Distinguished soprano who led Sydney Opera House opening production passes away at 67.

The Australian soprano who played the lead role of Natasha in the legendary production of Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace that opened the Sydney Opera House in 1973 has died at the age of 67.

Born on July 24, 1946 in Melbourne, Eilene Hannan originally hoped to be a social worker, but was advised against it because of her naturally passionate nature. She joined the Australian Opera instead, later moving to London where she became a member of English National Opera, which in the 1980s was enjoying a golden age under director David Pountney and music director Mark Elder. Her performance in Pountney’s acclaimed production of Dvořák’s Rusalka is captured on an Arthaus DVD.

Hannan performed in all the major opera houses and concert halls in Britain, Europe and Australia. Her wide and eclectic repertoire included Mozart’s Pamina, Susanna, Cherubino, Dorabella and Zerlina, Mimì in La Bohème, Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, Debussy’s Mélisande, Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, the title roles in Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, Jenůfa, and The Cunning Little Vixen, Verdi’s Princess Eboli, Pat Nixon in Adams’ Nixon in China, Wagner’s Sieglinde and Venus, Salome in Massenet’s Hérodiade, and Monteverdi’s Poppea.

Her enthusiasm for singing opera in English led to varied engagements with Opera Australia and Victorian Opera where she appeared as Strauss’s Marschallin, the Governess in The Turn of the Screw (for which she won a Green room Award), and Emma in Richard Mills’ operatic version of Summer of the 17th Doll. She reached a wider Australian public when she toured as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. She went on to repeat her Sydney Opera House inaugural role in London and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

In her long career she worked with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Charles Mackerras, Pierre Boulez, Richard Bonynge, and directors like John Copley, John Bell, Peter Sellars, Harry Kupfer, Neil Armfield and Sir Nicholas Hytner. Speaking of Hannan’s impact and influence as a performer, soprano Emma Matthews said: “I remember seeing and hearing her in The Turn of the Screw in Perth, when I was at the Con. She was the first singing actress I ever saw live, and she impressed on me a need to study characters deeply. My debut with The Australian Opera was with her as Poppea, I played Damigella in L’incoranizione di Poppea. Eilene was a great story teller, a generous colleague and a true professional. Rest in Peace Diva”.

Committed to helping wherever she felt help was needed, she trained in 1987 as a counsellor and later was awarded an AM for services to opera. In recent years Hannan was a noted English and French language coach and involved in master classes and teaching. Many young Australian singers benefitted from her experience as a mentor for the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust.

Talking to The Age in 1989, Hannan said: “I don’t want to go on singing until I’m 80. I can see I feel enormously lucky to have stumbled into a world that I see will interest me until I die”.