Australia's Women of Song
Australia's Women of Song
This collection contains portraits and recordings of 15 pioneering Australian opera singers, music-hall performers, jazz vocalists and instrumentalists.
They include Nellie Melba, Australia’s Queen of Song, who rose to the very top of her profession and established a worldwide reputation that has not faded.
Melba gave hope to many women singers and performers who followed in her footsteps, seeking their fortune in Europe and America in the first decades of the 20th century.
While most of the other women in the collection are not as well remembered as Melba, each is notable for the early role they played – however small – in the story of Australian women in music.
Nellie Melba was born Helen Mitchell in Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne, in 1861. She was married for a short time to Charles Armstrong, giving birth to their son, George, in 1883 in Queensland, but she decided that she wanted to be an opera singer. She returned to Melbourne in early 1884 and gave her debut concert in May that year.
In 1886, she travelled with her father to England to make a name for herself in Europe. Her Paris teacher Mathilde Marchesi encouraged her to change her name and she chose Melba as a tribute to her home town. Her European debut was in Brussels in 1887, and by 1889 she had returned to London to sing at Covent Garden, the beginning of major worldwide success. She was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1918.
Dame Nellie Melba’s early recording of 'Chant Vénitien’, a song composed by Herman Bemberg, who accompanies her in this recording. It was made for the Gramophone Company in London on 20 October 1904.
Summary by Graham McDonald
Gladys Moncrieff was one of the great stars of the Australian musical stage for more than 35 years – described by many as Australia’s Queen of Song (a title that had originally had been given to Nellie Melba), or simply Our Glad.
This photograph shows Moncrieff dressed as the character Teresa from the operetta The Maid of the Mountains, by Harold Fraser-Simson and James W Tate. She played the part in 1921, performing for the theatrical organisation JC Williamson’s, and it made her a major star. Moncrieff subsequently performed the role of Teresa some 2800 times.
In 1921, performing for the theatrical organisation JC Williamson’s, Gladys Moncrieff played the role of Teresa in The Maid of the Mountains, a role that established her as a major star – she subsequently performed the role some 2800 times.
This recording from The Maid of the Mountains demonstrates Moncrieff’s powerful range, rich soprano and excellent diction that earned her a large following both in Australia and around the world.
Gladys Moncrieff was one of the great stars of the Australian musical stage for more than 35 years – described by many as Australia’s Queen of Song, or simply Our Glad.
This song was composed by the American jazz musician and arranger, Don Redman, and by American songwriter, Buck Ram.
It is performed by Australian jazz and swing singer Barbara James.
In this recording, Florence Austral sings the hymn commonly known as 'There is a green hill far away'. It was written by the female composer Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, as part of her collection Hymns for Little Children.
Australian soprano Florence Austral made many recordings with the record label His Masters Voice but in those early recordings was said to be disappointed in the way the recording process reduced her powerful voice.
Ada Crossley, a contralto, was born in Tarraville, Victoria in 1871. She was introduced to singing by her mother, however her first professional teacher was Fanny Simonsen (the grandmother of fellow singer Frances Alda).
Heading to London in 1894, she was in much demand as a singer of oratorio and sacred songs; she performed for Queen Victoria five times in two years. Although she was to make England her permanent home, she never forgot her place of birth, returning to tour in Australia in 1903 and 1908.
She was regarded as a first point of contact for Australian singers in London, who would seek her out for advice and letters of introduction.
Ada Crossley first performed this song at a benefit concert at Melbourne Town Hall in April 1889 and it was to become a regular in her repertoire. A reviewer at the time declared that this ballad ‘suited her sweet and mellow voice admirably’.
After Crossley moved overseas, she became a first point of contact for Australian singers in London, who would seek her out for advice and letters of introduction.
Born in Fitzroy, Victoria in 1875, Florrie Forde was an early star of popular music in Australia. She sailed for England in 1897 and debuted in the London music halls later that year.
Forde made her first recording in 1903 and by 1936 had recorded over 700 songs.
During the First World War she became well known for patriotic songs like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’. She died in 1940, shortly after entertaining troops at a naval base in Scotland.
Florrie Forde was one of Australia’s first major popular-music stars, specialising in songs with catchy choruses that the music hall audiences could sing along with. During the First World War she became well known for patriotic songs like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’. Born in Fitzroy, Victoria in 1875, she sailed for England in 1897 and debuted in the London music halls later that year. She made her first recording in 1903 and by 1936 had recorded over 700 songs. Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy is a fine example. Forde died in 1940, shortly after entertaining troops at a naval base in Scotland.
