Tuesday, 01 March 2022

Sylvia Fisher: Greatest Australian singer since Melba

Written by
ROGER NEILL explores the life and legacy of an Australian-born operatic prima donna, Sylvia Fisher, who enjoyed a successful career at Covent Garden from the 1940s, later becoming a favourite of Benjamin Britten. Yet despite these achievements, she is little known today, having been overshadowed by another great operatic diva—Joan Sutherland.

For a prima donna to be described by Harold Rosenthal, founding editor of Opera magazine, as ‘perhaps the greatest singer Australia has produced since Melba,’ and then to be substantially forgotten, is rather sad. After all, Sylvia Fisher was a leading dramatic soprano at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, through the late 1940s and the following decade. Then, as her voice changed, she went on in the 1960s to build a second career as a leading performer in operas of the twentieth century, a favourite singer for Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group. In his biography of Covent Garden’s general administrator, Sir David Webster, Montague Haltrecht summed up Fisher as artist: ‘She had a gloriously warm and generous voice, a beauty of its age.’

Of course, part of the reason that she is so little remembered today is that she made so few studio recordings. As Rosenthal put it in 1956:

It is a sorry reflection on the gramophone record industry in Great Britain that Covent Garden’s own prima donna and one of the greatest of contemporary Wagnerian singers has not been invited to make a single record.1

Indeed, Fisher’s eventually few studio recordings nearly all emanate from much later in her career, when her declining vocal powers were primarily at the service of Britten’s operas. However, several of her broadcast performances were recorded off-air in her prime and these form an important part of her legacy.

An additional reason that Sylvia Fisher has not been well-remembered in Australia was the swift rise to stardom of her younger contemporary, Joan Sutherland.

Was Sylvia aware of the rich heritage of dramatic sopranos already produced by Australia? It is hard to know. She will certainly have been conscious of the presence in the 1920s at Covent Garden of her Wagnerian predecessor at that house, Florence Austral, and possibly of Austral’s own predecessor there, Elsa Stralia. But equally, was she aware of her own direct contemporary singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Marjorie Lawrence?

Child, student … and pub landlady

Remarkably little seems to have been known about Fisher’s early years—and perhaps she preferred it that way. For, while there were plenty of other Australians in the Covent Garden company with her, few if any of them had her kind of background. Born in Melbourne on 18 April 1910, her father, John Fisher, ran a series of pubs in and around the city, the last of which was the Australia Felix Hotel in Lonsdale Street. From time to time, John would be prosecuted and fined for selling liquor outside of licensing hours, with fights aplenty in and around his premises featured in the news. John was said to be originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England and to have been a good amateur singer. He died in November 1911, his youngest child, Sylvia, just eighteen months old.

So Sylvia was brought up by her now single-parent, Irish-Australian mother, Margaret (née Frawley), from Bungaree near Ballarat. With four growing children, Margaret was the breadwinner of the family, taking over and running the pub. This must have been sufficiently remunerative for Sylvia in due course to go as a boarder to St Joseph’s Ladies’ College at Kilmore, some sixty kilometres north of Melbourne. There she was taught by nuns and received the early stages of a rounded musical education (the names of her teachers there not known to us). At twelve she was learning theory, piano and singing, regularly performing in school concerts, and taking London College of Music exams. By eighteen, she had left school, returning for a past-pupils concert that year, something she was to do on several other occasions.

Sometime around 1928-29 she joined the Melba Conservatorium in Albert Street as a student, performing in a students’ concert in June 1931. Dame Nellie herself was a regular teacher at the conservatoire but had died just four months earlier in Sydney. Sylvia’s own teacher was a particular favourite of Melba, Mary Campbell. Campbell had been a pupil of the Austrian soprano Elise Wiedermann in Melbourne, Wiedermann having been an early pupil of Mathilde Marchesi in Vienna (as had been Nellie Melba in Paris).

It is often said that before going to live and work in London Sylvia had no experience of opera—and this is very nearly true. In fact, while at the Melba Conservatorium, she had a major role in March 1932 in Lully’s still rarely performed opera of 1673, Cadmus and Hermione, with Fisher as Hermione. 1932 was the tercentenary of Lully’s birth.

However, for a singer who would eventually reach the top-flight, thus far there were few signs that Sylvia Fisher was headed in that direction. In November 1933 she took part in the vocal section of the Association of Music Teachers of Victoria’s competitions, not even being placed among the first three awardees, merely given an ‘honourable mention’. The following month, she had her second taste of singing in live opera, this time a concert performance for a national radio broadcast as Clytemnestra in Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis. This was cast from Conservatorium pupils, produced by Mary Campbell and conducted by the school’s director, Fritz Hart.

Following the death of Mary Campbell in July 1935, Sylvia had to find a new teacher and switched from the Melba Conservatorium to its main rival in the city, the University of Melbourne Conservatorium, where she studied with Adolf Spivakovsky, who had been born in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire). Two Spivakovsky brothers, pianist Jascha and violinist Tossy, had arrived, together with cellist Edmund Kurtz, to play as a trio in Australia in 1933, fleeing from the growing threat of Nazism in Europe. After touring, they took up teaching roles at the University Conservatorium in Melbourne, shortly to be joined there by brothers Issy and Adolf, who had been a successful bass-baritone. However, by his mid-twenties, Adolf had had to give up singing due to a stress-related ulcer, turning instead to teaching in Berlin.

Winning the Sun-Aria

Her study with Spivakovsky soon yielded results for Fisher, and, following a students’ concert in July 1936 where she was highly praised for her singing of Santuzza’s ‘Romance’ from Cavalleria rusticana, she entered the top singing prize in the country—the Aria competition sponsored by the Melbourne Sun. She won it decisively with her renderings of ‘Elisabeth’s Greeting’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the Santuzza aria. She was to study with Spivakovsky for eleven years—until she left for Europe.

It is extraordinary to note that, throughout her time studying with Mary Campbell and Adolf Spivakovsky, Sylvia had also been actively involved with her mother in managing their growing pub business. Indeed Sylvia herself was the licensee of the art deco Town Hall Hotel in Bank Street, South Melbourne, regularly advertising the attractions of the establishment (‘Melbourne’s Most Modern Suburban Hotel … 5 minutes’ walk from St Kilda Road … Bed and Breakfast 5/-‘).  While she does not seem to have been arrested for pub-related misdemeanours (as her father had), she was in court in 1935 giving evidence following the theft of net curtains from the parlour and a vase.

In the years following her success in winning the Sun-Aria, Fisher’s performing career picked up. She sang in some major oratorios, many of them conducted by Bernard Heinze—a broadcast Messiah at Melbourne Town Hall on Christmas night 1937, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the same venue in September 1944 and the same composer’s Choral Symphony in Adelaide the following year, both with Australian tenor William Herbert. The Mass was possibly the first time they had sung together, a performing partnership that was to extend over several decades in two continents. Then came Handel’s Israel in Egypt, again with Herbert (a ‘colossal masterpiece’ according to the Sun in Sydney).

