On the world’s opera stage: 19 New Zealand singers, Roger Flury

Southern Voices; international singers of New Zealand
Adrienne Simpson and Peter Downes,
Reed Books, Auckland, 1992, $45

The timing of Adrienne Simpson’s and Peter Downes’s admirable Southern Voices could hardly be more propitious. With opera in New Zealand once again approaching the level of popularity that it attained in the heyday of the touring companies, there is keen interest (albeit belated) in the achievements of our international opera singers. Nineteen artists have been selected for inclusion, the criteria being based upon level of international success, longevity in the profession, and the single-minded pursuit of a career in opera. Each singer is treated to a separate chapter, prefaced by an attractive full-page portrait, and illustrated throughout with smaller photographs of the artists in some of their important roles.

Chapters are arranged sensibly, but perhaps unchivalrously, in chronological order, and this produces a surprise early on. After sopranos Frances Alda and Rosina Buckman, who are definitely ‘historic’, comes the baritone Denis Dowling, who most certainly is not. The reason for his appearance near the start of this book is that he was born in 1910, even though he made his farewell performance at the Metropolitan in New York in 1984 at the age of 74. The contrast in the next chapter with bass Oscar Natzka, who died at the tragically early age of 39, is all the more poignant.

Fortunately Simpson and Downes have been able to interview or correspond with many of their chosen singers. Access to the most primary source of all lends their writing an air of authority and provides a rich fund of anecdote and reminiscence which is interwoven into the essentially biographical text. Each chapter, therefore, has something of the singer’s own personality stamped upon it.

Many fascinating facts, figures and quotations emerge. For example, Alda’s comment on her relationship with Giulio Gatti-Casazza – ‘the two most grievous errors I made were when I married him and when I divorced him’ – is typical of the flamboyant and passionate prima donna’s one-liners. How many people, I wonder, know that Peter Baillie made his stage debut as Nana, the dog in Peter Pan? For those interested in statistics, Noel Mangin sang over three hundred performances of Mozart’s Osmin and over five hundred of Rossini’s Don Masilio.

By the time we reach the last three chapters, which cover the triumvirate of distinguished tenors – Greager, Power and Lewis, two important threads have clearly emerged from the book. Firstly, most of the singers set off for Europe armed with considerable performing experience gained at home, giving them an edge in the highly competitive world of the professional musician. Secondly, at least nine artists were recipients of some form of government bursary, without which they might never have taken their first major step towards an international career. If evidence were needed of the importance of a healthy musical climate in New Zealand and a system of funding for outstanding talent, Southern Voices provides it on every page. Despite being co-authors, it is virtually impossible (without inside knowledge) to isolate each writer’s contribution. Their styles have been blended to perfection, and they have pitched the text at just the right level.

Some may question the exclusion of soprano Dame Joan Hammond (who was born in Christchurch and celebrates her 80th birthday this year), and the absence of tenor and arts administrator Christopher Doig, but of more serious import is the index which fails to live up to its name. Enrico Caruso appears, but Heddle Nash is ignored. Directors, critics and composers, are nowhere to be found. Handel’s Messiah is listed, but not Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and so on. This is a pity because the book is crammed with important names and places and it’s essential that the reader has easy access to them.

But the shortcomings of the index must not be allowed to detract from the book’s importance. Southern Voices succeeds on three levels. As a work of reference it can be relied upon to provide accurate biographical information which, in most cases, cannot be found elsewhere. As a coffee table book it can be dipped into with pleasure. But above all, it provides a compulsive and fascinating read from cover to cover.

 

Roger Flury is the Librarian at the Sound and Music Centre, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington, and a regular broadcaster on Concert FM. He is working on a Dictionary of Opera in New Zealand.

 

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