I Have a Song to Sing: Book Review

Written by Ann Galbally

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Who could have imagined that the baby born to a Scottish couple on All Saints Day, November 1911 in Pressburg, a town near Vienna in Austro-Hungary, would become a successful singer and performer on the British stage in the years following the First World War; and again to antipodean audiences in the 1940s going on to become, in perhaps her finest role, wife and helpmate to a Frank Tait, a member of the famous Australian firm of theatrical producers the Tait brother’s J.C. Williamson’s.

Certainly not her immediate family, whose happy life in Pressburg where her father managed a branch of J. & P. Coat’s Mills, a company based in Scotland, was shattered by the outbreak of war in August 1914. Father was interned but British wives and families were free to leave—if they could manage it. Stricken with smallpox at the time and in hospital Violet Hogg and her two daughters eventually made their way from Vienna to Paris in 1915 in a train covered with Red Cross signs on the roof to warn off enemy airplanes. They travelled via Basel in Switzerland seeing Russian prisoners travelling in the opposite direction, bound for internment in Germany. Finally, arrival in Paris where they were met by an uncle and aunt domiciled there and waited until safe transport across the Channel could be organised. An alarming time for a four-year-old—cushioned only by the warmth and protection of relatives. An experience which would establish a strong personal resilience in the young girl’s character; a sense that however bad things looked, solutions could be found.

Viola, older sister Isla and their mother settled in Paisley, about twelve miles west of Glasgow. Originally a weaving town, at this time it was known above all for its yarns, manufactured by two major firms, Clarks and Coats. They were to live with Viola’s grandfather and three of her aunts—Agnes, Flora and Betty—at the family home ‘Ardshiel’ in the suburb of Blackhall. Grandfather was a minister of the Evangelical Union Congregational Church and possessor of an ancient Bible printed in Geneva in 1560 by English exiles who had fled their homeland due to religious persecution.

It was a large household. Viola’s grandmother had lost her first husband and was left with three children. Grandfather Wilson was the second husband with whom she had seven daughters. They were brought up with the Anderson children, all females, as one—very large—family. Ardshiel was a capacious house but even so, sleeping quarters were cramped. There was an even larger circle of uncles and aunts on both sides of the family. In her recently published memoir I Have a Song to Sing (edited by Elisabeth Kumm) Viola reveals she was never daunted by growing up in such a large household but rather relished the companionship and the adventures on offer. The house at Ardshiel made an important contribution to the development of Viola’s character; its busy life could be seen to be the source of her attitude to life: tolerant, mischievous and always seeing things with a sense of humour.

But it wasn’t easy. Viola’s mother was in a difficult position financially because of her husband’s internment but her sisters did all they could to mollify this. As refugees in Ardshiel Viola and Isla had few possessions or clothes and were the recipients of outgrown toys and clothes. But the children were taught to be compassionate to the poor, to love thy neighbour and even to respect the Roman Catholics! Generosity was the hallmark of the family and was absorbed by the young Viola. It became the strongest characteristic in a life destined to be lived, for some part at least, in competitive circumstances.

The family moved to Largs in Ayrshire on the coast, hoping the sea air would benefit Viola’s mother. School began for both girls but it wasn’t uncomplicated as they were seen as refugees and therefore Germans. It needed the police to put an end to their harassment. Life was difficult without their father. But there were happy tines too such as when The Minstrels arrived for the summer season. For three months Alvin Sawyer and his Smart Set Cadets set up their gas lights on the sand facing rows of camp chairs and wooden forms near the front for the children. Viola loved their amusing sketches, solos and dances. She longed to learn to sing and dance but hid this passion from the family.

When the War ended their father joined them in Largs and all returned to Paisley to celebrate. But father would have to continue to work in Pressburg as no permanent job was available for him in Paisley. Their mother was too frail to consider joining him there so Viola and her sister stayed in Paisley and she started at the co-ed Neilson School where her mother had taught. Viola remained stage-struck but kept it a secret. Then on 13 April 1924 ‘the saddest day of my life’ her mother died. The bereaved sisters continued to live with their aunts at Ardshiel. Isla married a Scottish doctor and relocated to London; Viola now had to help with the housekeeping and look after her father.

He was sympathetic to her love of the theatre and the two of them went to see Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielguld perform Shakespeare. Viola’s ambition was to have a career in music. She had to pass the Leaving Certificate which would enable her to study music at the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music.

Now 17 she studied piano and singing and became part of the Bach choir at the now Academy singing solos as well as a member of the chorus. She joined an amateur Gilbert & Sullivan Society in Stirling and performed Phyllis in Iolanthe. The experience left her in no doubt what she wanted: a stage career. In March 1935 she auditioned for and joined the Royal Carl Rosa Opera Company with a six-week contract for Die Fledermaus. After this she was delighted to be asked to join the permanent Company. Her memoir records how much she felt she owed to this Company, it high musical standards and professionalism. She went on tour to South Africa in 1937 with the ‘Rosa’ and by the end was a principal soprano. In typical style she records the tricks played on cast members by fellow cast members. She herself had salt put in her ginger ale in the Do-e-do Scene in Die Fledermaus. Nonetheless she writes ‘The happiest days of my career were with the Carl Rosa Company’.

Then suddenly she received an offer from the Rupert D’Oyly Carte Company to audition with a view to being the principal soprano for their 1939 American tour. Viola ‘took the plunge’. Acutely aware as she was of social nuances she records wryly that the change from the Rosa Opera to the D’Oyly Carte was not just a change of material but the attitude. It was ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. In a word: ‘English.’ All too aware of her Scottish accent she took instruction in English pronunciation, discarding her dialect for a ‘D’Oyly Carte accent’. Ironically her first director with the Company turned out to be a Scot.

