Since Eloquence published the 4CD set From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record with its grand total of 80 Aussie singers, I’ve often thought about which of them are among my absolute favourites. And right up there among the greatest is mezzo-soprano Yvonne Minton, who celebrated her 80th birthday on December 4. Although she had a top-flight international career and made a stream of first-rate recordings, her leading conductors – Kertesz, Solti, Boulez, Barenboim, Abbado – were always treated as more marketable. She is very much still with us, and she should be better known, better celebrated.

Yvonne MintonYvonne Minton recording La Clemenza di Tito, July 1976. Photo © Mike Evans, Decca

Minton was born at Dulwich Hill in Sydney on December 4, 1938. Her father Robert Minton was a factory worker, and her mother Violet a seamstress. Without ever having seen one, she told school friends that she would become an opera singer. Showing early promise, she started singing lessons at 13 with the English-born Marjorie Walker. Yvonne stayed with Walker for many years: “I’m not really sure what I learned from her,” Yvonne said, “but I must have learned something.”

Brought up a Presbyterian, Yvonne sang regularly in the choir at St Stephen’s Church, Macquarie Street. Minton was to become a regular prize-winner at competitions, her usual calling card being Erda’s Warning from Das Rheingold, a role which ironically she was never to sing professionally. She was taken to competitions by her father. In 1958 Yvonne was awarded the Elsa Stralia Scholarship, enabling her to study at the Sydney Conservatorium for three years. And a breakthrough came in April 1960, when she was awarded the Shell Aria prize at the National Eisteddfod. The £1,000 reward enabled Yvonne to travel to London to further her vocal education and try her luck as a professional. Up to the time she left Australia, Minton had never seen an opera.

One of her earliest performances in London came on Vic Oliver’s weekly BBC radio programme, Variety Playhouse. The Saturday evening show of February 2, 1962, was heard by Christopher Raeburn from Decca, who was sufficiently impressed that he gave her an audition, at which she recorded Schumann’s Frauen-Liebe und Leben. It remains unpublished and mislaid. Nevertheless, the audition was to become the catalyst for much in Yvonne’s future.

On January 30, 1964, Yvonne made her debut on the opera stage, singing the title role in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at the City Lit in London. John Warrack in Opera was impressed. As a consequence, she was asked to audition at Covent Garden. She sang, as usual, Erda’s Warning, heard by Georg Solti, and was offered a contract, but turned it down on the basis that she felt too inexperienced.

Yvonne MintonYvonne Minton rehearsing Parsifal with Jon Vickers

In 1965 Yvonne auditioned again at Covent Garden. The immediate consequence was that she undertook several modest roles in succession ‒ the beginning of a long relationship with the house. Her debut was on March 26, 1965: she was “a seductive Lola” in Cavalleria rusticana; this was followed by Suor Angelica with Minton as the Mistress of Discipline; and then she was the Third Naked Virgin in Peter Hall’s scandalous production of Moses and Aaron.

In September she sang her first (modest) Wagner at Covent Garden – as Schwertleite in Die Walküre ‒ part of Solti’s controversial Ring cycle. Wagnerian roles were gradually to take a greater and greater importance in Minton’s work: in 1966 she added a Flower Maiden in Parsifal, the Rhinemaiden Wellgunde and Second Norn; then a step up to Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde in Cologne in 1971, a role she was to repeat in several houses; her Bayreuth career grew with Fricka and Waltraute in the centenary Ring with Boulez; in 1979 she added Kundry at Covent Garden; and finally she was Ortrud at Nancy in 1994.

Yvonne MintonYvonne Minton in Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden

Minton’s brilliant career as a Straussian also started quite modestly – as Annina in Visconti’s Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden in 1966. She made sufficient impression to be asked by Solti to move up to Octavian the following year, The Stage praising her impersonation as ‘noble, warm,’ noting, ‘the sense of innate breeding she brought to the character.’ She later took her Octavian around the world, including to Sydney (the Australian première in1972) and Melbourne. In 1976 she was the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden. Returned again to Australia in 1991, she sang Klytemnestra at Adelaide (film director Bruce Beresford was the director).

While she never saw herself as a Mozart specialist, nevertheless she built a strong reputation in his operas. She started, as usual at Covent Garden, with a small role – as Second Lady in Peter Hall’s The Magic Flute in 1966. In 1968 she was Cherubino, then the following year she gave her first Dorabella at Covent Garden with Mackerras, Minton’s “tone as ravishing as her appearance,” according to Opera. In September 1969 Minton made her spectacular debut as Sesto in Ponnelle’s La clemenza di Tito with Kertesz in Cologne, a role she repeated with that company at Sadler’s Wells.

Minton first came to Berlioz in the role of Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini at Covent Garden in 1966, but her association with his operas took flight in the years 1972–76: Marguérite in La damnation de Faust with Boulez at a Prom concert, then as Béatrice in Paris with Barenboim, then Dido in The Trojans at Cartage with Colin Davis at Covent Garden. In 1991 she sang at a Berlioz Festival with the Sydney Symphony.

1966 also brought another important stepping stone for Yvonne – her first Mahler. The Royal Ballet’s choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan turned The Song of the Earth into a one-act ballet, premièred at Covent Garden in May. The singers were Minton and Vilem Pribyl, who both stood at the side of the stage. It would have been difficult at that time to foresee the extent to which she would become such a sought-after singer of Mahler. This started in 1970, when Yvonne followed Georg Solti to Chicago. Finding a way to express the success of their first season there together, the Chicago Tribune wrote:

The men sitting next to me had driven all the way from Schenectady to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler concert last night. They clapped their hands practically raw for Yvonne Minton’s Songs of a Wayfarer.

Her performance of Das Lied von der Erde in May 1972 with René Kollo and the Chicago Symphony under Solti was hailed as “wonderful in every sense … a performance of a magnificence heard so seldom in the concert hall.” In the years that followed, Minton became a leading exponent internationally of Mahler’s song cycles.

While the above five composers formed the backbone of Yvonne Minton’s career, she was also much sought after in other 20th-century operas: at Sadler’s Wells in Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel; in Tippett’s King Priam and The Knot Garden; as Geneviève in Pélleas et Mélisande; as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle in Cologne; and as Countess Geschwitz in Lulu.

By 1982 her career was slowing down. It seems that her vocal health was deserting her. This was an artist who had boasted that she had never had to cancel a single performance through ill-health. Yvonne believed that shifting hormone balances in her body had a profound influence. She found that, for the first time in her career, she was unable to support her voice. “I had two choices,” she said. “Either stop and retire or retrain my body and mind.” She chose the latter. In the years following her retirement from the stage, Yvonne taught at Trinity College in London and at Marseilles.

Happy birthday!

Yvonne Minton’s celebrated recordings of Mahler’s song cycles with the Chicago Symphony under Solti are re-issued by Decca Eloquence.