John Thomson: Operatic wealth

Malvina: A Biography of Dame Malvina Major
David Jillett
Harper Collins, $34.95,
ISBN 186950 1810

Ana Hato raua ko Deane Waretini, Legendary recordings 1927-1949
Kiwi Pacific CD SLC‑242
National Library of New Zealand, CD $31.05, Cassette $18.90

Madam Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini
The historic 1924 recording with Rosina Buckman, conducted by Eugene Goossens
Kiwi Pacific CD SLD ‑ 96/97
National Library of New Zealand, 2 CDs $59.85

Biographies of singers are often at the ice-cream-sundae end of the menu, replete with the convoluted decorations of idolatry, uncritical praise and a wealth of domesticity and anecdote. An almost perfect example of this extravagant genre exists in Winifred Ponder’s biography of Clara Butt who visited New Zealand several times from 1908 onwards. In my “first” edition of 1928, pages 137 to 140 have been snipped out and fresh ones bound in What could have happened ‑ an indiscreet revelation, one bedroom scene too many?

In 1907 Clara Butt and her husband Kennerley Rumford were about to make their first tour of Australia and New Zealand. Clara Butt asked Melba, as the most famed antipodean diva, what she should sing. “Sing ’em muck”, came the swift reply which duly appeared in the first English printing of the book. The outrage this remark aroused, especially from Australians, led to furious discussions in all the leading newspapers ‑ and the immediate withdrawal of the offending volume. Melba insisted she had said “Sing ’em Bach” but a bad telephone connection had transmogrified this into the offending word – a not impossible excuse but, knowing Melba, doubtful. Such a mishap did happen to Eric Blom, distinguished editor of Grove, at his funeral. The family told the enquiring organist over the telephone that Mr Blom was very fond of the Bach Chorales”. Those attending the service were astonished to hear him play the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman.

“So you’re going to Australia?” asks Melba in the amended edition. “What are you going to sing?” Clara Butt does not answer but Winifred Ponder does, with reassuring nothings to console antipodean pride: “Australian audiences proved quite as appreciative of the classical items which both she and Kennerley Rumford invariably included in their programmes … songs by Schumann and Schubert, etc. ” In New Zealand the response to such programmes by Baeyertz in the Triad of 1 February 1908 proved unexpectedly hostile: “A snack of Schumann, a goût of Gluck, happy handful of Handel ‑just the formal proportions ‑ and then, having paid tribute to cant and tolerated the ‘classic’ music, the joy filled audience paddled in the shallow waters of English drawing room songs… Have the artists no sense of responsibility? There is a mission open for them here: a mission to lead the public towards a higher world of music.” Clara Butt, whose theme song was “Land of Hope and Glory”, could scarcely be considered the missionary type.

David Jillett’s appreciative biography of Malvina Major is strong on the childhood and adolescent years, on the family background with Eva, their redoubtable mother, on the deep involvement with sport and the formative influence of Catholic nuns such as Sister Magdalen at Ngaruawahia and the late Dame Mary Leo in particular, with good pen pictures of their personalities, methods and response to what was clearly an outstanding voice. A Tainui family living nearby likened it to the song of the tauhou (wax-eye) birds when they sang at the bush edge or near the stream. Her first My professional role as Mathilde in Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra at the 1968 Camden Festival brought high praise from the respected Sunday Times music critic Desmond Shawe‑Taylor who wrote of the “riveting passion and sincerity” of her brief scene with Leicester and of her soprano voice as being “full, round and sweet up to a comfortably sustained high B flat; it is also remarkably agile”.

Malvina Major’s outstanding and in some ways, puzzling career, as in the decision to forsake the Salzburg Opera and return with her husband to farm in New Zealand, is a distinguished part of the diadem of New Zealand singers active today. Her courage in adversity, such as the sudden loss of her husband and generosity of spirit (unlike some other divas we might name) have given her a unique position in the affections of her audiences. David Jillett enthusiastically captures these aspects of a remarkable personality.

