, Arrowroot biscuits, they were ... I've got it, it's like it's just for ... it's iron, I think I even have it here, I could show you later, because it's amazing what that fire did, and the cellar, all the bottles had burst, but not the brandy, and everything, my wine ... whatever it was, they'd all burst, and that was a very, very, deep cellar, and thick cellar, well-built, constructed for that very reason, completely burnt, and the only thing that had of course not burnt and it was along in the funniest place, was the safe — in the bathroom, the number one bathroom, and I was the only person that knew how to open it. Someone said, you must have been a what-is-it when the thieves can open saves ... safes and have that touch, and I had it of course the ... my memory was good, I knew the number, and it was a couple of days later after the fire, when we were taken down. I think it was a Saturday. We'd thought we couldn't face it, we went down on a Saturday morning — the fire was on the Wednesday — and Lolita's brother came down with us. And two of my students had said if they could help they would come down to see if there's anything at all they could do, which they did, they arrived later, but they did come down, and Ronald, Lol's brother, helped me over all the ruins, the ... you know ... it ... everything collapsed, it was all in a terrible mess, and he got me up on the ... there it was sitting, the safe, let me tell you, completely burnt, the whole outside, but I could get to the face of it, and he wiped away all the dust, the mess, that was on it, and I fiddled around and at first I thought, no, there's not a hope, it's not going to answer to my call today, and then suddenly it moved and the door opened. And we got what was in there but there was very little there, because the bulk of it was in a safe up in Lolita's flat, and especially ... of course the passports were not in it, they'd been burnt. They were in it, but heat inside it had made them unbelievably illegible, you might say. The great heat that was in that safe, to see it when the door opened, what had been, it was incredible.
Did this experience alter your values at all, did you start thinking differently about ...
... Yes I did ...
... and I swore to myself that I would never collect again, I wouldn't collect anything. That I had nothing, so I wanted to remain with nothing. I thought, no, all the furniture that I'd valued, all the wonderful gifts I'd been given and the china, all those lovely things, wonderful things, irreplaceable most of them. I said, no, this is a lesson, I'm not going to have anything cluttering around me again, I don't want anything, I'll travel with so little when I travel, and of course what happened, I had said in an interview that I'd lost all my records, and if ... but I wasn't talking of gramophonal records, as records of my existence and such as my passport ...
... and my diaries. I'd lost all that sort of thing, that's what I meant by my records, but people thought I meant my gramophone records, and they started pouring in ... [laughs] ... oh dear, I'd never received so many things, it was wonderful, the people and their thoughts, how quickly they reacted and started sending things, and of course, friends provided us with clothes, 'cause we had no underwear, no nighties, no nothing, and we were getting to go ... clothes and I must say the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Salvation Army were wonderful, they gave us sort of slips where we could go to shops and get certain things. And quite frankly I think I've been living on those articles of clothing and the blankets, sheets, all that sort of thing that you don't think about straightaway, had come through those organisations, they were wonderful, but the thoughts of the people, people you know, seen and met, all were so inexplicably great.
For some of the time while you were living in Vienna, you moved out of the castle or the place where you were living with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and into a house, a private house that had some boarders in it. Could you tell me about that household and who else was there at the time?
Those houses are very large, and really it was a ground floor flat, I ... we call it a flat, apartment, and it was considerably bigger than anything I know in our part of the world, and I think about three, four of us, different nationalities, and there were friends, it was a baroness that owned it, and she had a daughter and this daughter Vera — they were all very fluent in about I would say five or six languages — and there was a special friend that used to come and eat there on a Saturday and Sunday, and they would go along when we'd had our lunch, and we, the sort of paying guests (Pgs), went to our rooms or whatever, or out, but the baroness would go with her daughter and their friends, right along the other end of this apartment, but was more or less ... no, it was kept off, it was isolated from us in other words, and there ... I consider myself of course elevated and very, very honoured because I was asked along to have coffee on one occasion, and no-one I knew had been, none of us had anyhow. And they had ... they'd ... I drank for the first time in my life, Turkish coffee, which I liked, it was sweet though, but I also came into the conversation, it was all German, they never spoke anything else but German, although they were fluent in many languages including my own.