The highly regarded (and hard-to-please) English music critic of the Sydney Morning Herald, Neville Cardus, reviewing a rare 1946 performance in Australia of Verdi’s Requiem, pronounced that:

Sylvia Fisher was equal to nearly every challenge and gave us the finest stretch of soprano singing Sydney has heard for some time. The arch of her phrases and the clear tone recalled high Continental standards. She was even able to achieve without loss of eloquence the outrageously exacting leap of an octave to a high B flat on the last syllable of the word ‘requiem’ in the ‘Libera me’.

Verdi was closely followed by Mendelssohn’s Elijah (with Herbert) back in Melbourne, and finally in September 1947, Fisher was ‘undoubtedly the best of the soloists,’ according to The Argus, in Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In parallel with her growing reputation as a singer of oratorio, Sylvia was learning a wide range of German Lieder from Adolf Spivakovsky, including Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Brahms and Hugo Wolf. Many of her performances were broadcast nationally by the ABC, including songs by her long-term friend, Australian composer Linda Phillips. In 1938 Fisher had been heard privately by two celebrity singers on tour—Austrian tenor Richard Tauber and Russian bass Alexander Kipnis—both of whom encouraged her to try her luck in Europe.

A decisive moment in Sylvia’s life was the death of her mother Margaret Fisher in May 1946. Up to that time, she had shared with her mother the burden of managing their pub business. Indeed, pubs around Melbourne were run by several of Sylvia’s family—siblings, aunts and uncles. But, following her mother’s demise, the freeholds passed to those other members of the family and Sylvia was freed up to make the move to London.

However, in 1947 Fisher had the opportunity to take the lead in three broadcast concert performances for the ABC of whole operas conducted in Melbourne by Joseph Post: as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (with William Herbert as Don Ottavio, Frederick Collier the Commendatore); as Aida (she ‘sang with dramatic force and musical feeling’ according to The Argus in Melbourne); and as something of a bonus, she sang Elisabeth in Act 3 of Tannhäuser. 2. Thea Philips, who sang the first two acts, was unable to continue, and Sylvia, who was in the audience, stepped up … Again, together with Sylvia, William Herbert was Tannhäuser. He also sailed from Melbourne to London in 1947, becoming prominent in Britain in oratorio, regularly appearing with her there.

To Covent Garden

There were to be several farewell concerts before Sylvia eventually sailed for England in November 1947, arriving in London early in the New Year. She was 37 years old. The Ormond Professor at the University Conservatorium, Bernard Heinze, who had conducted so many of her performances in Australia, wrote to the Argus that

… since winning the Sun Aria Contest, [she] has sung with our symphony orchestras and choral societies with conspicuous success … Only a singer with rare vocal gifts and a musicianship acquired after years of arduous preparation can satisfactorily perform the roles which she has sung with such distinction.

The early months of 1948 in London were clearly difficult for Sylvia, as they had been for so many other Australian artists seeking fame and fortune in Europe. In Australia, her public profile had risen steadily, but she never took much interest in networking or publicity, and arriving in Britain this was to be a significant handicap. Nevertheless, by June 1948 she was singing live for the BBC’s Third Programme.

For the duration of the Second World War, there had been no opera at Covent Garden, the house becoming a public dance hall leased by Mecca Cafés. It reopened as a theatre in February 1946, the first operatic production, Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, being performed by the re-formed opera and ballet companies in December that year. This was followed by a first full season by the resident company in 1947.3

Fisher said that she auditioned for Covent Garden on five separate occasions. She had been recommended to the general administrator of the House by Eugene Goossens, who was from 1947 principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of the Sydney Conservatorium. Goossens had conducted at Covent Garden before the Second World War. While Sylvia may have been depressed by their indecision, in the end they were clearly sufficiently impressed.

She was to make her debut on 9 December 1948 at that house, not in some minor role (as happened later to her compatriot Joan Sutherland), but at the top, in one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, as Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the lesser role of Marzelline. The music director of Covent Garden, Karl Rankl, was the conductor of this new production. According to Harold Rosenthal, when the producer, Friedrich Schramm, heard that she had no stage experience in opera, he said to her: ‘Good! All you need do is leave your hands at your sides and sing. Let the music speak for itself.’ Excellent advice, usefully to be noted by several current arm-waving divas. The Stage reported:

The new Australian soprano, Sylvia Fisher, has a voice of sufficient amplitude to surmount all Leonore’s spacious excursions, and her acting is adequate for the part.

Leonore was a role that Fisher was to share in that run of Fidelio with another Australian soprano, Joan Hammond, who was also a newcomer to the company that season. A month later, Sylvia was the Countess in a new production (‘vital, sparkling and polished’) by Peter Brook of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (with Schwarzkopf the Susanna, Geraint Evans the Figaro, conductor Karl Rankl). It opened on 22 January. ‘Sylvia Fisher is a bewitching Countess, and her mezza voce in “Dove sono” made those poignant phrases as appealing as I have ever heard them,’ wrote Stephen Williams in The Stage. The critic for Opera magazine at a return of this production in February 1952 was no less than Benjamin Britten, who ‘left this production … overwhelmed anew by the enchantment of Mozart’s score.’ Of Fisher, he wrote that her ‘beautiful voice and touching personality suffused the part of the Countess with great warmth.’ Perhaps it was this performance that planted a seed in the composer’s mind for the future.     

Her success at Covent Garden was reported widely back home in Australia, including reports that Fisher was less-than-impressed with the competition in both London and Paris. ‘It has made me realise how really high our own standards are in Australia, and that we are much too modest about it,’ the ‘refreshingly frank’ Sylvia told Australian Women’s Weekly.

Seven roles

The following season, 1949-50, brought no fewer than seven significant roles at Covent Garden for Sylvia Fisher. On 28 October 1949 Fisher made her first appearance at Covent Garden in what was to become her most celebrated role—the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Karl Rankl conducting. This performance ‘only gave a hint of the fine portrayal it was later to become,’ wrote Rosenthal, but The Scotsman praised her ‘great presence, with a lovely voice and a keen understanding of her music,’ while begging her to seek the advice of a make-up expert.

In the same season, Sylvia was First Lady in The Magic Flute (with John Brownlee and Kenneth Neate), and she was Elsa in a new production of Lohengrin (another Australian, mezzo-soprano Rosina Raisbeck, was Ortrud in the run, Rankl the conductor), which opened on 15 December. The Scotsman commented that her

… characterisation of Elsa was sympathetic, and her singing was constantly pure, though possibly a little small, one suspects, to have reached the back of the gallery.