The two CDs under review mark an earlier era of New Zealand’s musical tradition one showing the close connection between the intermingling paths of Maori and European music, both being a pioneering venture into historical recordings and an invaluable collaboration between Kiwi Pacific and the National Library.

On the European side, Rosina Buckman (1881‑1948) shares with Frances Alda (1879‑1952), the distinction of being the first of New Zealand-born singers to establish an international reputation. Alda’s principal base was the Metropolitan in New York where she helpfully married the new manager Giulio Gatti‑Casazzas in 1910, becoming renowned for her Desdemona, Manon Lescaut, Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff and especially Mimi which she sang with Caruso and Gigli. She revisited New Zealand in 1927, including an entertaining account of it in her racy autobiography Men, Women and Tenors, published 10 years later. When she retired from the Metropolitan in 1937 she had made over 100 recordings: “She is probably the most consistently satisfying lyric soprano on pre-electrical records”, wrote the critic J B Steane.

Rosina Buckman’s career followed a different course. It gathered impetus when she sang the role of La Zara in Alfred Hill’s romantic opera A Moorish Maid in Wellington in 1905, replacing the original interpreter of the role, the English singer Lilian Tree, who had become indisposed. “Miss Buckman was most brilliant and altogether made a remarkable first appearance in opera,” wrote the New Zealand Times of 26 September 1905, Following this success Rosina Buckman sang with the Williamson Opera Company in Australia with Melba, and toured New Zealand with John McCormick. Encouraged by the latter to return to Europe where she had studied at Birmingham but had cut short a potentially fine career, she first appeared at Covent Garden as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal in 1914, later that year singing Musetta to Melba’s Mimi. In 1915 she became principal dramatic soprano in the Beecham Opera Company, where she performed a series of notable roles including Mimi, Butterfly, Mrs Waters in Ethel Smythe’s new opera The Boatswain’s Mate, Aida, and notably Isolde, becoming one of the greatest interpreters of her day. In the Birmingham Post of 15 May 1917 the influential critic Ernest Newman wrote that “Her Isolde of last night was the most perfectly finished study that this splendid artist has ever given us; in variety of facial expression in particular it was beyond praise… Nothing so rapt as Miss Buckman’s expression in the ‘Liebestod’ has ever been given us by any Isolde”.

In 1915 as principal soprano at Covent Garden, her Butterfly was described as “a revelation to the regular subscribers” by the opera historian Harold Rosenthal. Following her death in 1948, one of her former colleagues of the Beecham Company, the tenor Percy Heming, paid tribute to her in the Royal Academy of Music Magazine: “Her voice was a lyric dramatic soprano of great beauty and warmth, capable of all the finest shades of colour, from the youthful ardour of the first act of Butterfly to the terrible curses of Isolde… Those of us who worked with her were constantly impressed by her sincerity and integrity as an artist”.

This double CD is of the historic recording of 1924, with Rosina Buckman as Butterfly, Nellie Walker as Suzuki, Bessie Jones as Kate Pinkerton, Tudor Davies as the Lieutenant himself, Frederick Ranalow as Sharpless, Sydney Coltham as Goro and Edward Halland filling the parts of Prince Yamadori and the Bonze. The Royal Albert Hall Orchestra is conducted by Eugene Goossens. It is a strong cast and Goossens starts at a spanking pace which as the drama unfolds relaxes and becomes more lyrical and dramatically convincing. Nevertheless, it is a shock at first to hear the attentuated orchestral sound of the pre-electric acoustic era and my first thoughts were that perhaps extracts from the opera might have been better than a complete recording. Such impressions were soon put to flight however as the sheer intensity of the singers became evident to conjure up more than a slight impression of how the original voices must have sounded. The admirable strength and conviction of Rosina Buckman, the warmth of tone and her capacity to express every nuance of the part is a revelation. Here is a great singer indeed.