I noticed on occasions the conversation would be hushed and lowered, and there were young men there, and one I called him the 'Count of No Account', because he was a count but his suit, the ends were frayed, and he looked as poor as could be, but he spoke beautifully as they all did, and there was this blonde girl that often came, her name was Maidi, and I think after about four or five visits, they accepted me and they became freer with their speech, and I noticed that they often spoke about the Nazis and the anti-Jewish. I just thought the ... the baroness was a Jewess, but I don't think she was at all, her name was Dijanovitz [sp?] and though a ... although she I think came from Yugoslavia, I'm not sure exactly what ... it were there ... there was a very sort of close family anyhow, but these young men, they started talking how they'd plastered the Nazi signs up on ... they saw them plastered up on walls, and how they would erase them, wash them off, and this of course intrigued me. They spoke a lot about politics, in fact, I realised then that the whole sort of gathering was rather political.
I then went to London and said goodbye to them all and I was coming back, but not for some weeks, and I'd arrived in London, and I was standing at a bus stop at Hyde Park corner, and who did I see but the daughter Vera, whom I'd said goodbye to the day before. I thought, how extraordinary. And I called out, I said Vera, and she quickly looked at me, and then she hurried off, and that upset me, rather, I'd never had anybody sort of brush me off like that. I didn't think much about it, I was hurt at the time. I thought, oh well, I'll ask all about that when I get back. Then, I suppose it was only about three days later, there were headlines in the paper about the big spy setup in Paris, and I knew Maidi used to go backwards and forwards to Paris a lot. She travelled all the time, this blonde girl who spoke so many languages and very intelligent, and I ... that's what attracted one to her because you found you could speak on many subjects, and it had that she'd been shot. And I thought ... I saw the photo, and I thought good heavens, I've been embroiled in something that again I was in complete ignorance, and this was ... it was a political ... she was a spy evidently, a very well-known spy, and she'd used to have the officers and then entertain them lavishly and they spoke too much and too freely, and Maidi of course was the inbetween who passed on the information from one set to another, and that was her nasty grim end, which did affect me, very much so. Nothing had happened in my life like that, and I thank goodness nothing has since, but there was another little milestone.
Now to skip on to another sort of nasty bit, which was when you were in Africa and you were in Kenya, and you were giving a concert in Nairobi. Could you tell me about what it was like in Nairobi at that time?
Oh yes, the height of the sort of awful Mau Mau period, and the things ... I think they call them pangas or something, these big knives. Anyhow, the families ... the whites could not possibly leave their children or anybody in the household alone. Wherever they went the whole family went and if it was night-time the youngsters just slept, whether it was in a hotel or wherever, or at a concert. But what was the most interesting fact about the women and their clothes at the concert — beautifully gowned, beautifully gowned — but they had all carried belts, and they all carried revolvers, which will show you what that period was like for them living in Nairobi at that time, because they never knew, you see, when they were going to be attacked, or from where and how, and that ... standing on the platform, and looking down at these families and faces and ... beautifully groomed and then to see this sort of grim thing attached, made one think ... made me think, I know, jolted me in and I had to make myself concentrate on what I was doing, which was to sing and remember my words and music, and these sort of things are happening.
It's like someone fainting in an audience. I see them, and those around the person that it's happened to, but the majority of the audience of course doesn't know what is going on, and I always made a point — it happened two or three times in concerts — that I went on singing, perhaps giving a bit more, singing forte, ha, the passage when it should have perhaps been piano in order to keep their attention and ... until they'd taken the person out. But these things from our point of view looking at you or ... it can be distracting and you've got to keep your wits on ... about you.
Another thing that I'd like to pick up with you is to go right back to a piece we missed, which was about when ... after you had ... I'll ask a question about it. When you had your bike accident, when you were 12 years old, and your hand was hurt in this, and you'd had the complicated operation to get it, your arm, operating, you had a problem with your fingers didn't you?
Oh that — that was a natural thing evidently because all the tendons in the arm and especially both bones being broken, it was ... it ... the fingers were jammed together, you might say, just like that, and they couldn't be moved. And it was several operations that I had upon this arm because it had to go into a blood bath, ooh for a time, and it then had to go into a salt bath — it's all very complicated and lengthy, but this part, to try and get the hand open again, I had ... they put a glove on it, they had to force it between my fingers, which was very painful, and they glued it then, and they had rings at the end of the fingertips, and those rings were attached to strings that went up to a sort of ... hmm, lines and pulleys and bags full of ... they were leadshots now I come to think about it, at each end of the bed. I was terrified quite frankly because they didn't tell me, they didn't explain what it was all about. They ... they were just doing it, and to get my arm round, had to be quite a business from this position, that took a long time, but I was strung up in these things ‘til gradually, oh, it was a long time it took to ... day after day, and then I became interested to see my hands strengthening.