In that season, Sylvia also returned to Leonore in Fidelio and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. And Fisher made her first foray into Wagner’s Ring cycle at Covent Garden on 25 May 1949, when she was Third Norn in Götterdämmerung (alongside Rosina Raisbeck, who was Second Norn, Kirsten Flagstad the Brünnhilde). In June 1950 she was promoted to sing Sieglinde in Die Walküre (to Set Svanholm’s Siegmund, Ludwig Weber’s Hunding, Hans Hotter’s Wotan, Karl Rankl the conductor).4 This latter role was to become widely recognised as representing Sylvia’s art at its finest: ‘How lucky we are to have in the company a soprano who sings so well,’ Andrew Porter wrote of her Sieglinde in Opera. And Richard Bonynge recalls her Sieglinde as ‘the greatest I ever heard.’

On 26 January 1950, Australia Day, the BBC’s Light Programme broadcast a special show, ‘Australia Calls’, which starred Sylvia Fisher, Peter Dawson, John Cameron, musical comedy celebrities Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott, radio comedians Bill Kerr, Kitty Bluett, Joy Nichols and Dick Bentley, and pianist Noel Mewton-Wood. In February, Fisher was to play a prominent role, Queen Iseult, in a broadcast performance of Rutland Boughton’s The Queen of Cornwall, a music drama based on a play by Thomas Hardy.

As in the previous season, at Covent Garden Sylvia was to sing seven different roles in the 1950-51 season: Leonore, the Countess, the Marschallin, Sieglinde, Elsa and two new roles—Gutrune in Götterdämmerung and Senta, in a new production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.5 The Dutchman première took place on the opening night (19 October). The Scotsman bemoaned the fact that she was ‘allowed to appear so badly made up and wearing such an appalling costume and wig.’ Nevertheless, ‘she sang most beautifully.’  

And, almost unremarked, she took on for the first time the role of Gutrune in the concluding part of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung. Although Gutrune is by most standards a major role, it tends to fade from view when compared with Brünnhilde—sung in these performances by Kirsten Flagstad.  

At the top

On 6 December 1950, Fisher returned to Der Rosenkavalier as the Marschallin. Several of the performances were this time conducted by the brilliant Erich Kleiber, his first appearance at the Royal Opera House—‘an important event in every sense of the word,’ said The Stage—which went on to report that ‘Sylvia Fisher makes a deeply gracious Marschallin.’ And Montague Haltrecht recalled that ‘under Kleiber [she] instantly began to improve enormously, to become not only undisputed prima donna, but one of the finest singers of her day.’ The performance of 3 January was broadcast and luckily survives.

At this point the director of Covent Garden, David Webster, was moved to pronounce that ‘Sylvia Fisher is one of the two greatest sopranos in the world today, and within two years perhaps will be as great as Melba.’ The other ‘greatest soprano’ referred to by Webster was the great Norwegian, Kirsten Flagstad. The Marschallin was a role that Fisher was to repeat in subsequent years to great acclaim at Covent Garden, taking it in time to Sydney in 1955 (abridged) and to Frankfurt in 1957.6

The distinguished British critic, Frank Granville Barker, later wrote of Fisher in Der Rosenkavalier in The Guardian, comparing the outstanding Marschallins of his experience:

Her Marschallin always dominated Der Rosenkavalier, for this was a character with which she identified. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf presented a more sophisticated character. Régine Crespin a more sensuous one, but Sylvia Fisher was the most convincing in portraying the pathos of the woman finally renouncing her young lover.

On 30 January 1952 Sylvia undertook a role that foreshadowed her later career move into twentieth century opera—a BBC broadcast performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler—with Sylvia as Ursula. The following month, she left for Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera, where she was to sing again one of her greatest roles—Sieglinde in Die Walküre—Erich Kleiber the conductor. Kleiber reported to David Webster at Covent Garden:

She has been singing gloriously, and all the [Italian] papers without exception have singled her out as the best in the cast. This is true. It is her first experience on an enormously big stage, miles away from the conductor, and she has been reliable and splendid. Her voice has been praised for its limpid quality, its nobility, its passion and of course its perfect intonation and great beauty.

Kleiber was to donate his services at Covent Garden on 19 May 1952 in a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony—a concert to inaugurate the establishment of a Benevolent Fund for the house’s chorus and orchestra. The soloists were Fisher, Constance Shacklock, Edgar Evans and Norman Walker.

Isolde

The 1951-52 and 1952-3 seasons at Covent Garden saw Sylvia Fisher again in several of her established roles—Leonore, Elsa, the Countess and the Marschallin. The next major opera that Fisher was to address at Covent Garden was in January 1953 as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde (with Ludwig Suthaus the Tristan, Sir John Barbirolli the conductor). She was the first ‘Anglo-Saxon’ singer to perform Isolde at Covent Garden since Eva Turner in 1937. After the event, she wailed to the Age in Melbourne about the many difficult conditions in which she made her debut—which included a sore throat leading up to the première. Apparently, there were also misfortunes in the weeks leading up to it—thick London fogs, together with hot fires leaving her throat dry, her Dutch maid leaving and so on.

She had managed to escape from these tribulations by going to Berlin to study the part with the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the previous generation, Frieda Leider. What she does not mention is the fact that, even for an experienced dramatic soprano, Isolde represents a new and greater level of challenge, one that can still spell disaster for vulnerable vocal cords. Nevertheless, Eric Blom in The Observer wrote:

Tristan and Isolde was notable chiefly for … the Isolde of Sylvia Fisher, that artist’s first attempt at this most searching of parts. Miss Fisher gives a most beautiful, if less than grandly heroic, performance, full of exquisitely womanly tenderness and with one gloriously lyrical and profoundly musical phrase after another.

And Andrew Porter in Opera magazine added:

In Tristan [Sylvia Fisher] emerges as a singer of real distinction, the first that the Covent Garden company has produced … The intelligence and understanding Miss Fisher brought to every phrase was memorable, and as a whole her creation of the role was beautifully conceived.

Ever honest, Porter goes on to be clear that Sylvia ‘does not, of course, have the vocal radiance of Flagstad,’ the singer whom she had followed in the role. She was to repeat her Isolde at Cagliari in Sardinia in March 1954, and four years later she was Isolde to Ramon Vinay’s Tristan in June 1958 in the new production at Covent Garden (producer Christopher West, designer Leslie Hurry). Of this later return, Opera reported: ‘To speak frankly, Miss Fisher is at the moment going through a very difficult phase in her career.’

The 1953–54 season at Covent Garden saw Fisher back with seven roles, including two that were new to her: Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz and Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes.

