From diva rivalries to indecent acts in toilets, a new recording project looks at those who rose and those who fell.

Three thousand people were on the quayside when the Bengal sailed from Port Melbourne with 142 passengers on March 11, 1886. A sunny day, there was “an endless mass of parasols and pocket handkerchiefs.” Among the travellers was a young singer, billed in concerts in her native Victoria as ‘Mrs Armstrong’, as yet little known to the general public, who was travelling to London together with her husband Charlie Armstrong, her two-year-old son George and father David Mitchell. Before the Bengal reached the heads of Port Melbourne, an ad hoc onboard choir had been formed and Mrs Armstrong conducted. Could she have imagined that, within a few years, she was to become prima donna assoluta, the most famous singer in the world, Dame Nellie Melba?

She wasn’t alone. Scenes like this were re-enacted hundreds of times across Australasia as ambitious young Australian and New Zealand musicians and singers left home in search of tuition, experience, fame and fortune in the great artistic centres of Paris and London. 

The Marchesi effect

For women from Australia and New Zealand in the fin de siècle seeking to improve both skills and marketability, top of the wish list was to be taught by Madame Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913) whose school in Paris became a magnet for aspiring singers from around the world.

A Marchesi pupil we have only recently come to know much about was the contralto Irene Ainsley (1883-1968). Born Ivy Ansley in Sydney, she was brought up by an aunt in Auckland. Her mother, a singer, had died in Melbourne when Ivy was just six. Her first teacher was Lilian Tree, who had earlier been the first Brünnhilde in English at Covent Garden. Ivy was heard in Auckland by Melba in 1903 and, encouraged by her, she moved to London, where she became a pupil of both Minna Fischer from South Australia and Melba herself. 

SS Orama leaving Sydney

Melba arranged for her to audition for Marchesi in Paris, and supported her financially during the time she was at the École, where her name was upgraded to the supposedly more distinguished Irene (pronounced ee-rain) Ainsley. At her London debut at the Bechstein Hall in July 1906, she was accompanied by the diva herself, who had brought together in the audience the Prince and Princess of Wales (later George V and Queen Mary) while Madame Marchesi travelled from Paris specially for the occasion.

Ainsley performed with a number of different opera companies and after the First World War she returned home, touring Australasia with Melba’s company in 1924.  She went on to teach for many years in New Zealand, her most prominent pupil being Sister Mary Leo, the teacher of Kiri Te Kanawa and others. A rare recording of her singing Absent is in the collection of Michael Letchford.

Some 15 years after Melba, another young soprano, Fanny Davis (1879-1952), left Australia together with brother Alby, she to pursue an operatic career in Europe, he to study medicine. They sailed to London in August 1901. Fanny and Alby had jointly inherited £10,000 in insurance following the death of their mother. It was a large sum at that date, equivalent to over a million dollars in current Australian currency. She was encouraged to take this step by her aunt, Frances Saville (1865-1935), who was by then a principal artist with Gustav Mahler’s Court Opera in Vienna.

Fanny Davies

Having lost their opera-singing mother as small children in 1885, Fanny and Alby had grown up with their grandparents at their house at St Kilda. Her grandparents, Martin and Fanny Simonsen, shared the house with their own children, a flock of singers. Together Martin and Fanny ran (and performed in) a wide range of operas, which they toured with their own company, many of their children and grandchildren involved in one capacity or another. “Grandmother adored and spoiled us both, as conscientiously as grandfather disciplined us,” she wrote in her memoirs. By that time she was a leading star of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, renamed Frances Alda. “Certainly a great deal of the secret of Frances Alda was to be found in the impulsive, fiery-tempered, ardent little girl playing prima donna in the lath and burlap theatre in the garden at St. Kilda,” she explained.

As she told the story herself, to get hired as a teenager, Fanny had knocked on the door of the impresario JC Williamson, announced to him that she could sing as well as any of the singers in his company and demanded that he engage her. He did. She appeared (named Francie Adler) in pantomime, and later in leading roles in Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular operettas.

Fanny was not to know then that Melba was to be a serious obstacle to her later in her career

On their first night in London, Fanny and Alby went to hear Nellie Melba at Covent Garden. She was singing one of her greatest roles – Mimì in La Bohème. Fanny was not to know then that Melba was to be a serious obstacle to her later in her career. Or that she would in turn take her revenge on Melba at the Met. But that’s another story, and Alda’s first recording would be a try-out with her friend Enrico Caruso.

Bring on the men

The year following Alda’s arrival, in March 1902, the 20-year-old Peter Dawson (1882-1961) left his home city of Adelaide for London. He sailed third class from Melbourne on the White Star Line’s Afric, arriving at the end of May. Peace had just been declared following the end of the Boer War.

Peter’s father ran an iron-working business, which his young son was expected to join. There was plenty of music in the home and the church, and Peter learned to sight-read expertly in childhood before he was apprenticed as a plumber in his father’s firm. At 18 he started singing lessons “for my own amusement,” as he put it. Success at the South Street Competition at Ballarat in January 1901 boosted Peter’s confidence and friends gathered the funds to send him to London to complete his studies with the legendary baritone Sir Charles Santley.

Dawson’s first recordings were made in 1904, his last no less than 50 years later (with total sales estimated at some 14 million). Among his recorded legacy are definitive recordings of William James’ Six Australian Bush Songs.   

In the latter part of the 19th century, Australia and New Zealand were culturally much closer to each other than they have been in more recent years. It was in those days that the gifted young composer Alfred Hill (1869-1960) was born in Melbourne and moved with his family to New Zealand as a child. 

