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 March 2023.
In 2006 I did a series of talks in Australia entitled ‘Melba vs Alda’. In each talk I played recordings by the two great divas, Nellie Melba and Frances Alda, and at the end I ran a straw poll: ‘From what you have heard, which of them do you prefer?’ Extraordinarily, given Melba’s pre-eminence as The Australian Immortal, Alda won resoundingly in every venue, including at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melba’s hometown, Lilydale, which was filled with Melba faithful (including Melba’s granddaughter, Lady Vestey, in the front row). I’m not sure who was more shocked by the result—me or the audience.
Frances Alda was part of an astonishing musical family. The founding parents of the dynasty were French soprano Fanny Simonsen and Danish husband, violinist-conductor Martin Simonsen, who together toured the world performing, before settling at St Kilda, Melbourne, in the 1870s.
There they raised ten children, no less than six of them becoming professional singers. And there they formed a pioneering opera company (including several of their young offspring), which toured Australia and New Zealand over the coming decades. A speciality of the Simonsens was to entertain gold rush mining communities—in California, in Victoria and New South Wales, and in New Zealand.
One of their daughters, Frances Saville, having established a successful career in Australia, then studied with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris, going on to be an international prima donna, who crowned her career by becoming a leading member of Gustav Mahler’s famous company in Vienna.
Saville’s niece Frances Alda, granddaughter of Fanny and Martin Simonsen, followed her aunt as a pupil of Marchesi in Paris, making her European debut with the Opéra-Comique in that city before becoming a diva at the Metropolitan Opera in New York over twenty-one seasons. There she established a celebrated partnership with the finest tenors of the era, including Caruso and Gigli, and with the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Alda became a major star of the gramophone, then of the burgeoning new medium of radio in the USA. In her memoirs she wrote of her childhood home in Melbourne:
Certainly a great deal of the secret of Frances Alda was to be found in the impulsive, fiery-tempered, ardent little girl playing prima donna in the lath and burlap theatre in the garden at St Kilda.
Not all the Simonsens’ children were so successful: one, soprano Martina, decided that domesticity was preferable to a life of constant touring, while another, tenor Jules, went off to ply his trade in San Francisco, but, turning to robbery to make ends meet, was sent to Folsom Prison for twelve years, accompanied by much shock-horror reporting.
In total, between Fanny Simonsen, her children and grandchildren, I have been able to identify twelve who became professional singers, some a great deal more successful than others. Of these, ten were women, two men. And another three were professional violinists, including father of the dynasty, Martin Simonsen.
Although there have been other families of singers, none have been so extensive, nor so long-lasting, nor to have travelled the world so comprehensively as the Simonsens of St Kilda, performing as they did across five continents for almost a hundred years.
BOOK REVIEW: Nellie: The life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba by Robert Wainwright; Allen and Unwin, 2021
What? Another biography of Melba? I already have some half dozen on my shelves, ranging from 1909 (by Agnes G. Murphy) to 2008 (by Ann Blainey). Enough already?
Well, this one by Robert Wainwright is different. Wainwright is by no means an opera buff. Rather, he is an experienced Australian journalist and biographer with some fourteen books to his name, many of them of important Australians in a wide variety of roles—all interesting and significant, but generally forgotten since their deaths.
Melba is thus a departure from his usual subject area, remaining (as she does) the Most Famous Aussie. So, unlike previous tomes on the diva, filled as they are with premieres and debuts and accompanying dates, Nellie is focused on Melba the woman and her extraordinary personal life.
The book has at its heart four men (and two woman) whom she loved: her Scottish-born father, David Mitchell; her husband, Charlie Armstrong; her son, George; her most important lover, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans; her teacher in Paris, Mathilde Marchesi; and her great supporter at Covent Garden, Gladys, Lady de Grey.
Although she remained devoted to her father, who had become a wealthy builder in gold-rush Melbourne, he in no way supported her in her desire to become a professional singer. But at least he was not physically abusive of her, as her young husband Charlie was in Queensland. A product of the Irish protestant landed gentry, Charlie was what used to be called ‘a man’s man’, in other words a root and branch misogynist. In time, she was well rid of him, but in the process also lost her son George, who grew up with his father in America. One of the most touching moments in Wainwright is Nellie’s reunion with the twenty-one-year-old George in 1904.
Philippe, pretender to the throne of France, was the love of her life. Born and raised in exile in England, he first saw Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin at Covent Garden in 1890. He was a guest in the Prince of Wales’s box and probably was introduced to her there. A close relationship ensued, with Philippe appearing regularly in opera houses wherever she sang—most notably in St. Petersburg and in Vienna, where the affair became shockingly public. In the end, their relationship came to nothing—he a catholic, she a protestant, he a royal, she a commoner.
Much has been written about Melba’s association with her famous teacher, Mathilde Marchesi. In reality, Marchesi provided the finishing touches to all the work Nellie had done with Pietro Cecchi in Melbourne, she gave her her performing name, Melba, and she facilitated her triumphant debut as Gilda in Rigoletto at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1887. Less well known is that Nellie returned to be coached in new roles by Marchesi throughout her career.
The other woman who was to have a profound influence on Melba’s career as a prima donna was Lady de Grey. Gladys had been there at the debut in Brussels and was Nellie’s most constant (and effective) supporter throughout her early decades at Covent Garden.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that Wainwright has ignored Melba’s singing career. He covers all the major events, including the disastrous attempt at the Siegfried Brünnhilde at the Met in 1896. It is just that he’s more interested in her life than in her livelihood. Perhaps he might venture a sequel, which could explore the so far little-known, decade-long relationship between Nellie and the Australian playwright, C. Haddon Chambers?
First published in OPERA magazine, June 2022 (and reproduced with permission)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.’
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
(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
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
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
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
Although Haddon Chambers’ next full-length play, The Tyranny of Tears of 1899, was substantially his most successful and critically applauded play, re-staged over several decades, it presents us today with some real difficulty. At the heart of it is the relentless patronising of his wife by the leading man. As Elizabeth Schafer puts it:
The Tyranny of Tears featured a married couple renegotiating their marriage as the wife is pressured into behaving more acceptably. Initially she exerts ‘tyranny’ by crying prettily and using emotional blackmail to alienate her husband from his friends and keep his focus relentlessly on her, to the detriment of his writing … I would want to ask, more stringently than the play allows, what precisely would make a woman employ such ‘tyranny’ in the first place?
My own assumption is that the Hampstead writer-husband, Clement Parbury, is substantially based on Chambers himself. Indeed, it may be that this tightly composed domestic comedy is based on his own marriage, the wife Mabel on his own wife. While her manipulative tears might indeed drive a man to distraction, it never seems to occur to Parbury that he might be part of the problem. Being constantly positioned by him as an inferior being, a ‘dear little woman’, might well promote in a wife feelings of anger, even revenge. His self-perception (always being, by right, in the right) would be irksome, to say the least. Any modern staging would be bound to re-balance the roles—as happens so often with contemporary productions of, for example, The Taming of the Shrew.
One wonders whether Chambers’ relationship with such a powerful woman as Melba—so much more direct and self-confident than the Mabel character—might not have sharpened his sense of the problems in his own marriage. Another side of Chambers is embodied in a second male character, George Dunning, the unmarried outsider who disturbs the ‘harmony’ of the marriage. Mabel Parbury says to him that she thinks his alarming influence over her husband is ‘the ridicule of the untamed for the tamed.’ ‘Say of the disreputable for the respectable,’ responds Gunning.
llustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 15 April 1899
The Tyranny of Tears opened at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus on 6 April 1899, presented by Charles Wyndham’s company, with Wyndham as the husband and his wife, the ‘adored’ Mary Moore, as Mrs Parbury. ‘I did not expect that he would ever take this keen interest in ordinary human character,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review, ‘nor that he would ever write dialogues so pointed and witty.’ It ran for 115 performances and Chambers drew a ten per cent royalty from the play, which gave him £160 a week, equivalent to around $A30,000 a week in current money, supplemented by the royalties he was earning from the revival under Beerbohm Tree of Captain Swift, running at the same time at Her Majesty’s in London. Tyranny was revived in January 1902 at Wyndham’s and in February 1914 at the Comedy (52 performances).