When you had the accident and you ... after the operation you got your hand moving again, did you ever think of giving up the violin?
Well I had to. I realised that I could never use it in certain positions again, that the holding of the ... violin would be so tiring and I could never get my wrist around, my arm around, certain ... and I can't do that ... many many movements are restricted and have been ever since. But ...
Straight after the operation, did you start playing immediately?
Oh well, of course, I couldn't. I mean, straight after the operation nothing moved at all.
And they did all the things that you described to get it moving again?
And then what happened with the violin?
Have you got that? Have I told you that already?
No, we didn't get it, that's why I'm getting it again.
... Oh, I see. Oh, I'm sorry ... I should have told you this.
Yes, yes. Tim missed it and I ... it was ... we got all the stuff about how he got ... how you got your hand moving in the hospital.
And with the rings?
But we were particularly interested in how you, with great determination, kept on playing the violin.
Oh right, right, that's good.
Right. So that's the bit I'm after now so I'll ask the question again. With this problem, did you think of giving up the violin?
I had to think of giving it up because of the restrictions of movements following the ... what I've already described, and the fact that everything was so slow in getting back to normality, with my movements, my ... even then I thought that I could perhaps soon play it again, and I of ... I mean I ... I was ever hopeful, and ...
It was your fingering hand, wasn't it?
Oh yes, oh yes, yes.
So how did you get on? So did you start then trying to finger again?
Slowly, slowly, yes ... first time I picked it up it was very, very painful and I ... couldn't hold it at all, you know, this putting it in the position, then ... gradually I used tennis balls, I think, that time ... to squeeze, to get my hand, get some strength back. And that helped tremendously, and eventually I was able to hold it and even that was very painful, and I had to keep on putting it down because of the position that I ... that I can do normally with ... because of this arm and I just can't now even with this, and I worked on it, and I really did. I was determined to try to play again because I loved it, I wanted to continue playing. And I was ... I did eventually get there, and hold it for a certain amount of time, and when I was accepted in the orchestra the conductor was, oh, he would take no notice if I had to put my violin down, which was a big thing I thought in after-years although I didn't think so then, I thought, well that's very nice and ... I still hoped that I could go on, and in fact on one occasion I played the Bach, you know Ave Maria, the violin obbligato, and sang the ... [laughs] ... must have been awful, must have really been awful, but I did get back enough to play that, I couldn't get my Tchaikovsky going again, or any of the difficult things to play, but I was able to do that and, as I say now, it must have been a ghastly, ghastly performance, of playing the violin obbligato and then singing the melody. But it strengthened, and I ...
... [interruption] ... got going and had a great deal of pleasure from it for many years after that, and then of course once I travelled with my violin it went everywhere, but I had two at that stage, and they both went in the fire because they came ... they went over to Europe with me, I brought them back, in fact when I was desperate and things were going wrong and everything was not working out at all well, everything was going wrong, I'd get the violin out and I'd play it and it ... really was very funny. Lolita played the violin also, and if she got out and we started playing duets together when we were feeling very low and things were just not working out, we'd soon end in bursts of laughter because the sound — I once said to my agent, 'If you really want to get an audience in, just book us for a concert somewhere, and we'll play the two violins and they'll go into fits of laughter and so will we.' But we got a lot of fun out of it.
So you got laughter out of the violin, and the audience always got a great deal of feeling out of your voice, and I wanted to ask you about that because you had the kind of voice that really moved people — when people describe your voice, when you hear it on recordings, it's a voice with great emotion, and something in the quality of the voice that really moved people. Now that's how the audience hears it. When you're up there on the stage and singing, and this glorious voice is coming out, how does that feel to you from your side?
