Stars of OA’s Ring Cycle pay tribute to the secret life of Miriam Gordon-Stewart’s grandmother.

Amongst the host of Wagnerian delights that make up Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Festival, one in particular should arouse curiosity. Susan Bullock (OA’s Brünnhilde) and Miriam Gordon-Stewart (the production’s Sieglinde) will join forces for a personal tribute recital entitled Songs for Robbie.

The genesis of the show came about by complete chance. In a storage box in a back shed, dramatic soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart discovered a faded, hand-written memoir by her grandmother, Eileen Robbins. Robbie, as her friends called her, had died in 2007 aged 101 but, unbeknownst to her family, she had written the story of her life 30 years previously.

Her poignant, affecting stories of coming of age, music, faith and loss in the early 20th Century revealed a girl whose love of singing ruled her life. From accounts of entertaining the WWI troops as “The Nipper” to a fateful audition for a West End producer, the engaging quality of her writing inspired Gordon-Stewart to turn it all into a recital in her honour.

“I was very close to my Gran,” Miriam explains. “But reading this memoir made me realise how little I really knew of her life. She was a singer in a time when taking the stage was not respectable. I see now that I am living her dreams.”

The recital will feature readings from Eileen Robbins’ memoir, spoken by the Melbourne Ring Cycle’s very own Brünnhilde, Susan Bullock. Gordon-Stewart and pianist, Kate Golla will intersperse the readings with songs by Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Charles Ives, Viktor Ullmann and Margaret Sutherland.

Robbie’s memoir is far more extensive than could be read through in one evening so Gordon-Stewart has allowed Limelight to publish some of her writings, with Miriam’s own commentaries, as a taster of what might be in store. “It’s never too late to pay tribute to a life,” she adds. “This is the best way I know to honour the woman who taught me about patience and dignity.”

A tale of Chris and Chu Chin Chow: In this excerpt, my Grandmother tells of an old neighbour, Chris, returning to the village to share news of her latest successes on the West End. Chris convinces Gran (Eileen) to come and see the show over the Easter weekend, probably in 1916 or 1917. One thing leads to another:

Robbie writes: “Chris was in the chorus of Chu, Chin, Chow. Mum said, “Eileen can do the splits and a good high kick.” She said would Jack and I like to see the show. Jack declined, but I said I would, so I went to London for the Easter holiday. I went to rehearsals with Chris and joined in on the stage of His Majesty’s Theatre, borrowing clothes from the dresser.

I was introduced to Oscar Asche, the producer, who said he would take me on for chorus work. I was thrilled, and couldn’t get home quickly enough to tell Mum and Dad. However, my hopes were dashed to the ground when they said, “No, not on my account are you going to go on the stage.”

I felt so frustrated and miserable, with school leaving time coming up in August.  What could I do? I thought of going in for nursing, but no way could money be found to send me for training. I would have to start from the bottom and be a ward maid, scrubbing floors and emptying bedpans.”

Miriam says: When I first read this story, I wondered (in the nicest possible way) whether Gran had perhaps conflated some memories in the retelling. Was it truly His Majesty’s Theatre where this episode took place? Or was it actually some little music hall revue, playing for a couple of weeks before being replaced by the next bawdy burlesque? I have since learned not to question Eileen’s memory for detail. When researching the exact dates, places and names mentioned, I found that Chu Chin Chow was indeed playing at the prestigious His Majesty’s, having opened there in 1915. Oscar Asche was not only the producer but also the writer and star of the show, which enjoyed an unprecedented five year season. The chorus, however, were very scantily clad “slave girls”. The thought of my little Gran at age 10 strutting her stuff for an audience of rowdy military men (of which, apparently, the audience was largely comprised) helps me to accept that perhaps her parents truly did make the right choice in keeping her out of that world at that time. Whenever I am in London, walking through the West End, I think of this adventure and imagine her vicarious thrill at my own ‘life upon the wicked stage’.

“The Nipper” plays Cliveden: During the First World War, Lord and Lady Astor opened Cliveden mansion in Buckinghamshire for use as a military hospital. An Australian soldier who was convalescing there at the time came to visit his relatives in Gran’s hometown of Langley. Having heard her sing at church, he arranged for her to come to Cliveden and sing for the other soldiers. After this memorable day, Gran and Lady Astor corresponded for many years, the Viscountess generously contributing to many of Eileen’s charity projects in Langley.

Robbie writes: “The drive was so long to the house and when it came into view, surrounded by beautiful lawns and statues, I was filled with awe. There were great, wide steps going up to the house, and on the balcony were soldiers in hospital blue, some in wheelchairs, some lying on long beds to be wheeled into the ballroom.