Chambers’ friend Charles Frohman presented The Tyranny of Tears in New York in September at the Empire. It became a star vehicle for John Drew as Parbury. Drew was to become a ‘close pal’ of Chambers. In Australia it was toured by Robert Brough’s company in 1900 (and later 1902) with Mr and Mrs Brough in leading roles, first opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 12 May. After Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, the company went on to Calcutta.
Tyranny was followed in 1901 by The Awakening, which did well and aroused much comment. A guru of turn-of-the-century theatre (and first translator of Ibsen), William Archer, paraphrased it as follows in Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship of 1912:
[It] turned on a sudden conversion—the ‘awakening’, in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer [Jim Trower], a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he ‘awakens’ to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the audience to be assured of the fact?
The Awakening seems to me to be the most autobiographical of all Chambers’ work, and the ambivalence that Archer senses in the ‘lady-killer’ may well reflect ambivalence in the playwright himself. In a letter to a friend Chambers admits that he was ‘weak enough to be persuaded into making [an] alteration’, going on to say that ‘when the play is done in America it will be exactly as written, as the balance was disturbed by a regretted attempt to whitewash Jim Trower.’
Initially postponed following the death of Queen Victoria, it opened at the St James’s Theatre in London on 6 February 1901 (running for 59 performances) with George Alexander as the philanderer James St John Trower, A.E. Matthews as Cecil Bird, H.B. Irving as Lord Reginald Dugdale and Fay Davis as the ‘country maiden’ Olive Lawrence. ‘He uses his innate sense of the theatre, not for striking out unscrupulously theatrical effects, but for creating effects of real life across footlights,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review. The following month Chambers directed H.V. Esmond’s The Wilderness at the same theatre. Although Frohman purchased the American rights for The Awakening, I have yet to discover any performance there. It was given a decade later by an amateur company at the Palace Theatre in Sydney (December 1912).
In the early years of the new century, Haddon Chambers followed up the success of The Tyranny of Tears and The Awakening (1901) with a series of adaptations from European originals—A Modern Magdalen (1902), The Younger Mrs Parling (1904), The Thief (1907), Suzanne (1910) and Tante (1913). Did he turn to adaptation because he felt his own creative powers waning?
Chambers’ next three productions all had their premières in New York. A Modern Magdalen was refashioned by Chambers from a Danish play, Familie Jensen by Edgar Hoyen. Here Chambers returns to an earlier theme—the woman with a past and her subsequent rejection by society. It opened in New York in March 1902 at the Bijou Theatre with Amelia Bingham in the lead role, playing for 73 performances.
An apparently different play, specifically written (it was claimed by George Musgrove) by Haddon Chambers for the Australian musical comedy star Nellie Stewart, called Dolores, made its première at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in July 1903. Not lasting long there, it was toured throughout Australia. In reality, Dolores was A Modern Magdalen. Clearly, Nellie Stewart was not enamoured of Mr Chambers, complaining in her memoirs that an agreement was made with the playwright for a series of new plays for Nellie, none of which was forthcoming. She described him as a ‘casual Australian’. Perhaps Haddon was not amused. Around the same time, there were reports that A Modern Magdalen had been translated into French for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, but this does not seem to have come to anything. A Modern Magdalen was made into a movie in Hollywood in 1915 starring Lionel Barrymore and Cathrine Countiss.
His next adaptation, The Younger Mrs Parling opened at the Park Theater in Boston in November 1903 with Annie Russell in the lead role, and then ran for 36 performances at the Garrick in New York. It was from Le Détour by Henri Bernstein, and again took up the cause of the ‘fallen woman’—‘a mixture of Ibsen and Dumas fils,’ said the New York Times. Mauled by the American critics, it never reached the stage in London.
The Thief was adapted by Chambers, again from the French of Henri Bernstein, and opened in September 1907 again at the Lyceum in New York (a major hit, running for 281 performances), with the English actor, Kyrle Bellew, as Richard Voysin and Margaret Illington as his wife. Bellew had toured Australia twice with the radiant Mrs Brown Potter in the 1890s and had prospected (and acted) on the goldfields of Victoria twenty years earlier.
The version of The Thief which ran at the St James’s Theatre in London (opening 12 November 1907 with George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh) was by Cosmo Gordon Lennox. Haddon Chambers’ adaptation was not performed in England until June 1927, when it was given by the repertory company at the Playhouse in Broadstairs, Kent.
Chambers adapted Suzanne from a Belgian comedy, Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, by Frantz Fonson and Ferdinand Wicheler. It was produced at the Lyceum in New York by Charles Frohman, opening in December 1910, with Billie Burke (Suzanne), Julian L’Estrange and George W. Anson in leading roles. It ran for 64 performances.
The last of these adaptations, Tante, was from a best-selling novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Another Frohman production, it was tried out at the Apollo in Atlantic City in October 1913 before opening at the Empire in New York, where it ran for 79 performances with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role of the artist, Madame Okraska. The New York Times described it as a work of ‘exceptional adroitness’ with ‘splendid characterisation’. It opened at the Haymarket in London as The Impossible Woman in September 1914 with Lillah McCarthy (running for 89 performances) and under that title was made into a British film with Constance Collier in 1919.
It seems that Haddon Chambers’ relationship with Nellie Melba came to a halt at some time during the period around 1906-08. Some saw it as an abrupt break. In his memoirs, Henry Russell says: ‘For reasons that I never understood and which he never explained, he suddenly ceased to be persona grata to her.’ He goes on to speculate that Haddon ‘found her a trifle too exigent from time to time’, seeming to imply that he dropped her, which I doubt. Exigent had been a word he had used in The Tyranny of Tears to describe the manipulative wife. ‘His infatuation lasted longer than hers, and she had a lot of trouble in getting rid of him,’ wrote Melba’s early biographer, Percy Colson.
One possibility is that the breach stemmed from difficulties surrounding the royalties committed to Chambers by Melba from her early recordings (one shilling per record sold in America). Melba’s first recordings, made at her home in Great Cumberland Place in March and April of 1904, came after long periods of separation from Haddon and this may be a second issue. He was at the carriage door at Euston Station as she left in July 1902 for her first tour of Australia after sixteen years in Europe and she toured frequently in the succeeding years.
A third possible contributing factor is that Haddon’s estranged wife, Marie, died in November 1904, so ironically he was at last legally free. And, of course, his reputed philandering ways may have had something to do with the breakdown. Ann Blainey suggests that Melba’s affections switched to the Australian flautist, John Lemmoné. In March 1904 Haddon copied out in his own hand a triolet (eight-line verse) that rehearses whimsically the heroic absences of men and the inconstancy of women:
‘Glory calls me – I must go!’
Said the lover to his lady:
Noble words were those, I trow.
‘Glory calls me – I must go.’
Back he came: another beau
Toying with her tresses shady:
‘Glory calls me – I must go!’
Said the lover to his lady.
In fact, the verse was not by Chambers, but had been first published in the 24 November 1883 issue of The Bulletin in Sydney as the work of VJD (Irish-Australian poet, Victor Daley). Clearly, it had some enduring meaning for Haddon.
Sadly, Haddon Chambers is not mentioned either in the first biography of the diva (Melba: A Biography of 1909 by Agnes G Murphy), which was virtually dictated to the writer by Melba, or in her ‘official’ autobiography, Melodies and Memories of 1925, which was ghost-written by Beverley Nichols.
Between 1903 and 1906 Haddon wrote two original new plays, The Golden Silence and Sir Anthony, neither of them enjoying any great success. A third, The Head of the Family, seemingly not produced, perhaps unfinished, was written in partnership with the American, Paul Kester, who had a major hit on his hands at that time in England, America and Australia, Sweet Nell of Old Drury.