It was the Grimes that came first, in November 1953, with Peter Pears in the title role, Geraint Evans as Captain Bulstrode and fellow-Australians Raymond Nilsson and John Lanigan in more minor roles. The conductor was Reginald Goodall. Grimes had been first performed in 1945 at Sadler’s Wells and had immediately signalled the arrival of a top-flight opera composer. The role of Ellen Orford was still usually occupied by its creator, Joan Cross, and comparisons were made. Sylvia’s embodiment of the part was thought to be ‘a sweetly reasonable contrast … singing with a most appealing simplicity,’ according to The Stage. This Britten opera represented a further step towards Fisher’s final phase as a performing artist—in twentieth century works, particularly those of Benjamin Britten. 

By contrast, the Freischütz was thought to be a failure as a production and Sylvia miscast as Agathe. She was replaced later in the run by a young Joan Sutherland. Edward Downes conducted.

However, it was in January of 1954 that Fisher was promoted by Covent Garden to the formal rank of ‘Prima Donna’, ‘the first member of the permanent Covent Garden Opera Company … a remarkable achievement in view of the fact that her first appearance on the operatic stage took place only five years ago.’ The Stage continued:

Her natural style and the early training she received in Australia from Adolf Spivakovsky make her an ideal Wagnerian soprano, and she has the required range, colour and smoothness of tone for the heaviest of roles.

Before embarking on the second part of the 1953-54 season in London, the Covent Garden company went touring from February to April—to Croydon, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester—with a substantial part of their current repertoire. On the tour, Sylvia sang in Der Freischütz under Edward Downes and Die Walküre under Reginald Goodall. However, as Lord Harewood reported in his memoirs: ‘In Manchester [as Sieglinde], we had the opulent-voiced Hilde Konetzni, Anny’s sister, instead of Sylvia Fisher who had gone off to get married.’ Sylvia ‘married secretly Ubaldo Gardini of Bologna, an Italian professor of the violin.’7

They had first met in Florence in 1952 and he came to Rome to her first night as Sieglinde there. From a small town near Ferrara and Bologna, in the 1960s Gardini became an Italian language coach at Covent Garden. Together, Sylvia and Ubaldo acquired a ‘house of character’ in London, where they were to establish a reputation for hospitality and good Italian food, the property becoming known as ‘Little-Bologna-In-Bayswater’.

Touring back home

Early in 1955, together with Ubaldo, Fisher returned to Australia for the first time since 1947, embarking on a three-month tour for the ABC, which started at the Town Hall in Melbourne on March 12 with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra. It was the opening event of the annual Moomba Festival. According to Dorian Le Gallienne in the Argus:

Miss Fisher’s eagerly awaited return to her native Melbourne brought singing of such splendour that it dominated the concert. In arias by Mozart and Weber, the combination of gorgeous vocal tone, perfectly poised rhythm, and I am glad to say, [she] brought the house down.

Sylvia boasted to The Argus that ‘there are eight [Australian singers] with the Covent Garden company alone.’ 8. Five days after her home-town return, she was able to introduce to Sydney her most celebrated role—as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. This was an abridged concert version, the brainchild of shortly-to-be-knighted conductor Eugene Goossens. Octavian was the twenty-five-year-old Margreta Elkins. In May, Sylvia sang Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in an orchestral concert given at the Town Hall in Sydney, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by an on-tour Sir John Barbirolli. And later that month she was Senta in Part One of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, and in June she sang in Verdi’s Requiem at Sydney Town Hall with tenor Max Worthley and others under Goossens. At the many recitals, where she sang songs by Schubert and Wolf among others, her accompanist was the very experienced Melbourne-based pianist, Henri Penn.

Return to Covent Garden

Back in London following her Australian tour, Covent Garden re-introduced Wagner’s Tannhäuser in November 1955, its first outing at that house since before the war. It was conducted by the outstanding German, Rudolf Kempe, and Fisher was Elisabeth. Although the role was given by her for the first time on stage, Sylvia was familiar with it, having studied it with Spivakovsky ahead of her Sun-Aria triumph, and having sung Act 3 at short notice for an ABC broadcast in Australia in 1947. With its mixture of the supernatural, the historic, the erotic, the allegorical and the religious, Tannhäuser is notoriously difficult to bring off on stage, and this production was no exception. The Stage’s critic (AM) laid into the production, the design and most of the singers, only partly excepting the conductor Rudolf Kempe and the Elisabeth:

The least affected of them was Sylvia Fisher, who again sang with beauty and purity, though she could not make Elisabeth a warm and living creature.  

And of a revival of Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden in October 1955, Andrew Porter in Opera noted:

Sylvia Fisher has now mastered the light, delicate, humorous touches called for in the first act. In a remarkable way she creates Strauss’s ‘young and beautiful woman of 32 at the most’; she understands just how to ‘play the end of the first act not sentimentally as a tragic farewell to life but with Viennese grace and lightness, half weeping, half smiling.’

A New Ring … and Turandot

The commissioning and performance of a new Ring cycle at Covent Garden in the 1950s came about only with a long period of gestation. Curiously, first, the general director David Webster hired the designer Leslie Hurry. Artist-designer Hurry was loosely connected to the group of British modernists—nowadays often referred to as Neo-Romantics—including John Minton, Paul Nash, John Piper, Mervyn Peake and Keith Vaughan. Hurry’s most noted theatrical designs up to that point had been back in 1942, for Robert Helpmann’s mime/dance drama, Hamlet, but his work was much admired by Webster. At the time of the appointment, Hurry had not seen a Ring cycle.

Next came the appointment of a producer and Webster reached out to Rudolf Hartmann from Munich, who had previously directed Strauss’s Elektra for Covent Garden and had organised with Webster the Strauss Festival given by the Bavarian State Opera at Covent Garden in 1953. Who should conduct? Initially the choice fell to the veteran Fritz Stiedry, a pupil of Mahler, who conducted the first two cycles in 1953.

Sylvia Fisher had, of course, sung in previous Rings at Covent Garden conducted by the previous musical director Karl Rankl, and she must have been delighted to be chosen to perform in the new Ring with Stiedry. For the following 1954–55 season, Stiedry was replaced by the brilliant young Saxon conductor, Rudolf Kempe, who brought in his own crew of singers to supplement the best from Stiedry, including Margaret Harshaw as Brünnhilde, Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde, Ramon Vinay as Siegmund, Set Svanholm as Siegfried and Hans Hotter as Wotan. Sylvia must have been desolated to have missed out – but she was away singing in Australia.9

However, the following season, 1955-56, she returned as Sieglinde in Die Walküre and as Third Norn and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. Harold Rosenthal in Opera noted Sylvia’s ‘vibrant and beautiful tone’ as Sieglinde. Among the Valkyries were two other Australians: Una Hale as Ortlinde and the young Joan Sutherland as Helmwige. Also ‘[Fisher] was a fine Third Norn and a positive Gutrune.’10

This Ring was something of a revelation to post-war London, Rosenthal declaring that it was ‘in many respects one of the finest heard in London since the Furtwängler 1937 performances … [and Kempe is] beyond all doubt one of the leading Wagnerians of our time.’ In his pen-portrait of Sylvia Fisher, Donald Brook wrote:

It is perhaps the beauty and purity of her tone, together with the fact that she can achieve a really dramatic fortissimo climax without forcing her voice, that has accounted for her success in the realm of opera. Of the utmost importance, too, is her ability to sing for hours with perfect intonation, an accomplishment too rarely found among Wagnerian sopranos. She has a compass of well over three octaves, with wonderful warmth and colour even towards the extremities … She can produce a seemingly endless variety of beautifully shaded tones.

