In the first of a five-part series, FRANK VAN STRATEN delves into the life and times of little-known Australian vocalist Walter Kirby.

Kirby 1.1 Tatler 1898Walter Kirby featured in The Tatler, 26 February 1898. Photograph by Melba Studios, Melbourne. Trove, National Library of Australia, Canberra.‘His voice thrilled with every shade of feeling, expressed every shade of sentiment. It could be gloriously high and clear one moment, and deep and tender and caressing the next, and could sink to the faintest echo, or to the supressed high of a lover’s pain…’

This is a quote from a piece published in May 1925 in the Melbourne stage and screen journal Revue eulogising the Australian tenor Walter Kirby.

Walter Kirby? Kirby, who died in 1934, was all but forgotten until Tony Locantro and Roger Neill included him in From Melba to Sutherland, their landmark 2016 CD tribute to Australia’s greatest singers. The accompanying booklet includes a capsule biography of Kirby, but his remarkable life deserves a far more detailed account.

Walter was born on 12 June 1874 at the family home in Chapel Square, Auckland, New Zealand. He was christened Walter Joseph Kirby, but as his career blossomed, he added an impressive third given name, Regis, from the Latin word for ‘king’, and ‘adjusted’ his birth year to 1877. His parents were both Irish. His mother, born Ellen Mulcahy in a tiny village in County Limerick around 1831-1832, came to Australia an ‘assisted passenger’ in 1857. Officially recorded as a ‘servant’, she went to work for Charles and Ellen Maloney in Geelong in what was then the colony of Victoria. Walter’s father, William, was born in the County Limerick parish of Pallasgreen and Templebredon, probably in 1829. He arrived in Australia about 1853-1854. Initially he worked on the construction of the Geelong Road and as a farmer, but it appears he soon went into business as a building and construction contractor. William and Ellen married in Geelong in 1858, Their first child, Bridget, was born in 1859, and their second, Maurice, in 1860.

William Kirby’s business ventures ended in bankruptcy, and in 1860 the little family migrated to New Zealand, where William had several brothers. He soon re-established himself as a building and construction contractor. The family originally lived in Dunedin, but eventually settled in Chapel Square, Auckland, opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral, and had six more children: Patrick Michael, William, John Thomas, Daniel David, Catherine (Kate) and, finally, Walter.

William dabbled in local politics. In 1871 he stood for election to the city council, but he was unsuccessful.

The Kirbys were a musical family. Bridget was choir mistress and organist at St Patrick’s, Auckland. She, sister Catherine, and Mrs Kirby eventually became music teachers, as indeed did Walter. Maurice possessed a good voice, and William had a short stage career as a comedian and song-and-dance man. His whirlwind eccentric dance with a glass of water balanced on his nose stopped many a show. After some success at the Opera House in Melbourne in the 1900s, he abandoned a stage career for architecture. He died in Adelaide in 1921.

In The New Zealand Herald of 8 October 1886 there is a report of both Walter (aged 12) and William (19), accompanied at the piano by their sister Bridget (27), appearing at the Auckland Catholic Institute in a concert that Bridget had organised to raise funds for the Auckland Christian Society.

Revue’s somewhat hyperbolic account of his life claims Walter’s first years were difficult: ‘Delicate from the first, his life was despaired of by the leading doctors of New Zealand. For four years it was an anxious fight, but with the help of the best medical science, the assiduous efforts of his brave mother won the day.’ His father then provided ‘strict training with early morning swimming, boxing and rowing, to which he attributes to his ability to overcome his naturally delicate constitution.’

To Walter, singing came naturally. As Revue put it: ‘Almost from the time when he was able to lisp, he began to sing.’ It was his sister, Bridget, who recognised Walter’s potential and gave him his earliest lessons. He was 8 when his father enrolled him in the Marist Brothers’ School in Pitt Street, Auckland, and he was 9 when he received his first press notice. On 21 December 1883, reporting on an end-of-year concert by pupils of the Auckland Infants’ School, the New Zealand Herald said: ‘Several recitations were given, and hymns and songs sung by the children. One of the latter, “The Dear Little Shamrock”, was remarkably well sung by Master Walter Kirby, who was much applauded by the visitors.’