The Golden Silence opened at the Garrick Theatre in London on 22 September 1903, running for 78 performances. The lead roles were taken by Violet Vanbrugh (Countess of Arlington) and Arthur Bourchier (Augustus Mapes), who also directed. At the première, Bourchier had a cool reception from the audience and at the close Haddon Chambers came forward, bowed, and was received with a chorus of groans.
Sir Anthony, opened at the Savoy Theatre in New York on 19 November 1906, produced this time not by Frohman, but by Liebler & Co. It ran for only 16 performances, transferring to the Park Theatre in Boston. It opened successfully in London at Wyndham’s Theatre two years later (28 November 1908, 48 performances), and Max Beerbohm commented on ‘the extreme fidelity with which Mr Chambers has painted the class of people who are his theme … the lower-middle and middle-middle classes’. Perhaps Chambers’ satirising of British snobbery found a more ready response in London than it had in New York. Among the London cast were Weedon Grossmith and Nina Boucicault, and the Wyndham’s staging was co-produced by Frank Curzon and Chambers’ long-time associate in New York, Charles Frohman.
Another Chambers project from 1905-06 that seems not to have reached the stage was a musical comedy, Mr Flame, created with the composer Bernard Rolt. Young and handsome, Rolt was primarily a composer of drawing-room ballads. He had become a close friend of Nellie and Haddon Chambers. The three of them had vacationed together with others in Italy in July 1904—first at a house party at Henry Russell’s villa at Stresa on Lake Maggiore, moving on to Venice, where Melba studied Madama Butterfly with Puccini, a role she never sang. In 1906, Haddon was living in ‘my new little house in Waverton Street’ in Mayfair.
On 19 September 1908 Haddon Chambers participated in a ‘copyright’ performance of a new American operetta by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, The Prima Donna. Haddon read the lead male role. This happened at the Knickerbocker Theater in New York on 30 November with Fritzi Scheff as the prima donna.
In 1910 Chambers was reportedly writing another musical comedy, The Best Girl, with music by John L. Golden, but this too does not seem to have come to anything.
Two of his last three plays, written immediately before and during the First World War, were admired and also successful at the box office.
The basic idea for Passers-By of 1911 came to Chambers when he and a friend, the Gaiety actor, Paul Arthur, were walking home on a foggy night from the theatre in London. Chambers collided with a tramp, who apologised gracefully, so Chambers invited him home for supper. Dedicated to his own daughter, Margery, the play opened, well received, at Wyndham’s Theatre on 29 March with Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier in the lead roles. It was to be one of the most successful new plays of the season with 163 performances.
National Portrait Gallery, London
When a young gentleman of leisure, Peter Waverton, invites a tramp, Samuel Burns, out of the fog into his Piccadilly apartment for supper, his butler, Pine, complains at the upsetting of social hierarchy. Also out of the fog comes a distressed young mother, Margaret, the father of whose child, unbeknown to him, is Waverton. Haddon Chambers’ proto-feminist attitudes can be gauged from the unmarried mother, Margaret: ‘You needn’t be embarrassed for me, Peter. I’m not ashamed and I’ve no remorse. He’s my child. I’ve won him and he’s mine only.’
Irene Vanbrugh wrote in her memoirs: ‘I was to be Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady, an experience I had always wanted. This was in Passers-By by Haddon Chambers, a play with true sentiment, and Gerald’s special, very flexible, sensitive approach to his art delighted me … and kept the scenes between us alive.’ The theatre critic of The Times had a different view on the proceedings: ‘Mr Peter Waverton is not a real person, but the “sympathetic” personage in a sentimental play.’
Passers-By opened on 14 September 1911 at the Criterion in New York, produced by Frohman, running for 124 performances. ‘Richard Bennett need not fear comparison with Gerald du Maurier,’ wrote the New York Times critic, ‘he has the variety, charm, naturalness, ease.’ It was twice made into silent movies in Hollywood (in 1916 and 1920), the earlier version with Chambers’ close friend, Charles Cherry. Cherry was also in the American stage productions of Tante and The Great Pursuit.
The rights for Australasia having been signed by J.C. Williamson, Passers-By toured extensively there from January to September 1912. The production opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Hilda Spong as Margaret. Spong had previously appeared in Haddon Chambers’ The Fatal Card in Sydney seventeen years earlier in 1895. This was her first return to the Antipodes since that time, having established her reputation as a fine actor in Britain and America.
After Melbourne, the Passers-By company went to New Zealand (Auckland, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington), returning to His Majesty’s in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, the Town Hall in Kalgoorlie, His Majesty’s in Perth, the Princess in Bendigo, Her Majesty’s in Ballarat and finally the Theatre Royal in Sydney. In Melbourne and Sydney, Waverton was played by Harcourt Beatty, but on tour the part was taken by the American William Desmond.
Less successful, The Great Pursuit of 1916 was put on at the Shubert Theatre in New York as a vehicle for the English actor, W. Graham Browne, with his starrier wife Marie Tempest taking a small role. It ran for 29 performances.
Elisabeth Kumm collection
Haddon Chambers’ last finished play, The Saving Grace of 1917, was a hit in London, running for 200 performances at the Garrick Theatre with Sir Charles Hawtrey in the lead role and the young Noel Coward as the juvenile lead (his first ‘grown-up part’). Haddon was at this time living (with valet Hogg) at 4 Aldford Street, off Park Lane, Mayfair—‘tiny but charmingly furnished … every room differently and delightfully decorated,’ according to John D. Williams. In New York (at the Empire again), The Saving Grace was played to ecstatic reviews (‘amazing subtlety and distinction’) by the English actor, Cyril Maude. Chambers himself directed and the play ran on Broadway for 96 performances.
It was brought to Sydney by Robert Courtneidge’s company, opening at the Tivoli in October 1920. Brisbane followed, where on 21 November, according to the Northern Herald: ‘A serious panic at His Majesty’s Theatre was narrowly averted … when about 150 university students raided the building and startled the audience … Many people thought there was a fire.’
The central figure is Blinn Corbett, a penniless English army officer, who has run off with his commanding officer’s wife. Written past the mid-point of the war, millions of casualties having been sustained, but set at its outbreak, it seems astonishing that the enthusiasm to join up was still uppermost in men’s thinking. Nevertheless, The Saving Grace is tautly plotted with crackling, witty dialogue. ‘Haddon Chambers’ best,’ said the New York Times of its American première. Reviewing his long career, the piece continued:
He has to his credit one of the small number of perfect comedies of manners in the language. The Tyranny of Tears, and a character romance of distinguished charm, Passers-By. The present play blends the acute actuality of the one with the kindly feeling of the other.
And assessing the whole Haddon Chambers oevre, Michael R. Booth (in his English Plays of the Nineteenth Century) wrote:
From the French they [English dramatists] absorbed the planned management of plot structure, the elimination of irrelevant material, and the careful subordination of means to ends. In Pinero and Jones French skills are generally applied to plays with many characters, a substantial plot, and an elaborate social setting. The Tyranny of Tears [and The Saving Grace] goes further: the characters are remarkably few in number; the plot is slight; and the setting is many miles, both literally and figuratively, from Mayfair.
In his memoirs-article of 13 October 1918, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, the fifty-six-year-old playwright described his sadness at losing over recent times so many of his closest friends, naming particularly Charles Frohman (who had drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in May 1915), Herbert Beerbohm Tree (in 1917) and George Alexander (in 1918). He also mentioned in passing ‘certain war activities that I had been engaged upon.’ What these were remains unclear.
If Nellie Melba had been Haddon Chambers’ closest woman friend, his closest male intimate in New York and London over a quarter of a century had been Charles Frohman. Around 1900 Chambers introduced Frohman to Marlow, which the producer fell in love with, regularly staying at the Compleat Angler inn by the river. Following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 in which Frohman was one of the 1,198 who died, Haddon said to the New York Times:
Up and down [the High Street] Mr Frohman used to love to walk, dodging in and out of the stores, where he would purchase unconsidered trifles as an excuse for chatting with the shopkeepers.