Tudor Davies as Pinkerton is a fine youthful tenor who sings with ardour and a convincing resonance. Later in 1924 he was to create with brilliance the title role in Vaughan Williams’ opera Hugh the Drover. The duets with Rosina Buckman are especially powerful as in the climax to Act 1, in Butterfly’s fervent “Ah, love me a little” and it almost goes without saying that “One fine day” is immensely moving and masterly, as is the poignantly dramatic “Look here, then!” and the splendid concluding “Death with honour”. It scarcely seems possible to have assembled a better cast from the British singers of the day. Frederick Ranalow as an authoritative Sharpless had just finished a four-year stint as a highly impressive Macheath in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

Now, at the age of 50 he was about to leave the world of grand opera and turn to operettas and musical comedies. Here Pucchini’s score weaves its magical spell once more: this recording can be highly commended not just as a historical treasure but, bearing in mind the limitations of the acoustic record, as a living document of an impressive era in British opera. The notes by Peter Downes and Roger Flury are exemplary. One looks forward to future issues in this series.

Maori concert groups and solo artists have emerged from the mid‑nineteenth century on and before that the young people trained in Bishop Selwyn’s St John’s College in Auckland and by the missionaries demonstrated the innate musicality of Polynesian society. The ease with which extremely gifted Maori singers moved between the cultures can perhaps be demonstrated by the spectacular career of Princess Te Rangi Pai (1868‑1916) who composed the popular lullaby “Hine e Hine” and had lessons from the famed baritone Charles Santley in London. There were the gifted guides Bella and Maggie (Makereti) Papakura and their concert parties which in 1910 included Princess Iwa who later appeared to acclaim in Boosey Ballad concerts, Harrison provincial tours, the Albert Hall and the Palace Theatre. The tradition of notable Rotorua guides continued with Guide Rangi (1896-1970), brought up in Te Kooti’s Ringatu religion with its emphasis on singing, “always spontaneous and hearty and very beautiful”.

The contralto Ana Hato (1906‑1953) belongs to this background. Once a Rotorua “penny-diver”, her distinctive voice, with its resonant timbres and range of colours soon attracted attention and by the age of 17 she was regarded as one of the best Maori singers in Rotorua. When she teamed up with her first cousin Deane Waretini, an untrained Maori baritone, they became a much sought after duo, to be recorded by the parlophone record company in 1927 (acoustically) and 1929 (electronically), which forms the basis of this present CD, with the addition of unpublished recordings from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives and elsewhere.

“She sang the real Maori way, there was a hotu (sob) in her voice”, said the late Hamuera Mitchell, Ngati Whakaue, pianist for Ana Hato during the latter years. Her own life had a legendary quality and she overcame many difficulties not least the tragedy of the loss of her husband, badly wounded and taken prisoner during the Crete campaign, who died in a German POW camp. This CD, with its wide range of 33 songs, is a welcome tribute to two noteworthy artists who captured the imagination of audiences of their day and can now enjoy a renewed, perhaps even immortal popularity.

In the past New Zealand singers have been compelled to base themselves overseas ‑ Denis Dowling, Bryan Drake, Inia Te Wiata, Heather Begg, Noel Mangin, Chris Doig, Donald McIntyre and Kiri Te Kanawa, to name only a selection. But now the tide is beginning to turn as artists return, not as a form of “retirement”, but to contribute actively to the operatic scene. Starved of money, and subject to the vagaries of sponsorship, opera in New Zealand repeatedly reiterates its plea for sufficient funding to allow it to develop and not remain anchored for box office reasons to the perpetual recycling of the well‑known classics of the genre. Wellington City Opera’s powerful Peter Grimes of last year only just succeeded in avoiding financial disaster – 50 years after its first performance in London. Once upon a time New Zealand and Australian premieres could take place within a few years of their initial European début.

With such a wealth of emerging singing talent, clearly evident to anyone who frequents our schools of music, to say nothing of the accompanying skills of conductors, producers and designers, opera in New Zealand is on the verge of such a flourishing as it has never seen before. Is there a Dr Maecenas in the house?

John M Thomson is the author of the Oxford History of New Zealand Music (1991) and contributed an essay on Rosina Buckman to Adrienne Simpson’s Opera in New Zealand (1990).

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