But Sylvia was coming to an artistic crossroads. Should she press on as the great dramatic soprano, the admired Leonore, Marschallin, Sieglinde, Isolde and so on? Or should she bow to the inevitable and modify her career, moving into roles which better suited her changing voice? In 1955, she was already forty-five years old. Unfortunately, she pursued both paths simultaneously, not only embracing the contemporary operas of Benjamin Britten and others, but also taking her dramatic soprano aspirations to the final frontiers—as Brünnhilde and as Puccini’s Turandot.

The desire to perform Brünnhilde seems to occupy the thoughts of so many dramatic sopranos, some of whom go on to regret the decision to sing her. The role imposes not just extreme stress on the vocal equipment, but at the same time demands extreme stamina. What is more, the damage inflicted may not be so evident at the time, only emerging later. Perhaps the most famous example of this wrong turning was taken several decades before—by Nellie Melba in 1896 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Melba had none of the Heldensopran credentials of Fisher, but nevertheless she went ahead, sang the role in Siegfried just once, and immediately regretted it. ‘I have been a fool,’ she told friends, and took several months off to let her voice recover.

Sylvia Fisher seems to have had no such early warning signals. She first tried out Brünnhilde (in Die Walküre) with the Covent Garden company at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham in March 1956 (shortly before it was demolished), William Mann reporting that performance in Opera:

Sylvia Fisher looked young and pretty and athletic as Brünnhilde, and for the small theatre her voice was quite big enough in the part, and rang out well … [But] the voice itself does not have the epic quality of a Brünnhilde.

Perhaps unduly encouraged, she repeated the experiment back at Covent Garden in London in October the following year, garnering greater praise from The Stage:

Sylvia Fisher’s Brünnhilde … was, as expected, a triumph of effortless, rich and powerful singing, from the first beautifully enunciated, exultant ‘Ho-yo-to-ho!’, with every note given its full value and the phrasing perfect, to the drooping submissiveness of the Farewell scene, with all its moving majesty.

Harold Rosenthal in Opera was not so sanguine: ‘Miss Fisher’s Brünnhilde has not the glorious easy top notes for the Battle-Cry and the few other moments of the score that call out for the voice of a Flagstad or a Nilsson.’ Rosenthal’s reference to Nilsson was by no means accidental. The series of three performances of Die Walküre at Covent Garden that season was quite unusual, perhaps unprecedented, in that when Birgit Nilsson sang Brünnhilde, Fisher was Sieglinde, but when Fisher was Brünnhilde, Sieglinde was taken by the German soprano Marianne Schech.

30 birgit nilsson as brunnhildeBirgit Nilsson as BrünnhildeA return as Isolde to Covent Garden in June 1958 elicited from Opera further warning signals: ‘It was apparent throughout the evening that Sylvia Fisher was labouring under great vocal difficulties.’ 

Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security, in the meantime Sylvia had also embarked at Covent Garden in 1956 on one of the most extreme tests as a dramatic soprano in the Italian repertoire. ‘Our Finest Soprano sings Turandot,’ trumpeted The Stage. This was an even greater risk for Fisher, as memories of the greatest British dramatic soprano of the previous generation in the role, Eva Turner, were still very much alive. Nevertheless, The Stage was impressed both with Kempe’s conducting and with Fisher:

Sylvia Fisher has the voice and personality to melt even contrived ice into humanity. Her Turandot, which she sang for the first time, softened into flesh and blood this near-monster of callous domination. It was a technical battle, of course, with a high tessitura, which she came through with triumphant ease.

She was to repeat her Turandot in January 1958 in Dublin. In June 1957, Fisher sang an all-Wagner programme at the Ravello Festival in Italy with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli—the Wesendonck Songs, Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ and the closing scene from Götterdämmerung—altogether a massive undertaking. October took her to Germany to sing the Marschallin with Frankfurt Opera.

Britten and Co.

In December 1956 Fisher had taken another step towards the last phase of her career—as the formidable Kostelnička in the first performance of Janáček’s Jenůfa at Covent Garden (with Amy Shuard in the title role, John Lanigan as Laca). It was a triumph for both the new musical director Rafael Kubelik and for Sylvia. The Stage trumpeted:

Sylvia Fisher sings more richly than ever in a role that is unusually tense and melodramatic … her strong high notes being extraordinarily effective. 

And Opera added: ‘Hers was one of those rounded and contained performances which give the deepest kind of satisfaction.’ For Sylvia, the writing was on the wall, and by January 1958 Fisher was beginning to turn more decisively to roles in twentieth century operas, parts which would enable her to extend her career far beyond Wagner, Strauss and late Puccini. She already had gained positive experience in this sort of role—as Ursula in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes and as Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa.

Next, as Mother Mary of the Incarnation, she took on Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. The opera had been premièred in Milan the previous year and was new to Covent Garden audiences. At its Covent Garden première on 16 January 1958, conducted by Kubelik, Joan Sutherland sang the new prioress Mme Lidoine, John Lanigan the Chevalier and Elsie Morison Blanche. ‘Sylvia Fisher had no difficulty in coping with the grave maturity of the assistant prioress,’ reported The Stage. She was to return to the role in the revival of the production in the 1963–64 season.

The middle months of 1958 took Fisher back to Australia, this time as a leading member of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s season, which toured five productions—Carmen, Fidelio, The Barber of Seville, Lohengrin and Peter Grimes—to the four eastern capitals. The musical director and principal conductor of the season was Karl Rankl, with whom Sylvia had worked extensively at Covent Garden.

Curiously, she was not asked to sing Ellen Orford in the Australian première of Peter Grimes in Brisbane (the part going to Melbourne soprano Gloria McDonall), but Sylvia did perform it later at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, Sydney. She made a greater impact with her Leonore in Fidelio, the role with which she had opened her career at Covent Garden. Leo Schofield remembers ‘thinking how odd she looked, quite orotund with knee breeches, boots and a leather weskit, resembling an amalgam of Hans Sachs and Mr. Pickwick … but nice big voice.’