Chambers made the journey to the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork, Ireland, in order to identify and retrieve the body, writing to his sister Agnes in Sydney:
I went over to Queenstown with Lestocq, his London manager, to get Frohman’s body. We crossed the Irish Channel at night with all lights out on account of the German submarines … It was the saddest quest I was ever upon … We bore him to Liverpool and sent him to New York … Just before the ship went down he said to a girl friend of mine, who was fortunately saved, that ‘after all, death was only a beautiful adventure.’
The Saving Grace is dedicated to his new love, Pepita. On 29 October 1920 he married the musical comedy star, Pepita Bobadilla. Haddon was 59, she 28. Although she was advertised as having been born in Ecuador, her real name was Nelly Louise Burton, born in Hamburg, the illegitimate daughter of an English mother and a German officer father.
Haddon’s health declined and she took care of him until his death, apparently from stroke and heart disease, at 61 in London on 28 March 1921. There was a funeral service at St George’s Hanover Square in London—among the congregation Sir Arthur Pinero, Charles Hawtrey, Lady Wyndham and Lady Tree. He was buried at Marlow, where he had had some of his happiest times with another Nellie and with Charles Frohman.
There is no evidence that he ever embraced the ministry of his Baptist parents or of the ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, after whom he had been named. The British playwright-actor Seymour Hicks (performing in Melbourne in 1924) discussed the death of Haddon Chambers with Melba at her house, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream:
For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man … Long after I had finished telling her all I could about her mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies.
Pepita had his final play, unfinished at his death, completed in 1922, acting in it herself at the Savoy Theatre in London. He had written The Card Players for her, but it was not a success. It opened on 26 April, running for 29 performances with Pepita (as Eileen Ashfield), produced by Dot Boucicault. The following year, she was to marry Sidney Reilly, the celebrated ‘Ace of Spies’—on his part bigamously (or even trigamously).
Haddon had died intestate, effectively leaving everything to Pepita, although how much remained is unclear. In his biography of Reilly, Richard B Spence asserts that she inherited ‘an income of at least £2,000 a year’. This may have been true initially, but if it was based on ticket and book royalties, that amount would have declined rather precipitously as the years went by. Without any substantial supporting evidence, Spence also speculates that Pepita may have met Reilly earlier than she disclosed and that there may have been foul play involved in the sudden death of Haddon Chambers.
Haddon’s friend, the American theatre director John D. Williams, in an appreciation of Chambers’ life in Century Magazine (December 1921), wrote that Haddon
… publicly entertained two generations and privately fascinated hundreds of men and women of two worlds. He was irresistible as a companion, the chairman of the committee on fun, wherever he was, a fascinating magician in epigrams … a citizen of the world, at home wherever he found himself, but especially at his best as the play-boy of England and America.
The younger writer Somerset Maugham wrote a less glamorous, somewhat bitchy remembrance in his A Writer’s Notebook following Haddon Chambers’ death:
At the first glance he looked a youngish man, but presently you saw that in reality he was old, old … He had the reputation of a Don Juan, and this he valued much more than any that his plays had brought him … The only art in which he seemed at all interested was music … It exasperated him to have his best play, The Tyranny of Tears, ascribed to Oscar Wilde … I see him lounging at a bar, a dapper little man, chatting good-humouredly with a casual acquaintance of women, horses and Covent Garden opera, but with an air as though he were looking for someone who might at any moment come in at that door.
Why have Haddon Chambers’ plays not (thus far) survived in performance, particularly in his home country? I think there are a number of reasons. Even in his own lifetime, his work was more successful in Britain and America than in Australia. Australian audiences have in modern times found it hard to take English high-society plays—though it must be said that Robert Brough ‘the greatest actor-manager Australia had known’, had made a career of just this in the late nineteenth century, introducing Australian audiences to Pinero, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome … and Haddon Chambers. Although he often talked about it, he never returned to Australia. This is a poor long-term career move if an artist wishes to be remembered there.
It is clear that, with the exception of Wilde and Shaw, late Victorian and Edwardian plays were finally swept from British stages with the arrival of ‘kitchen sink’ in the 1950s. It took several decades before managements would risk them again. Gradually there has been a return, with actors and directors finding ways to make these plays speak to us now, prominent amongst them Pinero’s Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ and The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House.
It remains ironic that, while eight of Haddon Chambers’ plays are now in print (2021),1 his work remains unexplored and unperformed. What of the remainder of the scripts? Most, if not all, reside in typescript form in the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship archive at the British Library.
1. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace
One of Them 1886 (one act); The Open Gate 1887 (one act); Captain Swift 1888; Devil Caresfoot 1889 (adapted from Rider Haggard’s Dawn); The Idler 1890; Love and War 1891 (adapted from the French); The Honourable Herbert 1891; The Collaborators 1892; The Queen of Manoa 1892 (with WO Tristram); The Old Lady 1892; The Pipe of Peace 1892; The Fatal Card (with RC Stephenson) 1894; John-a-Dreams 1894; Boys Together (with J Comyns Carr) 1896; In the Days of the Duke (with J Comyns Carr) 1897; The Tyranny of Tears 1899; Blue Roses 1901 (staged privately); The Awakening 1902 (adapted from the French); The Golden Silence 1903; The Head of the Family (with Paul Kester) 1903 (incomplete? not staged); A Modern Magdalen (adaptation) / Dolores 1902; The Younger Mrs Parling 1903; Sir Anthony 1906; The Thief 1907 (adapted from the French of Henri Bernstein); Suzanne 1910; The Best Girl 1910 (musical comedy with music by John L Golden) (incomplete? not staged); Passers-By 1911; Tante 1913 (adapted from novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick) / The Impossible Woman; The Great Pursuit 1916 (revision of The Idler?); The Saving Grace 1917; The Card Players 1922
Stephen Alomes, When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999
Ann Blainey, I am Melba: A biography, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2008
Elleke Boehmer (ed), Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Michael R. Booth (ed), English Plays of the Nineteenth Century: III Comedies, Oxford University Press, London, 1973
Katharine Brisbane (ed), Entertaining Australia: The Performing Arts as Cultural History, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991
Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1967
Kate Carew, ‘Charles Frohman opens his heart at Kate Carew’s private confessional’, New York Tribune, 25 August 1912
C. Haddon Chambers, ‘The American Producer who Lived at Marlow’, New York Times, 17 October 1915
C. Haddon Chambers, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, New York Times, 13 October 1918
Percy Colson, Melba: An Unconventional Biography, Grayson & Grayson, London, 1932
Noel Coward, Present Indicative, William Heinemann, London & Toronto, 1937
Maisie Dubosarsky, ‘”Interesting, and unlike other people”: 19th-century popular Australian writers Haddon Chambers and Rosa Praed abroad’, BA honours thesis, University of Sydney, 2009
Sarah Engledow, ‘Suave’, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2010
John Hetherington, Melba: A Biography, Faber and Faber, London, 1967
Seymour Hicks, Night Lights: Two Men Talk of Love and Ladies, Cassell, London, 1938
Eric Irwin, Dictionary of Australian Theatre 1788-1914, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1985
Isaac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man, John Lane / The Bodley Head, 1915
W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook, Heinemann, London, 1949
Nellie Melba, Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1925
Moran, William R (ed), Nellie Melba: A Contemporary Review, Greenwood, Westport CT, 1985
Agnes G. Murphy, Melba: A Biography, Doubleday Page, New York, 1909
Roger Neill, Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000
Roger Neill, ‘Bertram Mackennal, patronage and the performing arts’, Bertram Mackennal, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007
Roger Neill, ‘Melba: Melba’s First Recordings’, Historic Masters, London, 2008
Hesketh Pearson, Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter, Methuen, London, 1956
Margot Peters, Mrs Pat: The Life of Mrs Patrick Campbell, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1984
Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama: A Historical and Critical Survey from the 1830s to the 1970s, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973
George Rowell, The Victorian Theatre: A Survey, Oxford University Press, London, 1956
Russell, Henry, The Passing Show, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1926
Elizabeth Schafer, ‘A tale of two Australians: Haddon Chambers, Gilbert Murray and the imperial London stage’ in Playing Australia: Australian theatre and the international stage (Vol 9 Australian playwights), Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York, 2003
Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002
Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands, Sydney, 1923
J.C. Trewin, The Edwardian Theatre, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976
Irene Vanbrugh, To Tell My Story, Hutchinson, London, 1948
Pamela Vestey, Melba: A Family Memoir, Phoebe, Melbourne, 1996
J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890-1899, 1900-1909, 1910-1919, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland, 2014
Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography, Methuen, London, 1993
John D. Williams, ‘A Play-Boy of Two Worlds’, Century Magazine, New York, December 1921
A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre, Arthur Barker, London, 1951
With grateful thanks for help of all kinds:
Elisabeth Kumm of Theatre Heritage Australia; Pamela Botha, Melbourne; Christine Chambers, great-niece of Haddon Chambers, Little River, California; Maisie Dubosarsky Fieschi, Paris; Christine Egan, Fort Street School Archives, Petersham; Kathryn Johnson, the British Library; Tony Locantro, Barking; John Wilson, Cheltenham; Sophie Wilson, King’s Sutton; Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant, Sydney; Theatre Museum, University of Bristol
© Roger Neill 2021
This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission), https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/07-08/haddon-chambers-and-the-long-arm-of-neglect/
Who would be your nomination as Australia's most successful playwright? Ray Lawler? Dymphna Cusack? Patrick White? David Williamson? Alex Buzo? Maybe Tim Winton?