But it was sometimes difficult to get Walter to sing. In 1931 The Arrow reminisced: ‘There was a curious contradictory streak in his make-up. A secular priest, who was his teacher at the school at Auckland that Walter attended as a young boy, said that when the school concert programs were prepared it was discovered that the best way to induce Walter to sing was to leave his name out. If he was starred on the program he would invent some excuse, but the omission of his name from the program was a sure way of getting his services.’

While the future looked rosy for Master Walter, his father faced an increasingly tortuous series of financial failures and court battles, which inevitably led, in 1887, to his second bankruptcy. The following year the Kirby family retreated to Australia.

From August 1888 to March 1889 Melbourne hosted its second great international exhibition. Designed to celebrate the centenary of white settlement in Australia, it was centred on the huge Exhibition Building in Carlton that had been built in 1880 for the colonies’ first internationally recognised exhibition. New Zealand was one of the 34 participating nations and colonies, and young Walter Kirby was contracted to represent his native country for six months, Revue says, ‘at the splendid salary of twenty pounds per week’. According to a report in The Otago Daily Times of 26 January 1889: ‘At 4 o’clock there was a concert in the German Court, when Mr Frederick Dark delighted a large audience by his humorous musical sketches, and Master Walter Kirby sang “Come Back to Erin” in a sweet, pretty voice, like a girl.’

It seems likely that Walter’s handsome remuneration enabled the Kirbys to rent a smart home at 10 Colvin Grove in the genteel Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, and to enrol him at nearby Xavier, the city’s most prestigious Catholic boys’ college. Nevertheless, Walter found an ingenious way to add to his income. In 1931 The Arrow reminisced: ‘When the family were living on the Hawthorn Flats, Walter bought a cow out of his savings and started a milk round. Many a light sleeper heard the dulcet notes of his high soprano as he went on his round in the darkness of early morning. The wife of a prominent turfite told her husband one morning: “In the early hours I heard a nightingale singing for the first time since I left England.” It was merely the dreamy-eyed Walter delivering the milk.’

Walter loved Xavier. An enthusiastic student, he found that many of his fellow pupils came from some of Melbourne’s most prosperous and influential families.  

If the 1888-1889 exhibition was a high point in Melbourne’s history, the fall came quickly. The crash that followed the 1880s land boom caused immense hardship. Businesses failed and unemployment soared. This could explain why Walter left Xavier at the end of 1889, when he was 15. Nevertheless, he retained a close connection with the school, helping raise funds by singing at many of their functions and remembering them in his will.

The family moved to more modest accommodation at 430 Swan Street, Richmond. In 1915 the Richmond Guardian recalled that at his new school in Richmond, Walter’s ‘dulcet toned voice won him the sobriquet of “Dolly” among the local schoolboys,’ adding, ‘but he sings as well today as he did on the first night he went up from his parents’ home in Swan Street and surprised and pleased the audience at the Richmond Town Hall.’ Many of the Town Hall concerts were organized by Walter’s sister Bridget, who had established herself as a peripatetic music teacher.

Walter’s voice broke in 1890; his father died of tuberculosis the following year.

Revue explained: ‘Up to this period the family position had made the future career of the boy songster an assured fact, but now the future was of grave concern for all. It meant a hard struggle to even continue the barest necessary lessons and the schooling so essential to establish a future career as an artist.’

An article published in Smith’s Weekly shortly after his death, claims young Walter was forced to find menial work and sell goods door-to-door. Stoically his mother continued his vocal training, and he gained early experience with the once admired but now forgotten Melbourne Amateur Opera Club.

In August 1894 23-year-old Walter joined Frank M. Clark’s ‘Alhambra’ Company, which was presenting weekly-change music hall entertainment at the Melbourne Opera House in Bourke Street, renamed the Alhambra for the occasion, and later rechristened the Tivoli. On the bill was the extraordinary ‘facial contortionist’ Ed. E. Ford. In May 1935 he told the Melbourne Herald: ‘Many years ago—it was in the days of Rickards’ shows— some of us players were sitting about the theatre when a shy freckle-faced youth asked the manager to give him an audition. People weren’t as polite about auditions as they are now. You would be given “the bird” right off if you were no good. Workers about the theatre used to load up the property guns and fire them off if an act were bad. But once the shy youth began to sing everyone listened, astonished. He sang “I Was Dreaming” most wonderfully. The next week young Walter Kirby was the hit of our show, and I think he got about £2 [$200] for his week’s work.’ The song, a pensive newly published ballad by a Sydney composer, August William Juncker, went on to international success, as, too, did its singer.