Reviews for all the singers in the company were no better than mixed and major financial losses resulted from the lack of audience numbers. Summarising Sylvia’s contribution to the tour, Alison Gyger has written that she seemed ‘tired and less impressive than expected.’

June 1959 brought Sylvia’s return to Kostelnička in Jenůfa, this time with the Lyric Opera in Chicago (with Gré Brouwenstijn in the title role, Lovro von Matacic conducting), but using Covent Garden’s sets and costumes. This was Fisher’s only appearance in the United States. But things went decidedly quiet for Sylvia in the following two years. Perhaps she was dealing with the hormonal effects of menopause on her voice.

She re-emerged in 1962, with Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group at Sadler’s Wells and later at the Edinburgh Festival—as the housekeeper Mrs Grose in a revised version of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (with Jennifer Vyvyan, Elizabeth Fretwell and John Lanigan, Meredith Davies conducting) and as Lady Billows in a revival of Britten’s only comic opera, Albert Herring, at Sadler’s Wells (with Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, conductor Meredith Davies, designs John Piper). Sylvia was ‘brilliantly alive as the pompous, furiously shrieking Lady Billows,’ said The Stage. All but one of Britten’s operas were originally produced by Colin Graham.

In 1963 the EOG returned to Edinburgh, this time with a revival of The Rape of Lucretia with Sylvia in the important role of Female Chorus (to the Male Chorus of Peter Pears) and again in 1965 with Albert Herring, Sylvia as Lady Billows, Vilem Tausky conducting.

In 1964, Britten and his English Opera Group toured three cities in the Soviet Empire—Leningrad (Maly Theatre), Riga in Latvia and Moscow—performing Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw. At various times, apart from Pears and Fisher, all 30 singers in the company were struck down by flu and gastro-enteritis, recalls EOG General Manager Keith Grant. ‘Britten was in hospital,’ reported Sylvia, ‘and Peter Pears and I—us oldies—were the ones waving the flag.’ She admitted to Cyrus Meher-Homji that she had never grown to know Britten well. ‘We were both so shy,’ she said, ‘but I’ll never forget his generosity.’

In April 1965, Fisher returned to Covent Garden in a much-reduced role compared to those with which she had been associated in her prime—as the Princess in a new production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica (with Yvonne Minton, produced by John Copley)—a part generally regarded as lying in the contralto range. She was consistently gathering positive response for her new incarnation—The Stage reporting that she was ‘imposing in a richly embroidered black costume, [singing] the part of the Princess with a wide range of vocal colour.’ Aside from a situation-saving Act II of Götterdämmerung in 1967 (see below), these were her final appearances at Covent Garden before the opening of Britten’s Owen Wingrave in 1973.

Her close embrace by Britten and his opera company continued in October 1966 with the return of his Gloriana at Sadler’s Wells (Jennifer Vyvyan, John Cameron, Donald McIntyre, the Canadian Mario Bernardi conducting), with Sylvia ‘the embodiment’ of Queen Elizabeth. This followed a successful concert performance (with Peter Pears as Essex, Forbes Robinson as Raleigh) at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 November 1963 conducted by Australian Bryan Fairfax. Britten was delighted with her performance, telling her, ‘You have shown me what I have written.’ And colleagues recalled Britten pacing up and down in the auditorium during Elizabeth’s big speech, saying, ‘This woman is a genius.’

Now regarded as one of his finest works, Gloriana had had a disastrous start in 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II‘s coronation. The company took this later, much more successful production to the Monnaie in Brussels in September 1967, marking the opening of British Week in the city. This followed Albert Herring two months earlier at the Stratford Festival in Ontario (with Gregory Dempsey in the title role).

On 29 September 1967, for somewhat convoluted reasons, Heather Harper, the current Gutrune in Covent Garden’s Götterdämmerung, was double-booked—she was also scheduled to appear that night at the Royal Festival Hall in Brahms’s Requiem—and ‘so audiences were treated to the sight of Sylvia Fisher nobly deputising,’ wrote The Stage. In fact, Harper dashed from the Royal Opera House to the Royal Festival Hall after singing Act 1, returning for Act 3, Fisher as Gutrune having greeted Siegfried as her betrothed in Act 2. While reporting the very unusual facts, William Mann in The Times did not comment on the performances of the two Gutrunes, merely noting that Edward Downes ‘conducted a judiciously paced, partly dull and partly inspiriting performance.’ It had been eleven years since Sylvia had last sung the role.

On 10 June 1958, the Royal Opera House celebrated its centenary (in its current building) with a Royal Gala, the headline performer being Maria Callas. Fisher opened proceedings by singing the national anthem. 

Perhaps the greatest flower of Sylvia Fisher’s relationship with the operas of Benjamin Britten came on 16 May 1971 with the TV première of Owen Wingrave (with Janet Baker, Heather Harper, Peter Pears, Benjamin Luxon, conductor Britten) commissioned by the BBC specifically for television broadcast. It was also transmitted by twelve other television networks around Europe and in the USA. It was Britten’s fifteenth opera. As with his earlier War Requiem, Britten lays out clearly his commitment to pacifism. Fisher played Wingrave’s aunt, a role written specifically with her in mind by the composer, ‘a real battle-axe of a Victorian matriarch,’ wrote Harold Rosenthal in Opera: ‘Sylvia Fisher’s commanding Miss Wingrave dominated all the scenes in which she was involved.’ The opera reached the stage of Covent Garden on 10 May 1973 and again the following year (7 May 1974), Fisher repeating her television role, her last appearances at that house.

Sylvia made (for her) rare studio recordings for Decca, both with Benjamin Britten conducting … of Albert Herring (1964) and Owen Wingrave (1971). Britten had wanted Sylvia to sing Ellen Orford in his 1958 recording of Peter Grimes for Decca, but the timings did not work, as she would only have arrived back from her tour of Australia that year (where she sang seven performances of Grimes), shortly before the recording dates in December. Britten was vigorously apologetic, replying to her husband, Ubaldo Gardini:

I am sure she and you both realise how deeply sorry I am about this; I am a great admirer of Sylvia’s, especially of her Ellen Orford, and you can both be sure that Decca and I have discussed every means to make her collaboration in the recording possible … [but] her earliest arrival in this country [will be] too late.11

In March 1972, as Fisher’s performing career was drawing towards a close, she sang in a European Broadcasting Union broadcast from Copenhagen—as the Witch of Endor in Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David with Boris Christoff as Saul, Jascha Horenstein conducting. This was later released on LP by Unicorn. In September 1973 she returned to Janáček, ‘the essence of cold propriety,’ according to The Stage, as Katya’s oppressive mother-in-law Kabanicha in Katya Kabanová. This was a ‘pulsating’ Sadler’s Wells production at the London Coliseum, Charles Mackerras the conductor, which was later taken to the Theater am Gartnerplatz in Munich.