How about an Australian who had some thirty plays produced over three decades with the finest actors and directors of the day? The great majority were staged in the West End of London at a time when Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Synge, John Galsworthy and Harley Granville Barker were in their prime. Most were admired hits on Broadway. Six were made into silent movies in Hollywood. And many were staged in Australia and New Zealand.
Would that be someone whose work might be performed on Australian stages, taught in Australian universities and schools, known to and discussed by theatre-loving Australians? Well, apparently not.
Haddon Chambers is best remembered now (if at all) not for his plays, but for his lengthy relationship with Nellie Melba. Even weighty tomes like The Oxford Literary History of Australia and Penguin’s New Literary History of Australia fail to mention him entirely.1
Haddon’s protestant Ulster-born father (Chambers referred to him as a ‘Scotchman’), John Ritchie Chambers, was descended on his mother’s side from William Ritchie, who was born in 1756 and was a shipbuilder at Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast in Scotland before establishing in 1791 a pioneering shipyard in Belfast, where he became recognised as the ‘father of shipbuilding’ in Northern Ireland.
John was born in 1824 and came early to Sydney, where he worked in the Lands and Survey Offices for New South Wales. In 1855 he married Fanny Kellett, who was originally from Waterford in Munster in the south of Ireland. John was said within the family to be ‘very handsome although crippled’. What the source and extent of his disability was, I have yet to discover.
John and Fanny had six children, three of them—Charles Haddon Chambers, Agnes Chambers and Harry Kellett Chambers—surviving to write plays. In Sydney, Haddon’s older sister Agnes became a prominent pianist, organist and teacher (her play, The Love Affairs of Mr Boyd, was performed by an amateur company in 1909); his younger brother Harry Kellett, after an early career as a journalist in Australia (Daily Telegraph in Sydney) and America (San Francisco Examiner), went on to New York, where some half dozen of his plays were produced, none of them going on to have long runs.2 He was constantly referred to in the American press as the ‘brother of Haddon Chambers’.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers was born in the Sydney suburb of Stanmore on 22 April 1860. Named after the Baptist ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, he was educated at Petersham, Marrickville and then at the Fort Street School, alma mater of so many distinguished Sydneysiders, where at fourteen he won a prize for an essay on cruelty to animals. Leaving school at fifteen, he worked in the Lands Department, then as an insurance clerk and later in the Department of Mines, before seeking a more adventurous life as a stockrider, jackeroo and station hand, near Camden, southwest of Sydney.
In 1880 he visited his Chambers and Ritchie cousins in Ulster, before going on to London for the first time. He returned to Sydney on a ship which was carrying the Montague-Turner Opera Company and worked with them in Australia in the management of the company. This was one of the earliest touring troupes in Australia, run by two Americans, soprano Annis Montague and her tenor husband, Charles Turner. In July 1883, the company was in Mackay, Queensland, where a young and lonely Mrs Charles Armstrong befriended them and decided that a career in opera would be preferable to a life as housewife and mother. She was later to become both operatic prima donna and Haddon Chambers’ partner―Nellie Melba.
In 1882 the twenty-two years old Haddon Chambers came back to London, determined to make a career as a writer. To make ends meet, he took odd jobs and wrote stories and sketches, mostly about Australian life, for Australian and British publications. He wrote ‘London Letters’ for The Bulletin in Sydney and helped its proprietor, WH Traill, to recruit the young English cartoonist, Phil May. In May 1886, a Chambers article, ‘Franz Liszt’, appeared in The Argosy. The elderly pianist-composer had just come on his last visit to England.
Chambers’ first play to be performed was the two-act farce One of Them, which was given out of town at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Kent, by Sarah Thorne’s local company, opening on 10 September 1886. According to The Era, the piece ‘evoked considerable laughter, was generally well received, the author being loudly called for.’
His second, also a farce, but this time in one act, was The Open Gate, which had its première at the Comedy Theatre in London on 28 March 1887. It ‘gives promise of considerable things,’ the Sporting Life decided:
The author, Mr C. Haddon Chambers, is almost a boy, and if in the fulness of time he does not develop into a prominent dramatic author, he ought. He has talent, ability, much poetic feeling …
The Open Gate was repeated at the Broadway Theater in New York in December 1890, Haddon Chambers already having his eye on the American market. According to The Sun, it was ‘acted with a perfection of natural, unexaggerated manner that made it delightful.’
The two farces were followed by a now forgotten adaptation (with J. Stanley Little) of Rider Haggard’s novel, Dawn, under the title Devil Caresfoot. This played at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, opening on 12 July 1887 with the gifted young Janet Achurch and her husband Charles Charrington in the lead roles. It was the play that brought Janet Achurch to public attention. The Charringtons took it to Australia as part of their repertoire when they introduced Ibsen’s The Doll’s House there in 1889, stirring up intense controversy around Achurch’s portrayal of the ‘New Woman’, Nora. Devil Caresfoot opened in February 1891, first at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane, followed by the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne.
For Haddon Chambers the tide turned decisively in 1888 with his fourth offering, Captain Swift. Chambers was quite casually recruited by one of the leading actor-managers of his day, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree had created a new company at the Haymarket Theatre and was in search of a hit. In his memoir, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, published in the New York Times on 13 October 1918, Chambers described the courtship thus:
One day, when walking in the neighbourhood of the Haymarket Theatre, I encountered Beerbohm Tree. We were slightly acquainted and we stopped to speak. After a short discussion on the weather, he fixed me with his pale blue eye and asked me why I didn’t write him a play … Although I had never written or attempted to write a four-act play, I hastened to assure him that I would provide him with one within the next few months … I hurried home to my rooms over a milk-shop in the suburb of Bayswater and started to work out a play that very night. I am looked on, I understand, as being a rather lazy person; but in my opinion a man who builds and writes a four-act play in four months, and turns out half a dozen magazine articles meanwhile to keep the pot boiling, must be looked on as not wholly without industry … I duly sent in a manuscript to Mr Tree at the Haymarket Theatre … I awaited the result with a lively interest, but many weeks passed without any developments. Then I began to haunt the stage door of the Haymarket, and, to cut a long story short, I ran Tree to ground one day and secured an appointment the following day for a reading the following afternoon. I kept my appointment, but the elusive Tree did not. He had gone to the Leicester Square Turkish Baths. Thither I followed him, and in the hot room and the cooling room I read him my play.