It's a strange ... naturally, the first thing I think about is a tonic. You know what I mean by that. Healthy and right and all vibrations working. Then when you're interpreting, well ... if it's in opera or a song, because just as much goes into a song as it does into the opera, in the recitatives or the arias, and you have those, for instance, lovely Verdi passages, Herr Verdi and Puccini, and they wrote so well for the voice, and put the voice in the right place to ... where you could give when you wanted to give because a lot of composers do not do ... do that, especially today, where they’re using intervals in such a way that the voice ... the human voice, which has never changed and can't change, it's just a part of our anatomy and it ... you can't say, oh you ... you'll get another instrument or do something, you can't go around the corner and replace a string or something, and you can't buy it. I mean a violinist saves up or any instrumentalists, they all save up to get a beautiful instrument. It costs them a lot of money, that initial one, but we don't have that problem, but we have so many others. And this feeling when you're singing and, you know, the voice ... if the orchestra's accompanying you or the piano, it ... that time when it soars above everything else, and you're getting those top notes, and you know that they're ringing out, you know that they're coming as you want them, and that you have that power, that ... great ... something inherent that you know nothing about and yet it's there. I mean, it is a mystery what ... well ... why ... whoever thinks about it realises what a mystery the voice is. How do we pitch a note? How do we know that's a B flat or whatever? And the feeling when everything's going well and the performance is going well, is one of inner joy, I think that's possibly the only way I can express it. You feel something within yourself that you have a power, that you have ... the desire to express, and that you know that you've got that report with the audience, and you can tell when you're taking a top note that there is an immediate response down there, that perhaps they're getting goose pimples, that is, they ... we don't feel that naturally, in fact that ... you don't feel any of those sort of emotions but you do feel that you've got something within, that is ... that you're able to project. That you're able to sing a lovely phrase, and there's nothing more satisfying than to be able to sing that phrase musically correct and vocally correct.
I certainly do. Very much. Oh yes. Always said a prayer before I went on stage, always. In fact I ... I say a prayer before I do most things, especially in difficult moments ... any moment, no, I do ... I not only believe but ... thought I had a private line to him on one occasion ... [laughs] ... he has a lot to listen to.
Oh in the ... it happened several times ... if I started going into that we'd never finish.
Ever doubted? No, no.
Not even when the ... [interruption] ...
... No, but when I was very young ...
... in the fire. Not even when you nearly died in the Blitz ... [interruption] ... not even ...
No, no. That's right. You're quite right. I've always thought that it was teaching me a lesson, that I had something to learn, or I deserved it. And I think from all the things that have happened to me, I have learnt. I have learnt something.
What do you think is the most important lesson that you've been taught in your life?
I hope it's humility. I mean, I used to think that golf taught me humility, which it did, because so many times, you know, you ... one says, 'well, just a game,' well, all these things in life are very important, and ... I played in so many championships and I used to ... say my prayer to God, 'Oh please help me.’ I watch them in the tennis now, I see a lot of them going ... making the sign of the cross, these top tennis players, just before they're about to serve, I think, oh good, good for them, but so many people forget, I think, forget God, and the mysteries that we don't know anything about, and when I hear of people scoffing, which of course today they do, scoff so much, and scoffing at miracles, also many miracles have happened in the history of the world, really miracles, and so there must be some very great force. And when, when the A.D., before Christ and after Christ, that changeover, it might ... there ... it must have been a tremendous thing, that night that God and God's son Christ, I ... well I read a lot of poetry, I love poetry.
Do you feel anything like a miracle has ever happened to you, a bit like a miracle?
Well, I've ... I should say the first thing that brought this to my mind was this very accident, when it happened, because I'd never thought about not having an arm, or not being able to play all the games and do what ... that's why I had the strength and the determination to make myself play hockey to ... I had ... they insisted that I wore a guard, which I had to have specially made for me, in order to play hockey and in case I got a hit. The only thing that I've never done, and I was told I would be very foolish if I ever did it, was to skate. And I've never, never done it, I've never gone to the snow and tried to ski or anything like that because ... I think that's about the only thing they said that I would be very foolish to do.
So what was the miracle about having your arm hurt?
The miracle was that I was spared. Because I could easily have got under the front of that car, and I wouldn't be here now. The second time I had that feeling was in the Thames in London with my two poodles, and the Thames was running very, very fast after a storm, and they used to go in after sticks and balls and that, and I wouldn't let them go in. That's only a little place in Battersea Park, a little bit of beach there, and I wouldn't ... I wouldn't let them go in and I made them ... there were two children playing on the sand, it was a very hot day, and I told them not to throw anything into the water, and they threw a stick in, and my big poodle Jani went in after it, and of course he disappeared around the corner, and ... I went in and I held him, and I knew that I couldn't swim against the tide and the river both running out, and he of course was torn ... going like this, and I got his paws on my shoulder and I held him up, and I went criss-cross until I felt, ‘I can't keep on, I'm going I'm going, this is the end,’ and that was the second time I very nearly and ... a friend put her hand around the corner of this brick wall, and grabbed Jani and pulled him out, and of course I was able to pull myself around, and I felt that was the last moment coming.