Concerts and broadcasting

When she had first come to London in 1948, Sylvia’s career was to switch substantially from the concert platform to the opera stage. Nevertheless, in Britain she was still in regular demand for broadcasting and concerts. In her first year in London alone, Sylvia sang live on radio from the BBC’s studios on eight occasions—usually German Lieder with various piano accompanists. In her first broadcast for the BBC on 25 June 1948, she sang five Strauss songs, and this off-air recording has survived.

Already in 1949 Fisher was booked to perform in Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Over succeeding years, she made in all fifteen appearances at the Proms, several featuring arias from her core roles in Fidelio, The Marriage of Figaro, Der Rosenkavalier and various operas by Wagner—many of those conducted either by Sir Malcolm Sargent or Basil Cameron.

However, curiously, Sylvia was frequently booked to sing the lead soprano role in a major concert work by a composer she had not otherwise sung in public—as Tove in Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. She first sang the role on 12 January 1952 in a broadcast concert with her compatriot Raymond Nilsson as Waldemar and Constance Shacklock as the Wood Dove, Karl Rankl conducting, and this was repeated at the Edinburgh Festival on 25 August 1954, again with Shacklock as the Wood Dove and another compatriot, William Herbert as Waldemar, the conductor (again) Karl Rankl.  She sang the same work in November 1963 under Walter Goehr at the Royal Festival Hall in London (with Janet Baker and two other Australians—Kenneth Neate and John Lanigan). And Sylvia was Tove for a last time on 13 February 1966 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, with Baker, Neate and Lanigan again and the Hallé Orchestra under George Hurst.

Perhaps as a consequence of Sylvia’s reputation as Leonore in Fidelio at Covent Garden, she was regularly booked for concert hall performances of Beethoven—his Missa Solemnis and his Choral Symphony. Her first Choral Symphony came in a Prom concert as early as September 1949 with William Herbert, Norman Walker and the BBC Symphony under Sir Adrian Boult, and again, at another Prom in January the following year, this time with Richard Lewis, Norman Walker and the same orchestra under Sargent—the symphony was repeated a third time at the Proms with the same forces in September 1954. However, it was her last Choral Symphony performance in August 1956—at the Edinburgh Festival, with Nan Merriman, Richard Lewis, Kim Borg and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham—that has survived in the form of an off-air recording.

She sang the Missa Solemnis three times in 1951, the first two in rapid succession in January and February under Sir Malcolm Sargent (first with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), and the third in November under Carl Schuricht, again with the BBC Symphony. Sylvia also appeared in May 1949 at the Royal Albert Hall headlining an admired performance of the Missa Solemnis, with William Herbert and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor de Sabata. A repeat performance of that work, again at the Albert Hall, took place the following year, this time under Eduard van Beinum. In 1951 she was at Huddersfield in the Missa Solemnis and in Verdi’s Requiem, both under Sargent. A later performance of the Verdi came in February 1958, this time with the Hallé Orchestra (its centenary) under Barbirolli at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

At the Proms in September 1949, she was one of many soloists (among them William Herbert, Sir Adrian Boult conducting) in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music; then in the Countess’s arias from The Marriage of Figaro in 1951 and as Leonore in Act 1 of Fidelio that same year (and again in 1954). In 1960, she gave a performance of the complete Wesendonck Lieder, Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sylvia’s final appearance at the Proms was in a complete concert performance of Katya Kabanová conducted by Charles Mackerras on 8 September 1974.

In 1951 Sylvia sang at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater under Sir Adrian Boult; then in 1952 as Margaret in a radio broadcast of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, with Helmut Krebs as Faust under Sargent. A performance of Delius’s A Mass of Life came in June 1951 for the Royal Philharmonic Society (with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at the Albert Hall under Sir Thomas Beecham). And in 1953 she sang in a memorial concert in Manchester (for the recently deceased Kathleen Ferrier) Fauré’s Requiem and the Idyll of Delius with Australian baritone Arnold Matters and the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli. The latter work was recorded later for Pye—shamefully, Sylvia’s only studio recording before two Britten operas in the 1960s.

Sylvia’s regular accompanists for BBC broadcasts were Ernest Lush, Clifton Helliwell and Melbourne-raised Margaret Schofield. 12. In these recital broadcasts she sang songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss.

Although in the end Fisher encompassed a wide range of operatic roles and concert repertoire, she had a reputation for being rather slow to learn new works, perhaps even lazy, according to Lord Harewood (who was working in the management of Covent Garden in the 1950s). Her side of this issue is vividly captured in an article she wrote for Opera in May 1957:

I like [the learning of notes and rhythm] to be a slow process. I do not like to learn my notes hastily or to memorise a part consciously. And nothing annoys me more than when a coach on the first day of working together starts pointing out how one should sing this phrase or that phrase. Only by going slowly can the composer’s conception possess me.   

Why had she been so neglected by the major recording companies? Aside from her fundamental reticence, perhaps if she had followed so many of the earlier Australians—Melba, Alda, Stralia, Austral—and had become Fisherova, or even Fischer—things might have been different. Or, indeed, if she had had some of Melba’s skill in self-publicity.

‘She had a very wonderful voice, sumptuous,’ recalls Richard Bonynge, ‘but for some bel canto roles, not quite the necessary technique.’ At a personal level, he told me, she was not at all a ‘diva’, not ‘operatic’, but was seemingly ‘rather nervous’.

Keith Grant, who, as General Manager of both Covent Garden and the English Opera Group, knew Sylvia well, says that she was constantly well prepared and ‘always knew the music very well,’ although, ‘keeping Sylvia happy was one of our great tasks.’

In retirement, Sylvia Fisher returned to live at Toorak in her home city, Melbourne. By 1981, her marriage to Ubaldo Gardini was over, and he moved to work at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1994 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia and a celebration lunch in her honour was held by the Victorian State Opera.

At 85, she was interviewed for The Australian by Cyrus Meher-Homji, who concluded:

Sylvia Fisher never sought the limelight … Ego isn’t a word that figures in her vocabulary. Glamour and bright lights are the very antithesis of her personality. The acquisition of money certainly was never on her list of priorities … When speaking with Fisher, one soon realises that a key to her achievement lay in preserving the naturalness in the music.  

And she said to Meher-Homji: ‘Singing is the most difficult of all instruments. Sometimes, when you’ve spent your whole life perfecting it, you wonder whether it’s worth it.’ She died in Melbourne on 25 August 1996 at 86. In his obituary in The Guardian, Frank Granville Barker wrote:

She was always a person of melancholy and pessimistic disposition, even at the height of her success. Although she started at the top and always was entrusted with the most prestigious roles at Covent Garden, she seemed to lack self-confidence, even when surrounded by friends who loved her.