Some twenty years after Chambers’ memoir, Beerbohm Tree’s biographer, Hesketh Pearson, concluded: ‘Chambers had not rounded up refractory cattle in the Australian prairies [sic] merely to be defeated by the whims of a London actor … The manager consented to do the play.’ According to Pearson, there were problems in rehearsal springing from Chambers’ salty dialogue:
[An] old actor, Pateman, wanted something changed in his part: ‘Excuse me. Mr Tree, but must I say that line?’ ‘What line is that?’ ‘The line “After all he was only a common bastard!”. Isn’t it a bit thick?’ ‘What would you rather say?’ ‘I think ‘a common love-child’ would sound better.’
Pearson claims that Captain Swift ‘put the new [Haymarket] management on its feet’. Tree, he writes, ‘liked the author as much as the play’, and Pearson gives a pithy character sketch of Haddon Chambers at that time, ‘a light-hearted, devil-may-care fellow, with a breezy attitude to life which gave a tang to his work.’
Captain Swift opened triumphantly in a matinée at the Haymarket on 20 June 1888, listened to with ‘rapt stillness’, said the Pictorial Review. As the bushranger, Herbert Beerbohm Tree became, for the first time in his career, a matinée idol, with ‘mobs of women waiting at the stage door,’ wrote Pearson. ‘All London came to the matinée,’ said Chambers. ‘By all London, of course, I mean the large section of well-established and well-known persons who were interested in artistic events.’ It was added to the evening bill on 1 September 1888. Beerbohm Tree brought Swift back to the Haymarket stage in November 1893, then in May 1899, this time at Her Majesty’s with the American star Genevieve Ward as Mrs Seabrook.
What kind of play is Captain Swift? At one level, it is a conventional drawing-room melodrama. At another, the arrival of the Australian bushranger is used by Chambers to puncture the narrow assumptions of polite English society at that time.
Wilding, a retired, now-closet bushranger ‘with the manners of a gentleman’, has come to London escaping from his disreputable, but exciting life in Queensland. Also from that part of the world comes Gardiner, a wealthy squatter (the voice of reason in the drama), who was once bailed-up there by a masked Captain Swift, but was allowed to escape. A third Australian, the detective Ryan, has come to London in order to find and apprehend the bushranger. The scene is set in the home of Mrs Seabrook, whose niece-ward, Stella, finds herself falling in love with Wilding. Stella’s aunt had had a ‘love-child’ earlier in her life, the result of an affair with a man who died. The baby was fostered out and as a boy ran away to Australia. This boy, of course, became Captain Swift, the notorious bushranger, and, in due course, Wilding. A vivid contrast is drawn by Chambers between the gentleman-bushranger, Wilding/Swift, and the prissy, jealous young Englishman, Harry, who is in love with Stella, but rapidly losing her to this intriguing intruder. The butler, Marshall, recognises Wilding and betrays him to Detective Ryan. Confronted with the imminent revelation to the world of his own past and that of his now-discovered mother, Mrs Seabrook, Wilding does the decent thing and shoots himself.
Complicated? Certainly—but with one very memorable line: ‘Probably in the quotation books of the twenty-first century will be found “The long arm of coincidence”,’ predicted the Westminster Gazette in 1899.
Constant reference is made to the tough life of outback Australia. As Wilding says to Mrs Seabrook: ‘The terrible part of it was that we had no water. The rivers and creeks were all dried up—the heat was fearful—the ground was hard and dusty. Very soon our faces were scorched, our tongues were parched and swollen, our lips were cracked—we could scarcely drag one foot after the other.’
Just before his suicide, Wilding assesses his situation: ‘That’s the essential thing to happiness—respectability. I tasted it once for a week—I lived in it—it breathed around me—I worshipped at its shrine. But I was never of it ... I’m a robber to the last, you see.’
By 1889 Chambers was living at Notting Hill in London (48 Clanricarde Gardens) with his partner Marie (they married three years later), and by the census of 1891 there was also a baby daughter, Margery, a cook and a nurse.
Following its success in London, Captain Swift opened at the Madison Square Theatre in New York. ‘I was fortunate in being represented by a splendid cast,’ wrote Chambers. ‘Maurice Barrymore —father of three dear friends of mine, and conspicuous ornaments on the American stage, Ethel, Lionel and Jack [John]—was Captain Swift, and, although it is so long ago, there must be some thousands of New Yorkers who remember what a magnificent Swift he was.’ The play’s success in New York led eventually, in 1914 and again in 1920, to silent movies in Hollywood.
New York Public Library
In February 1889 Swift opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Of its subsequent opening at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in August, Table Talk concluded: ‘There can be but one opinion of the literary merits of Captain Swift, which is that it is beautifully written, dramatically consistent, and constructed with the keenest regard to both effect and probability.’ However, as The Theatre of Australia observed: ‘Australians refuse to believe that Captain Swift was ever a bushranger.’ They expected him to be altogether rougher, tougher, not the gentleman-highwayman of romantic tradition. Perhaps it was not helpful that the part of Swift was taken in Australia by the English actor-manager, Charles Warner.
In October Charles Warner took Captain Swift touring in New Zealand, where it was better received, opening at the Princess Theatre in Dunedin, followed by the Theatre Royal in Christchurch, the Opera House in Wellington, the Theatre Royal in Napier and finishing at the Opera House in Auckland.
Hesketh Pearson summarises the ‘moral’ of Captain Swift as ‘the bushranger who is converted from evil to good, from irresponsibility to duty, from heartlessness to love, by staying in a nice English home.’ My own understanding of it is quite contrary to that reading: I feel that Chambers’ Swift is an outsider, able to follow his own path in life without the constraints of polite society, who, forced to run, chooses to end it all rather than succumb. Variants on this very Australian theme were to run through Haddons’ work over a thirty-year period.
In her Sydney University thesis of 2009, Maisie Dubosarsky concluded, regarding the dramatic power of Chambers’ depiction of his flawed colonial outsider in America:
Swift was the tragic hero of his day and on Broadway—in a country famous for its large-scale immigration and particularly sensitive to the outsider/insider opposition—marked a ‘Pyrrhic victory’ for [Maurice] Barrymore who had been on the cusp of retirement.
‘One would have imagined that after this felicitous event [the success of Swift] the placing of my second play with a good management would have been an easy task,’ wrote Chambers, ‘but it did not prove so by any means.’
His next, The Idler, started out as a play for Lillie Langtry entitled The Bouquet, but she rejected it and Haddon sued her. In arbitration, he was awarded damages. Next it was turned down by Beerbohm Tree and another leading actor-manager, John Hare. ‘I was beginning to think that playwriting was not all it was set up to be as a career,’ wrote Chambers, ‘when one day a brilliant and charming lady from America, Miss Elizabeth Marbury, requested a sight of the manuscript, and within a few weeks I was making the first of my thirty visits to New York.’
So The Idler was premièred not in London, but in New York―at the Lyceum Theatre on 11 November 1890―under the management of impresario Charles Frohman. Frohman assembled a first-rate cast of American actors―with Herbert Kelcey in the title role―and Chambers directed the piece himself. It was his second major success, opening four months later at the St James’s Theatre in London, where it ran for 176 performances, the first new play produced by George Alexander at the start of his long tenure at that theatre. It starred Alexander and Marion Terry (younger sister of Ellen).
The Idler was given in Sydney at the New Garrick by Charles Cartwright and Olga Nethersole in 1891 and was toured in Australia and New Zealand in 1893-94 by the Brough-Boucicault company (with both Broughs and Dot Boucicault). A friend of Haddon, Cartwright successfully toured The Idler in Britain and Ireland on his return from Australia.
‘Throughout the play there is no parade of false sentimentality,’ wrote Punch’s critic in London, ‘no tawdry virtue, no copy-book morality, no vicious silliness.’ The New York Times thought it ‘cannot fail to interest anyone who is interested in the art of playmaking.’ Certainly, it is more tautly plotted, without all the superfluous complications or coincidences of Captain Swift.