Edison Blue Amberol 23118
Marjorie Lawrence, a mezzo-soprano who spent her career singing dramatic soprano roles, was born in Dean’s Marsh in Victoria in 1907.
She performed at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Company in New York for nine years, including in the opera Salome in 1937. She was a dynamic performer who rode a horse across the stage in her performance as Brunhilde in Wagner’s opera Gotterdammerung.
Lawrence was diagnosed with polio in 1941. Despite being significantly affected by the disease, she was rebuilding her singing career by 1943. She sang on the radio and appeared in productions in which the roles were modified so she could perform sitting down. In 1944 she performed for thousands of wounded soldiers in the South Pacific. She retired from public performance in 1952 but continued to be involved in the opera scene for many years to come, teaching singing at numerous universities in America.
Eleanor Parker portrayed Lawrence in an Oscar-winning Hollywood biopic called Interrupted Melody (Curtis Bernhardt, USA, 1955).
This photograph, taken in New York, shows Lawrence dressed as the character Salome on set of a Metropolitan Opera production of Salome by Richard Strauss.
This song was originally composed by Dorothy Stewart for the Australia Day dinner held by the Australian Society of New York in 1940.
Marjorie Lawrence performed it in a short film for the Australian Red Cross which was also shot in New York in 1944. In the film, Lawrence sings 'God Bless Australia' and then makes an appeal to Australians to donate to the Red Cross.
Later that year, Lawrence released the recording of the song on the Columbia record label.
Amy Castles recorded this song from Verdi’s opera Rigoletto in September 1906 in London. It is one of her earliest commercial recordings.
A dramatic soprano, she was born in Melbourne in 1880 and was raised in Bendigo. Early in her career, Castles was touted as the ‘new Melba’, which must have been a huge pressure for a young performer.
Castles travelled to London in 1899 and met with the great singer herself, who offered her support and advice. Nellie Melba attended Castles’ first London performance in 1901, a concert at St James Hall, where she appeared with Ada Crossley and Clara Butt.
In 1902, Castles returned to Australia to tour with the JC Williamson Company. She spent the next 18 years working in Italy, Germany, America and Australia, although she never quite reached the heights her supporters had hoped.
Ella Caspers, a contralto who was known as ‘the girl with the voice of gold’, was born in Albury, NSW in 1888. In 1902, she made her debut performance at age 14.
In 1908 Caspers was awarded a scholarship with the Royal Academy of Music in London and travelled to England the following year to take up the opportunity. In 1911, Caspers married a man who was soon after charged with bigamy.
She returned to Australia in 1914 to tour with her sister, Agnes Caspers. When the First World War broke out they were unable to return to Europe as planned.
Caspers married for a second time in 1921 and retired the following year but continued to perform in Australia until the 1950s.
This sentimental song in which a girl reminisces with her father about her mother, who has passed away, was recorded on the Pathe record label whilst Ella Caspers was in Europe.
Born in New South Wales in 1888, Ella Caspers was a contralto who was known as ‘the girl with the voice of gold’.
Frances Alda became a leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York in the early 20th century.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1879, she came to live in Australia in as a young child. She initially received singing training from her grandmother Fanny Simonsen, who was herself a prima donna. Alda made her Australian debut in 1897 in a JC Williamson production called Matza.
Setting off for Europe in 1902, she became a leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York from 1908–29. She was known for her performances as Desdemona in the opera Otello and Mimi in the opera La Bohème.
This photograph, taken in New York, shows Alda dressed as Mimi, on the set of a Metropolitan Opera production of La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini. It was taken by the Russian-born photographer Herman Mishkin, who was principal photographer at the Metropoliton Opera Company from 1910–32.
Frances Alda became a leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York in the early 20th century.
She recorded this sentimental love song, composed by Melbourne-born composer May H Braye, with lyrics by Helen Taylor. Brahe also published her compositions under ten different pseudonyms, eight of which were male names.
Mary Narelle, was born Mary Ryan at the Combaning Sheep Station near Temora, NSW, to parents of Irish descent. She adopted the surname Narelle as her stage name, saying Narelle was a 'queen of the Aboriginal people of Moruya'.
Known as 'the Australian Queen of Irish Song', she proudly identified with her Irish heritage and performed in concerts supporting the move to independence for Ireland. Her first London appearance was a benefit concert in Royal Albert Hall with Ada Crossley and Clara Butt in 1903.
This image was used to promote Marie Narelle's first appearance in Melbourne, at Miss Maud McCarthy's concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on 23 November 1899.