Life with the Company was exciting. In August 1938 they went on a provincial tour which took in Stratford-upon-Avon where she played in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre watched by her father—‘He was my greatest fan’. Then it was off to New York for an American tour in early 1939. She found New York ‘icy cold but thrilling’ especially Broadway at night. Again Viola is attuned to social nuances, this time the appeal of the English voice to the Americans—flatteringly the D’Oyly Carte Company ‘was considered to be the essence of English refinement and tradition’. Nights off for Viola were spent at the New York Met where she is intrigued by the apparent closeness of musical comedy and opera. ‘Lily Pons and Grace Moore two well-known film stars were singing there’ and adds that Ezio Pinza was the first opera star to sing in a musical comedy—appearing in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific when it opened on Broadway in 1949.

Back in London the theatre was enjoying ‘large and enthusiastic audiences’ in spite of the fact that another world war seemed imminent. Then out of the blue she receives a message that ‘Mr Nevin Tait of J.C. Williamson’s wanted to see me’. After some bargaining she accepted £30.00 per week for 12 months singing principal roles in Gilbert & Sullivan in Australia and New Zealand. Although worried about leaving her father, London and Scotland she felt 12 months wouldn’t be too long …

It seems extraordinary now that a single 29-year-old woman would set off in the early months of the war to sail on her own through the Mediterranean and Suez canal to the totally unknown Australia. But Viola had a sense of adventure and a natural optimism. She would risk it. Leaving London in the dead of night after two false starts and without a convoy, the passengers on the Orontes had to carry lifejackets everywhere and the males were rostered to keep a look-out for U-boats. No-one was allowed off at Gibraltar. The next stop was Naples where ‘the streets were full of Mussolini’s soldiers swaggering along with plumes in their hats and guns on their hips’. The day was spent sightseeing. Only later did she learn that ‘the Orontes was one of the last merchant ships to call there, as the Italians declared war on the Allies soon after we arrived in Australia’.

Viola performed most of the major female roles in the G. & S. repertoire over the next few years, always to appreciative audiences. Her book of memoirs carries numerous photographs of these and other roles along with her fellow performers lending a sense of liveliness and fun to the account of a performer thoroughly enjoying her career. In 1941 a tour of New Zealand was embarked on which proved memorable for two reasons. In Auckland, owing to a malfunction of the ship’s unloading equipment, the Company’s costumes were tipped into the Harbour; and in Dunedin, where Viola and Frank Tait, announced their engagement.

Returning to Australia Viola continued with her contract and performed in the Brisbane season which opened on 24 April. Then Perth where by a lucky chance she was able to make contact with a long lost ‘Aunt Kate’. Viola and Frank the youngest of the five Tait brothers, were married at the Toorak Presbyterian Church on 16 August 1941.

A month later Viola, free at last from G. & S. sang the role of the heroine Lili Veit in Ivor Novello’s Lilac Time opening on 21 February 1942. Frank was pleased for her to continue with her career for a few years if she wanted to, and she did. Isla Violet Frances was born in May 1943, followed by Viola Ann in December 1945. Sally joined them in July 1949. Viola made a final comeback in Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years in May 1946. It was a success and she decided to end her career on a high note.

From then on Viola became more and more involved with Frank and the Tait brothers in seeking out talented singers, dancers and other performers for ‘The Firm’ to present to Australian audiences. These would include Grand Opera in 1948 when a season of 14 Italian Operas was announced; The Old Vic Company starring Katharine Hepburn and Robert Helpmann; the highly successful tour of Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes dancing with the Borovansky Company in 1957 and in 1958 violinist David Oistrach, the first official visit of a Soviet to Australia. Danny Kaye followed with a highly successful tour of Melbourne and Sydney.

But in the end it was My Fair Lady which turned out to be the Firm’s biggest profit-maker. It opened at Her Majesty’s on 24 January 1959 after two years of preparation. The costumes alone cost £100,000 the biggest outlay ever to go into a J.C. Williamson’s production—but it returned even better dividends. When it closed in Sydney in May 1963, the main company had played 1730 performances.

The Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera tour of 1965 (which included the then unknown Luciano Pavarotti) was expensive but a great success. Yet the presentation of seven operas and all that it involved was taxing. The first night of Lucia di Lammermoor however made up for everything. Joan took twenty curtain calls to an ecstatic audience whose ‘Diamonds sparkled from tiaras and necklets’. For Frank the tour provided something unique: a chance to compare the two greatest sopranos of the century, Melba and Sutherland. As he said to Viola ‘There are times when there is little to choose between Joan and Melba’.

But Frank was tired. He and Viola sought a break at Portsea and it was there that he died of a heart attack on 23 August 1965. Viola’s first-hand engagement with the theatre was now at an end. But she decided to record what she knew of it and in the late ‘sixties turned to the family archives to write the story of the five Tait brothers A Family of Brothers, published in 1971. A history of Australian pantomime followed in 2001 and finally we have her own story based on her memoirs, diaries, and scrapbooks, brought to life in her own voice amidst a background of photographs of all the players in a well-lived life. Viola Tait died on 6 February 2002.

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Ann Galbally AM FAHA is a professorial associate in Art History in the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Her publications include Redmond Barry: an Anglo-Irish Australian (1995); Charles Conder: the last bohemian (2002); and A Remarkable Friendship: John Peter Russell and Vincent van Gogh (2008).

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