In The Idler a respected English baronet, Sir John Harding, has spent time as a young man in the American West as ‘Gentleman Jack’, a goldminer and gambler who accidentally shot a man. He has returned to England, burying his past and marrying, only to be tracked down by the dead man’s brother, Simeon Strong. The idler of the play’s title, Mark Cross, covets and blackmails Harding’s wife who attempts to resolve the situation, but leaves behind an incriminating fan (a device used by Oscar Wilde the following year in his first successful play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, a fact gleefully leapt upon by the critics). Harding challenges Cross to a duel but becomes persuaded of his wife’s innocence.
JCW Scene Books, Theatre Heritage Australia, Book 10-0041
Interviewing Haddon Chambers ahead of opening night, the New York Times described him: ‘The author is a slim and particularly youthful-looking man. He appears to be about twenty years of age, while, as a matter of fact, he is ten years older.’ Chambers heaped praise on American actors and their stock-company system. ‘I could get a finer performance of a play in London if I had a free choice of artists in casting it,’ says Chambers. ‘Imagine Mr Irving, Mr Terry, Mr and Mrs Kendal, Mr Beerbohm Tree, Mr Willard, Mr Alexander, Mr Forbes-Robertson, and—but, of course, such a thing is absurdly impossible.’
A previously unnoticed play by Chambers, Love and War, an adaptation from a French original, was given at the Garden Theatre in New York in March 1891. ‘Malignantly virtuous,’ was how the New York Times described it. ‘It will not excite enthusiasm in the neighbourhood of Broadway.’
In 1891 Chambers brought together several of his Australian magazine pieces, publishing them as Thumbnail Sketches of Australian Life. This was followed by a series of relatively unsuccessful plays—The Pipe of Peace (1891), The Honourable Herbert (1891), The Collaborators (1892, a one-act ‘dramatic joke’ at the Vaudeville, nine performances), The Old Lady (1892) and a comedy he wrote (with Outram Tristram) specifically for the Prince of Wales’ former mistress, Lillie Langtry, The Queen of Manoa (1892). Whether any of these are worth re-surfacing, I have yet to discover.
A return to form (and to box office success) came with The Fatal Card (five acts). Chambers wrote this with the English dramatist-lyricist, B.C. Stephenson, the first of several plays written with various partners in the late 1890s. Asked how they worked together, Stephenson responded: ‘We divide the labour. I write all the vowels and Mr. Chambers all the consonants.’
The Fatal Card opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 6 September 1894, running for seven months there, young Austen played by William Terriss. Chambers’ reputation as a writer was clearly on the up and up. The Sketch of 5 September wrote:
Everybody wants him just now, actors, managers, and all sorts and conditions of men, for he is bringing out a new play at the Adelphi tomorrow, and is busy every moment of the day.
At that period, when in London, Haddon would stay at the Bath Club in Dover Street, Mayfair, but much of the time he was living away from the bright lights of the West End at the St Mildred’s Hotel at Westgate-on-Sea in Kent (of ‘no fixed abode’, as he wrote), divulging in the interview that he habitually wrote at night and that The Fatal Card was …
… the first play that I have written in the daytime. I have never written before except at night, when the world is dead … I find it very difficult to write while others are riding, swimming, or walking about.
The production of The Fatal Card in New York, again under the management of Charles Frohman, opened on New Year’s Eve, with the veteran American actor, J.H. Stoddart, as a much-admired Austen père. A silent movie was made of The Fatal Card in Hollywood in 1915.
It was staged in Australia at the Theatre Royal in Sydney by Bland Holt’s company in March 1895 with (among others) the twenty-year-old Hilda Spong as the affectionate daughter, Margaret. Born in England, Spong had had her childhood in Melbourne. The scenery was created by her father, the artist W.B. Spong.
The Fatal Card opens in a mining camp in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, later re-locating to London. George Forrester has been caught cheating at cards and is about to be lynched when Gerald Austen appears and rescues him. The ace of clubs is torn in two, with each taking half, so that they may know each other in the future. Many years later, in London, Forrester, posing as the respectable Marrable, leads a gang of professional bond robbers. They target a stockbroker, Austen’s father. Austen junior meanwhile is in love with Marrable’s daughter, Margaret. The gang are at work when they are interrupted by Austen senior, who is promptly murdered. Warned by Margaret, young Austen eavesdrops on the gang, is discovered and is next in line for liquidation. He is bound and gagged and left with a ticking time-bomb, when … the two halves of the playing card are produced and Marrable discovers that he is about to despatch the man who saved his life.
Leslie Rees, in his The Making of Australian Drama of 1973, wrote:
Chambers did not write for Australian audiences nor was he concerned with interpreting Australian aspects or values (other than in a minor way in Captain Swift) to English audiences. One has therefore no obligation to discuss him further.
I believe that Rees’s reading of Chambers is profoundly wrong. Indeed, the reverse is much closer to the mark. The fact that Chambers constantly satirised English attitudes from a fundamentally Australian stance seems to have been completely overlooked by Rees.
In an essay (‘A tale of two Australians’ in Playing Australia: Australian Theatre and the International Stage, 2003), Elizabeth Schafer has argued persuasively that ‘[Chambers] created … substitutes for Australianness, most notably in his use of American characters and settings. Chambers’ use of American material may have been simply judicious, given the great commercial success he was enjoying in the United States.’ Intriguingly, Schafer draws close parallels between the plays of two Australian playwrights working in London at the same time—Chambers and Gilbert Murray. Murray’s work was primarily in translating Greek tragedies (particularly Euripides) into performable English, becoming the standard in this area for a generation.3 However, Schafer concludes:
… both these playwrights not only identified as Australian but in their playwriting continued to discuss Australia, empire and colonial life, even though they did this indirectly, obliquely, sometimes even in disguise.
Chambers’ follow up to The Fatal Card, opening on 8 November 1894, was John-a-Dreams, directed by Beerbohm Tree at his Haymarket Theatre. The main parts were taken by Tree himself, Charles Cartwright and the legendary Mrs Patrick Campbell. The play gets its title from Hamlet’s ‘like John-a-dreams unpregnant for my cause’ (from his ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ soliloquy in Act 2). The National Observer wrote of Mrs Pat’s performance:
Mrs Campbell brings to it all the subtle undefinable charm, the intensity of subdued emotion, the absolute spontaneity and avoidance of conscious effect, that promise to make her the Eleonora Duse of the English stage.
Successful in London (71 performances), John-a-Dreams then opened at the Empire Theatre in New York on 18 March 1895, produced by Charles Frohman, with Henry Miller and Viola Allen in the leading roles. It opened in July at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, given by the Brough-Boucicault company, then touring in Australia and New Zealand before arriving at the Lyceum in Sydney the following January, the cast including George Titheradge, Dot Boucicault and Beryl Faber as Kate Cloud.
The grouchy critic of the New York Times complained: ‘[Chambers] upholds the abnormally false idea that a courtesan who repents has just as much right to a conspicuous place in social life as any other woman.’ If that judgement proves anything, it must be that American society could be as narrowly moralistic then as now.
The outsider, Kate, this time female, lives amongst a wealthy yachting crowd. She has been a genteel prostitute, a profession undertaken to support her ailing mother, but has retired from that occupation and settled down with an opium addict, the John-a-Dreams of the title.
In addressing the social issues arising for women ‘with a past’, John-a-Dreams was preceded by Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray and followed by George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. Having seen John-a-Dreams on its opening night, Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas: ‘It was not bad, but oh! so badly written … How strange to live in a land where the worship of beauty and the passion of love are considered infamous.’ The worship of beauty was not at all one of Chambers’ artistic aims. Perhaps Wilde was still smarting from the mauling he had received fro m critics over his alleged plagiarism from The Idler in Lady Windermere’s Fan. It was a matter of months before Wilde was imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’.