Known as 'The Australian Queen of Irish Song', Marie Narelle undertook tours to Ireland, the UK and the US, and in the latter she recorded on wax cylinder with Thomas A Edison Inc. ‘Sweet Spirit Hear My Prayer’ is a ballad from the opera Lurline, composed by Irish musician William Vincent Wallace to a libretto by English playwright Edward Fitzball and first performed in 1860.
Wallace became known as ‘the Australian Paganini’ during his time here from 1835 to 1838, during which he opened the first Australian music academy and organised the country’s first music festival, at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.
L'Incognita performed at music halls in Europe, wearing a black lace mask to conceal her identity. Audiences of the time were intrigued and newspapers reported that 'the mysterious atmosphere which surrounded each performance speedily set the gossips talking. Was she an anarchist in disguise? Had some eccentric member of the "smart set" adopted this highly original method of earning a living? Was it true she claimed a relationship with royalty?'
L'Incognita was actually Violet Emily Le Breton Mount, born in Melbourne in 1875. The first mention we have of Violet Mount performing opera is in 1902. She is known to have appeared in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and across Queensland before leaving Australia for Europe at the end of 1905.
As well as 'L'Incognita', Violet also recorded under the pseudonym 'Violetta Viamonti'. She made her first recordings in 1908. After a long career performing across Europe she died in Surrey, England in 1972.
Singing a song that Nellie Melba made famous, Violet Mount, who used the stage name L’Incognita, is paired with the New Zealand born flautist, John Amadio.
John Amadio performed extensively with the Australian singers Nellie Melba and Florence Austral; Austral later become his wife. The lyrics for this song are drawn from one of William Shakespeare’s early plays, The Comedy of Errors.
L'Incognita performed at music halls in Europe, wearing a black lace mask to conceal her identity. Audiences of the time were intrigued and newspapers reported that 'the mysterious atmosphere which surrounded each performance speedily set the gossips talking'.
As well as 'L'Incognita', Violet also recorded under the pseudonym 'Violetta Viamonti'. She made her first recordings in 1908 and after a long career performing across Europe, died in England in 1972.
Margherita Grandi, a mezzo-soprano, was born as Margaret Gard, on Harwood Island, NSW in 1894.
She travelled to Europe in 1911 where she received training in London, Paris and Milan.
Grandi went on to have an impressive career as a dramatic soprano in Europe, also performing in South America and Egypt, but never returned to Australia.
This recording, sung in Italian, is from the opera Don Carlos by Verdi. In it, Margherita Grandi plays the role of Elisabeth of Valois, a woman who is torn between keeping her commitment to help Don Carlos and her desire for her life to end.
The Australian-born Grandi had an impressive career as a dramatic soprano in Europe, also performing in South America and Egypt.
Marjorie Stedeford was a jazz singer who was known for her deep voice. She was born in Melbourne in 1909 and started her musical career there in the late 1920s. By the 1930s she was performing with bands such as Cecil Fraser’s Melbourne ABC band and Benny Featherstone’s orchestra, the Rex Cabaret.
From 1935 to 1937, Stedeford was in London in what turned out to be an incredibly fruitful part of her career. She recorded with artists such as The Six Swingers, Mario Lorenzi and His Rhythmics, and Carroll Gibbons and his Boy Friends. She returned to Australia and continued performing until her death in 1959.
Recorded with Mario ‘Harp’ Lorenzi and his Rhythmics in January 1937 whilst singer Marjorie Stedeford was living and working in London.
This song was originally composed for the soundtrack of the 1936 American film Banjo on my Knee, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea.
The Australian-born Stedeford worked in London from 1935 to 1937, recording with artists such as The Six Swingers and Carroll Gibbons and his Boy Friends.
Una Bourne, pianist and composer, was born in Mudgee NSW in 1882. She was a child prodigy, who was performing publicly by the 1890s, playing at a benefit concert for Amy Castles in 1899.
Her talent was recognised by Nellie Melba who selected her as her associate artist for tours in 1907, 1909 and 1912. She also accompanied Melba on her tour of Australia in 1920.
Bourne made many recordings with the record label His Masters Voice, some of which were her own compositions. She also recorded multiple works by the French female composer, Cecile Chaminade.
Although Una Bourne did compose and record her own pieces, this piano solo was composed by another female composer, Cecile Chaminade. It is from Six Etudes de Concert. Op. 35, created in 1886.
Bourne, pianist and composer, was born in Mudgee, NSW in 1882. She was a child prodigy, who was selected by Nellie Melba as her associate artist for tours in 1907, 1909 and 1912. She also accompanied Melba on her tour of Australia in 1920.