Another time I think was flying up to Brisbane, when I was out here on tour. And the ... one engine stopped, you could see the petrol fly out, flowing out, and I thought, oh this, this is my last moment now, but it wasn't, but I had the feeling that it was. Then the fire, by 10 minutes, I suppose I was saved, but I didn't realise it at that moment, it was only brought home to me, oh, days afterwards when it was discussed, at 10 minutes more if I had not left that house, I would have been ... there was nowhere that I could've ... it ... even I thought I might have gone in the cellar, that wouldn't ... I wouldn't have been saved there, that the heat was so tremendous that it would have choked you before you ... the fire even got to you, same with anywhere else in the house, and under the end of the house, you think of these positions that you thought you might go to be saved but you wouldn't ... I wouldn't have been safe. So that was another and so it goes on.
Do you think there's a life after death?
Now that ... I suppose when you've led a very full life, and so much has happened, I haven't thought a great deal about that, I ... off and on, when I'm in the few times that I sit and ruminate, I may have thought about that. It's come up in discussion naturally with friends, having chats over such things. I should like to think, I should like to believe that we do, that we must continue on, and yet I don't see how possible ... how it could be possible that one does and yet what the ... [interruption] ... I'm going to ask you now, what does happen to us all when we pass on, and now you've got to believe and one does believe in something, but ... you ... I should like to believe that we do, that something goes on.
But you're going to make sure that you get as much done as possible before it happens?
Absolutely, ha, what I feel I'm here on earth to do, I've got to get done.
Can I ask you how you feel about Australia and being Australian, because of course you had to go overseas to make your way, and then really many of your golden years were spent in England as a sort of British artist ... What made you come back to Australia at the end of your career?
Umm. The first part of your question, the British always think of me as being one of them, as a British artist, I know that. The feeling is that when I'm there that I'm not Australian. Of course, I think having spent the war years there has made a big difference, there's this sort of link and something that would always unite me. What made ... to eventually decide to come home was my health, that was the prime reason. They said go to a warm climate when I wasn't making very much progress after the coronary, and ... I don't ... suffered from quite a number of chest colds, always in the winter ... bad ones that I used to have to cancel time and again, engagements, and when they said a warm climate, I naturally thought, oh, oh well Australia, but really our climate is very unpredictable isn't it in ... when you think about it. You know, I didn't want to go up to Queensland where perhaps I should have gone for the heat, and I wanted to go to the coolest part of the country, and that's why I went down to Aireys Inlet. I didn't know anything about Aireys, you know, I ... nothing, in fact I didn't know much about the ambiance here at Melbourne at all, but I wanted to be where I thought it would be cool, and no humidity, but ... ha ... in the end it proved that the heat nearly drove me back again, if I'd ... I said earlier on if I'd had a passport I would have been off and back anywhere, anywhere out of here, well after that fire. But I also had this great, I think, love that was natural for me to have of my homeland and my friends, and it was a ... always a joy to pick up the threads with one's friends coming home, and I think that Dorothea ... Mackellar ... poem I Love a Burnt, ha ...
I Love a Sunburnt Country, yes. And I was a bit too sunburnt in 1983 for me, ha, yes it was all ... I was happy to think, well, perhaps this is the warmest part and I'd be better here. Certainly I'm not facing that awful winter that we get in Europe.
Have you felt appreciated professionally in Australia?
Oh. Oh I don't know. That's a difficult question.
Do you think Australia acknowledges its great successes?
Sometimes I don't and I feel that ... well, I know a certain person now that I feel has not been acknowledged yet, and I think one day this person will be, but certainly not at the moment and I just think, well, we all went through it because I had a bad time when I first came back, I certainly wasn't acknowledged then, and I think Joan [Sutherland] and Ricky [Bonynge] went through something ... and it's a strange thing, but I mean that's the same ... what .... in his own country?
A prophet is ... and I think that applies here as everywhere. I feel that's just universal. I don't think it's anything Australian, in particular, but it's probably more exaggerated and one thinks about it more here because, well, it's a smaller ... smaller ...