Chambers himself clearly felt that his control of style and dialogue had grown and developed over the years, and in his New York Times memoir of 1918, he cites an example from John-a-Dreams as evidence of this: ‘Think of leaping into fame before a delighted world,’ says the heroine to the hero, to which the hero replies: ‘Think of leaping out again before an equally delighted world.’ It is quite a notion for our celebrity-obsessed times.
The Adelphi Theatre staged Haddon Chambers’ next two plays in London (both written with Joseph Comyns Carr and commissioned by the Gatti brothers): Boys Together opened on 26 August 1896—a run of 91 performances, an ‘enormous success’ wrote Clement Scott in the Illustrated London News—and In the Days of the Duke (the duke being Wellington) the following year (9 September 1897, 70 performances). Both featured the celebrated William Terriss in the lead. Three weeks after In the Days of the Duke closed, Terriss was brutally murdered at the stage door by a deranged young actor, Richard Archer Prince, whom he had helped to find work and supported financially. The ghost of Terriss is said to haunt both the Adelphi Theatre and Covent Garden’s nearby underground station.
A curious moment in Haddon’s life came on 17 March 1898 at a benefit for the fiftieth birthday of the celebrated English actor-singer, Nellie Farren, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The whole event was some six hours long, starting with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, with a star-studded cast including W.S. Gilbert himself, Comyns Carr, Dot Boucicault, Charles Wyndham, Nellie Stewart, Grace Palotta, Ellen Terry, Mary Moore, Florence Young, Irene Vanbrugh and many others—and with Haddon Chambers as one of the Counsels.
At roughly the mid-point of his working life, it is evident how little is known about Haddon Chambers personal life thus far. One witness is Elizabeth Marbury, who wrote in her memoirs:
A more delightful companion than Chambers could not be found. He was universally popular. No matter what his income might be he always lived beyond it. When he was down on his luck only those who enjoyed lending him money ever guessed it. His clothes were perfect … Trips to the Riviera and to St Moritz he took as a matter of course.
However, there is one relationship we know a good deal about, our knowledge enhanced by Ann Blainey’s research for her biography of Nellie Melba (I am Melba, 2008). It was in 1896 that Haddon Chambers first met the woman who was to become for the next ten years or more very significant in his life. Their meeting is described by opera impresario and singing teacher, Henry Russell:
One afternoon he came to read me one of his plays and asked me whether it would make a good subject for an opera … I remember we discussed the singers of the day. He was a great admirer of Melba, who had just conquered London, but had never met her. He had noticed with regret her lack of dramatic power. ‘What a pity,’ he remarked, ‘that she is so cold. Her voice is the most divine thing in the world, and if someone would only teach her to act, she would be perfect.’ I had asked her to supper and begged him to stay and meet her. He accepted with joy, and it proved to be a most amusing evening.
‘Few people knew more about the stage at that time than Haddon, and Melba realised at once how much she could learn from her talented compatriot,’ wrote Russell. ‘The friendship grew and the diva undoubtedly benefited from the care that Haddon bestowed on each new role she learnt, teaching her gradually to be an intelligent actress.’ She was thirty-five, he a year older.
The first significant fruit of Melba’s coaching by Chambers was Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She made her debut in the role in 1897 in Philadelphia, ‘perhaps the biggest triumph of my career.’ By the summer of 1898, Haddon was a guest at the house she rented that year, Fernley, near Marlow by the River Thames. ‘He fitted easily into her life,’ writes Ann Blainey, ‘was welcomed by her friends and family, and yet still managed to maintain a charming unpredictability … at her Thames-side house they were often seen together, strolling in the garden, taking tea under the cedars or boating on the river’.5 And ‘in London, he was present at fashionable luncheons she gave at the Savoy,’ and at the Hotel Cecil. Both of them were careful not to flaunt their relationship too openly – and this may account for its longevity. Blainey continues: ‘While in private he called her Nellie, in public he referred to her as Madame Melba.’
Melba’s affair with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans and son of the pretender to the French throne, had ended, and the duke’s engagement to the Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Austria had been announced. Haddon Chambers was to fill that gap in her life, but without all the press brouhaha that had attended her affair with Philippe. Although Nellie and Haddon were effectively ‘partners’ for several years, they seem not to have actually lived together, maintaining separate homes, even when they were in Marlow.
Photographs testify to the circle of family and friends that joined Melba and Haddon at Marlow, amongst them Bertram Mackennal, the Australian sculptor, who was engaged on a marble bust of the diva for Melbourne.
In 1900 she was finally divorced by her estranged husband, Charles Armstrong. Melba was reported in the American press as saying: ‘It is what I have longed for ... As for me, I will soon marry Haddon Chambers ... I have already bought a house at Great Cumberland Place, London, where I expect to be very happy as Mr Chambers’ wife.’ This she soon denied and in a letter to her sister Belle, she sought to scotch the whole idea: ‘I shall never marry again, I could never put up with a man bossing me—I should kill him.’
A minor detail not revealed by the above is that Chambers was in fact married throughout the time of his relationship with Melba. He had wedded the widowed Marie Duggan (born Mary Dewar in London in 1851) on 6 September 1892. He was 32, Marie 41 (though the marriage certificate says she was 31). She had two children from her first marriage (to Joseph Francis Duggan) and with Haddon a girl, Margery, born in 1890. Margery was therefore a ‘love-child’, a theme central to both Captain Swift and the later Passers-By. She was to become an artist in adult life. It seems that Haddon’s mother Fanny came to London from Sydney for the wedding, her husband John having died in Sydney ten years earlier.
In the census of 1901, his wife Marie Haddon Chambers was living (without Haddon) at 18 Sunderland Terrace in Bayswater with their now eleven-year-old daughter Margery and a single servant. Elizabeth Marbury – it was she who was his New York agent and had facilitated the première of The Idler in New York—wrote in her memoirs (My Crystal Ball Reminiscences, 1932):
His first marriage was a mistake, but Chambers never consented to any divorce. I have always thought that this fact was due more to self-preservation than to principle. His freedom might have proved very embarrassing. The consciousness that there was a legal Mrs Chambers in the background gave him a great sense of security … He was always a devoted father to his one child, a daughter.
In 1901/02 the Paris-based Australian artist, Rupert Bunny, painted a sumptuous portrait of Melba. It seems likely that his lively sketch portrait of Chambers was accomplished at the same time and may well have been conceived as a possible ‘pair’ with the one of Melba in anticipation of their marriage. Together in April 1902 Melba and Chambers visited another of her Australian artist protégés in Paris, Hugh Ramsay.
Around that time there were mentions in the British press of a new one-act play by Haddon Chambers, Blue Roses—a three-hander ‘of delicate texture’ dealing with the familiar story of the neglected wife. A new play by Chambers entitled Grace Mary was given a copyright performance at Her Majesty’s in London in June 1899, and this seems to have mutated into Blue Roses. While there is no evidence that it was ever performed publicly, a later report said that there had been ‘a tentative but extremely interesting performance from a band of amateurs organised by Madame Melba at her up-river residence [at Marlow] some time ago.’
Among the ways that Melba’s and Chambers’ lives were intertwined was the fact that it was he who negotiated Melba’s remarkably generous contract in 1904 with The Gramophone Company, including within it a share of her royalties to go to Chambers himself.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN THE NEXT ISSUE
1. These omissions might be thought comparable to writing a History of English Literature and failing to mention the plays of Shakespeare or Wilde or Shaw
2. Plays by Harry Kellett Chambers: Abigail (1905); A Case of Frenzied Finance (1905); The Butterfly (1906); Dan’l Peggotty (1907, London); An American Widow (1909); Betsy (1911); The Right to be Happy (1912)
3. Leslie Rees ignores the existence of Gilbert Murray in his The Making of Australian Drama
4. The following summers (1899-1904), Melba took Quarry Wood Cottage on the south bank of the Thames opposite Marlow
5. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace
This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission), https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/07-08/haddon-chambers-and-the-long-arm-of-neglect/
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