Operatic Roles

(32 roles in 31 operas)

Beethoven, Fidelio, Leonore

Berlioz, The Damnation of Faust, Marguérite

Boughton, The Queen of Cornwall, Iseult

Britten, Peter Grimes, Ellen Orford

――, Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth

――, The Turn of the Screw, Mrs Grose

――, Albert Herring, Lady Billows

――, The Rape of Lucretia, Female Chorus

――, Owen Wingrave, Miss Wingrave

Gluck, Iphigenia in Aulis, Clytemnestra

Hindemith, Mathis der Maler, Ursula

Janáček, Jenůfa, Kostelnička

――, Katya Kabanová, Kabanicha

Lully, Cadmus and Hermione, Hermione

Mozart, The Magic Flute, First Lady

――, Don Giovanni, Donna Anna

――, The Marriage of Figaro, Countess

Nielsen, Saul and David, Witch of Endor

Poulenc, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Mother Mary of the Incarnation

Puccini, Turandot, Turandot

――, Suor Angelica, Princess

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Marschallin

Verdi, Aida, Aida

Wagner, Lohengrin, Elsa

――, The Flying Dutchman, Senta

――, Tannhäuser, Elisabeth

――, Tristan und Isolde, Isolde

――, Die Walküre, Sieglinde

――, Siegfried, Brünnhilde

――, Götterdämmerung, Gutrune, Third Norn

Weber, Der Freischütz, Agathe

 

Endnotes

1. Sopranos who dominated opera recordings for the major companies through the 1950s included Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa Della Casa, Victoria de los Angeles, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Kirsten Flagstad; at the same time, Fisher’s contemporary, Joan Hammond, was the Australian soprano who made best-selling records through the 1940s and 1950s

2. Later writers suggest that she also sang for the ABC in 1947 in Lohengrin, but I have found no evidence for this

3. Following WWII, seasons were given at Covent Garden by two visiting companies—from the San Carlo in Naples in September-November 1946, and from the State Opera in Vienna in September-October 1947

4. Asked by Cyrus Meher-Homji who was the singer she most admired among her contemporaries, she nominated the Austrian bass Ludwig Weber, Hunding to her Sieglinde in her first Die Walküre

5. Fisher’s alternate as Senta was Rosina Raisbeck

6. One wonders why, aside from a handful of songs, Fisher only sang one role by Richard Strauss—the Marschallin; her contemporary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang (and recorded) lead roles in Arabella, Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier; Schwarzkopf also regularly performed and recorded his Four Last Songs; it was Scharzkopf who took over the role of the Marschallin from Fisher in 1958, when Georg Solti took over the baton

7. Fisher is said to have sung Gutrune with the Bayreuth company at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in the winter of 1955–56, but I’ve yet to be able to confirm this 

8. The eight Australians in the 1954–55 season at Covent Garden: Sylvia Fisher, Joan Hammond, Joan Sutherland, Elsie Morison, Una Hale, Eleanor Houston, Raymond Nilsson, John Lanigan

9. Many sources state that Fisher was the creator of the role of Cressida in William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida at Covent Garden in December 1954, but this is not the case; the role was created by the Hungarian soprano Magda Laszlo (with Australian Una Hale her alternate); Fisher never sang the role

10. The 1957 Kempe Ring was recorded live at Covent Garden: Das Rheingold on 25 September, Die Walküre (with Fisher) on 27th, Siegfried on I October and Götterdämmerung on 4th

11. Letter from Britten to Ubaldo Gardini, 3 October 1958, Britten Pears Arts archive

12. Margaret Schofield had been a fellow student with Sylvia Fisher at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium in the late 1930s; in London she was a pupil of Solomon before becoming a regular BBC accompanist; she returned to Melbourne where she performed and taught

Selected Bibliography

Newspaper, magazine and performing arts archives, including: British Newspaper Archive, Britten-Pears Archive, Newspapers.com, Opera magazine, Radio Times, Royal Opera House archive, Trove

Warren Bebbington (ed), A Dictionary of Australian Music, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998

Katharine Brisbane (ed), Entertaining Australia: The performing arts as cultural history, Currency Press, Sydney 1991

Donald Brook, Singers of Today, Rockliff, London, 1949/1958

Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A biography, Faber and Faber, London, 1992

Alison Gyger, Australia’s Operatic Phoenix: From World War II to war and peace, Pellinor, Royal Exchange NSW, 2005

Montague Haltrecht, The Quiet Showman: Sir David Webster and the Royal Opera House, Collins, London, 1975

Lord Harewood, The Tongs and the Bones: The memoirs of Lord Harewood, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1981

Cordula Kempe-Oettinger (compilation and text), Rudolf Kempe: Pictures of a life, Robson, London, 1977/1980

Michael Letchford, Singing with a Line: Norman Walker, Goar Lodge, Essex, 2018

Barbara & Findlay Mackenzie, Singers of Australia: From Melba to Sutherland, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1967

Harold Rosenthal, Sopranos of Today: Studies of twenty-five opera singers, John Calder, London, 1956

――, Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden, Putnam, London, 1958

――, Great Singers of Today, Calder and Boyars, London, 1966

Harold Rosenthal & John Warrack, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, London, 1964/1966

Desmond Shaw-Taylor, Covent Garden, Max Parrish, London, 1948

Joan Sutherland, A Prima Donna’s Progress: The autobiography of Joan Sutherland, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1997

25 Years of Opera and Ballet: Royal Opera House Covent Garden, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1971

Acknowledgements

With grateful thanks to Richard Bonynge, Keith Grant, Professor Tim Lockley, Tony Locantro, Leo Schofield, Doug Beecroft, Craig Thomas, Dr David Patmore, Cyrus Meher-Homji, Elisabeth Kumm, Sophie Wilson, Stephanie Rolt of the National Portrait Gallery London, Judith Ratcliffe of the Britten-Pears Arts archive, Olivia Spraggs and Gabriela Wolany of alamy.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and obtain permissions to reproduce material in this piece. 

© Roger Neill 2022

Read 606 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
Roger Neill

Roger Neill is a UK-based arts historian. He curated the exhibition Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett for the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2000. He helped Sam Wanamaker to re-build Shakespeare’s Globe in London. His most recent book is DIVAS: Mathilde Marchesi and her Pupils. With Tony Locantro he co-produced the 4CD set From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record for Decca Eloquence. The Simonsens of St Kilda: A Family of Singers is to be published in Australia in September 2022. And he is planning a 2CD set of recordings of Sylvia Fisher for Decca Eloquence in 2023.