Alfred Hill

By the age of 17 it was clear that he should go to Europe to study. His father Charles, a hatter (and violist), asked the advice of one of the great virtuosos of the day, Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, who recommended that young Alfred should go to Leipzig to study. As Melba before him, on-board ship to Europe he formed a choir. 

Hill returned to Sydney in 1910, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Considered by some to be Australia’s (and New Zealand’s) most successful composer, he made two unpublished recordings as a singer in London in 1926. One of these was of his famous 1904 song, Waiata Poi, only recently rediscovered.

If he is remembered at all now, Walter Kirby (1877-1934) is best known for a major contretemps with Melba. The tenor incurred the wrath of the diva when he missed the boat from Hobart to Dunedin in January 1903, being thus unable to join the first concert of her tour of New Zealand. He eventually did manage to rejoin the party having hitched a ride on a passing fishing boat. Watching Kirby go on stage, the incensed Melba is reputed to have muttered: “Lovely voice! Pity he’s such a fool. He looks like a pregnant frog.”

Born in Auckland, Kirby was a well-known boy soprano before moving as a child to Sydney. Surprisingly, given their history, in London Melba appears to have forgiven him, recommending him to her friend Jean de Reszke in Paris. In Europe he seems to have eventually studied with around a dozen different teachers including the great Caruso. All this must have cost a small fortune, financial support coming from Lady Methuen and Lady Wantage in England. He went on to have a successful career on both sides of the world, performing with Emma Calvé, Clara Butt and many others. The heart of his career in Britain was in aristocratic ‘At Homes’. The acerbic Thorold Waters in his memoirs does not name Kirby, but clearly this description is he: “… [an] Australian tenor who was much petted among countesses for a dulcet voice, catfish eyes and detestable manners.”

In 1931 came the low point of his life when he was sentenced to 21 days imprisonment for having committed an ‘act of indecency’ at Victoria Station in London. At his death three years later, he bequeathed £14,000 to hospital charities in Wantage (presumably in recognition of Lady Wantage), and £1,000 each to establish singing scholarships at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium and at the University College in his birthplace, Auckland.

Going on the halls

As in Britain, the music hall was already well established in Australia by the late 19th century, the leading impresario being Harry Rickards and his popular Tivoli circuit. However, there was simply not enough employment to go around at home, so many Australians went to Britain to find work. 

From all these, a handful of stars emerged, including the chorus-singer Florrie Forde, the comic singers Albert Whelan and Billy Williams (all three of whom were recorded), the ‘living statue’ La Milo, the champion swimmer-turned-vaudeville artist Annette Kellermann, and the ‘world’s greatest liar’ Louis de Rougemont. There were also a number of classically trained singers.

Florrie Ford

One of these was the soprano Violet Mount (1875-1972) who was born at Caulfield in Melbourne. Her father, the impressively-named Lambton Le Breton Mount had come to Australia from Montreal, becoming prominent in the development of the glass industry. Mount studied in Melbourne, then performed extensively in New Zealand and Australia in the early 1900s. She seemed ready for the decisive move to Europe, or so it would seem. After she embarked on the voyage, the Sydney Mail described her as “doubtless Australia’s best soprano.”

Did she try to break into the opera companies in England? If so, she made no headway, and by March 1908 she was featured as a headline act, masked as “L’Incognita”, at the Alhambra music hall in London. From the start Violet’s appearance in the mask provoked speculation as to who she was. Was she the great Tetrazzini? Two months later she was in the studios of Zonophone in London recording the songs and arias that featured in her act. Among her recordings as L’Incognita is a brilliant Lo! Here the Gentle Lark with Australian flautist John Amadio.

A few years before Violet Mount, first as a ‘serious’ singer and then going on to make a career on the halls, was Syria Lamonte (1869-1935). Substantially forgotten now, she had an important role in the development of the nascent recording industry, being the first female professional singer to be recorded in Britain in 1898 in the newly established recording studio of The Gramophone Company at Maiden Lane in London. She had been discovered singing at Rule’s Restaurant next door to the same studio.

Forgotten now, Lamonte had an important role in the development of the nascent recording industry

Syria Lamonte was actually born Sarah Cohen in Sydney, becoming a pupil in Melbourne of Lucy Chambers and Melba’s teacher Pietro Cecchi. She toured Victorian towns in 1894 with the Austral Opera Company, taking lead roles. In 1895 she switched from opera to vaudeville, joining Harry Rickards’ company at the Tivoli in Melbourne, followed by JC Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company.

In 1896 she arrived in London and was offered a contract with at least two of the leading music halls (the Oxford and the Tivoli) and also a role in Wagner’s Lohengrin in Berlin! By Christmas she was in pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham.

The following year she performed in variety in Johannesburg but scandal pursued her on her return. Apparently she was given diamonds by a gentleman on the voyage to London, but he was arrested on arrival having obtained the gems under false pretences. Syria’s diamonds were confiscated. Among her recordings is the ever-popular Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, set down in 1898. In 1906 she emigrated to America. Nothing seems to be known about her life there, but she later returned to Australia, where she eventually retired.

For those wanting to explore the recorded legacy of some of these remarkable artists, a four CD set on Decca Eloquence, From Melba to Sutherland, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime project. At 13 years in the making, this first-ever comprehensive survey encompasses 80 singers. Why has there been such an extraordinary procession of world-class Australian singers over such an extended period of time? The question is often asked, but there are no easy answers.

From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record is out now on Decca Eloquence (4825892)