When Matron greeted us, I couldn’t say a word. While the nurses were wheeling the soldiers into position, I told Ruby I couldn’t go through with it – I’d got a lump like a cricket ball in my throat, to see all these poor wounded men, some without arms and legs, some with faces all bound up so you couldn’t see them. I was frantic and then I remembered what my teacher, Miss Portsmouth, had told me. “Forget yourself, and live the part you are acting and singing.” I don’t pretend to have ever had a good voice but I could “get it over”, as my training with Miss Portsmouth had taught me that words and expression meant everything. I had to live the words I was singing. I still cry when I sing some hymns to myself in my little room for the words are so real, and I feel their meaning inside of my heart.

I opened my mouth and was surprised to hear myself, doing what seemed the impossible. When I had run out of my comic repertoire, we had wartime songs, like Keep the homefires burning. After tea, Matron said “The Nipper” (as the men had dubbed me ­– and how they laughed when she announced that!) would sing Day is dying in the West. I forgot it was me and poured out my adoration of my Lord. They didn’t clap, just death of silence. One of them said to me, “You were good in the first part, Nipper, but in the second you were wonderful.  It’s done something to me.””

Miriam says: These little moments where Gran describes her singing lessons with Miss Portsmouth are like gold nuggets to me. I find myself reading them and crying out “Yes! That’s great!” I think I could have learned a lot from Miss Portsmouth. This kind of focus on true communication of text and study of the deeper meaning of songs came surprisingly late for me. When I finally did have a teacher who pushed me in this way, it was as if a world of emotion came rushing in. I came to know what people mean when they speak of “the power of music”. I began to feel like a vessel for music rather than a creator of it.  This is the experience of singing at its best, and at its scariest. Clearly Gran felt it too: that sense of awe at channeling something so much more powerful than ourselves.

Stepping out in London Town: Having intervened in a previous relationship between Eileen and Bill (her true love), Gran’s parents were thrilled to hear that she was stepping out with a wealthy doctor’s son, John Windle. She describes a man who appeared to shower her with generosity but saved his violent temperament for their private moments. In this story, we witness Gran’s early sense that she wasn’t safe with John.

Robbie writes: “On the following Wednesday, John took me up to London. He could seem to get time off as it suited him. He said he wanted to buy me a dress, “as I had nothing to wear”. I said I would like a dress, but I would pay for it myself. We went by car and he dropped me off at Bourne and Hollingsworth and said he would go and park the car somewhere, so I walked up and down waiting for him.

A girl kept passing me, or she would stop and glare at me as I passed. I wished John would come for I didn’t like the look of her. Then as I passed her again, she came up to me and said “If you don’t get off my beat, I’ll do you.” I said “I don’t know what you mean.” I was scared. Just then John came up and the girl made off.

I was so relieved to see him, it was like being rescued from the Devil. I told him what had happened and what the girl had said about me being on her beat and asked him what she meant. He was very kind, looked amused and said “You’ll grow up one day and I’ll be the one to help you.”

We went off to B&H, looked through the dresses and I took some into the dressing room to try on. John wanted me to go out and let him see, which I did and we chose one that we both liked. When I had dressed again and went out to pay, it was to find that John had already paid the bill and my dress was done up in a box.

We had tea at B&H and then went to the Coliseum to see a variety show. John was in a good mood.  I wanted to pay for my dress but he said it would spoil his day if I insisted, so I left it at that Mum was waiting up for me. She seemed pleased that I’d had such a good time, and wanted to see my dress. I undid the box, and to my amazement, there were three. I was shocked that John had done this to me. I didn’t mind one, but three. He had paid for them, but I wondered in what way he would expect me to pay him back, for instinct told me he was like that.

I didn’t know much about it, but the way he kissed me at times frightened me. Mum seemed pleased that John was spoiling me and said wasn’t I glad I had waited for him. I choked and couldn’t say anything. It is strange how those that we love can hurt us so, especially without meaning to, and I have always been reluctant to cause pain to anyone who loved me. I seem to have been oversensitive."

Miriam says: My Gran was so very devoted to her Mother. This is the closest she comes to expressing any disappointment in the way she was “mothered”. The man she describes in this passage was aggressive, controlling and cruel, but her Mother’s only concern was that he belonged to a wealthy class and could potentially improve Eileen’s circumstances. In the recital, we tell the tale of how horribly this relationship ended. It is clear, too, that she spent the rest of her life dealing with these events. 

Eileen encouraged both my Mother and I to pursue our dreams single-mindedly. She was reticent in questioning our choices and would never have interfered in my Mother’s personal life. She was the last person to judge another’s failings and saw only the human frailty in bad situations. There were times when I feared telling her about my latest personal drama, but her answer was invariably, “Well, darling. It’s probably for the best.”

Songs for Robbie is at the Scots Church, Melbourne, December 7.