Kirby 1.2 CecchiPietro Cecchi, Walter Kirby’s first singing teacher. Portrait by Foster & Martin Studios, Collins Street, Melbourne, 1880. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.Young Walter was in luck: the rapidly rising Mrs Charles Armstrong—Melba—had heard him sing. Before her departure for London in 1886 she had introduced him to her first teacher, the esteemed Italian Pietro Cecchi, who had a studio in Allan’s Music Store in Collins Street. Cecchi agreed to teach Walter, and at no cost, but sadly the maestro died suddenly in 1897. Walter then started studying with Amelia Banks, a prominent Melbourne teacher and ‘cultured soprano’.

More tragedy struck in May 1898 when Bridget, the eldest of the Kirby children, died in an horrific train accident at Pakenham, about 53km south-east of Melbourne, though, strangely, the press reports say it was younger sister Catherine and not Bridget who had died. Bridget was 39. At least she had lived long enough to see her 22-year-old brother make his debut as a serious vocalist.

In 1896 the celebrated French soprano Antoinette (Antonia) Dolores Trebelli had visited Australia to give a series of concerts. She heard Walter sing and invited him to join her touring company. On 8 June The Age reviewed the third of her concerts at the Melbourne Town Hall: ‘Mr Walter Kirby, a young tenor as yet unknown to fame, made a creditable first appearance. His voice is of agreeable quality, and though it is obviously in need of training, he sings in a naturally free and open style, without a trace of that “squeezing” of the throat which is generally so offensive in tenors who have not been through a thorough course of voice production. Neither of his selections, Stephen Adams’ “The Garonne” and “Alice, Where Art Thou?” can be called specially interesting or novel, but in both cases Mr Kirby was called upon for a supplementary number.’

In February 1898 Walter was chosen to sing at the Melbourne Town Hall reception to welcome the great Canadian soprano Emma Albani. She told the press she thought highly of the young tenor. He had, she said, ‘tears in his voice’, and she would be happy to help him should he venture to London.

After singing with Trebelli and the ‘endorsement’ from Albani, Walter found himself in great demand. Apart from numerous concerts for a wide range of charitable causes and lucrative appearances at fashionable ‘At Homes’, he began teaching, sang before Lord and Lady Brassey at Government House, appeared with the Melbourne, Metropolitan, Ballarat and Geelong Liedertafels, and was one of the featured vocalists at the grand industrial exhibitions at Albury and Ballarat in the late 1890s.

It was an era of vast self-congratulatory civic fairs, and Walter’s birth town was not to be left out. Auckland’s Industrial and Mining Exhibition opened in December 1898 and—yes—Walter Kirby was one of the featured participants. His Exhibition concerts were followed by an extensive tour of the rest of the country. Though the press reports were welcoming and complimentary, they were evenly split in describing him: was he an Australian or a New Zealander? On 17 July 1899, in its preview of a Kirby concert in Gisborne, The Poverty Bay Herald remarked: ‘A splendid program has been arranged for Mr Kirby’s concert on Thursday evening, and we have no doubt the celebrated young New Zealand tenor will be greeted with a crowded house. Mr Kirby’s success on the concert platform has been almost phenomenal. He made a decided hit at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1888. His voice has developed into a fine tenor, and he has met with success after success. Writing of his reception on his return to Auckland in January last, a local paper says: “Mr Walter Kirby not only won a success d’estime as an old Auckland boy meeting with an enthusiastic reception, but his lovely tenor voice and artistic singing created a storm of enthusiasm. His fine natural voice, under the training of Signor Cecchi, has been carefully developed into a smooth, round, even and extensive compass—the quality of tone is exquisite—neither a light tenor nor a tenore robusto, but that rare and happy blending of both. Mr Kirby’s signal triumph is more than gratifying, in view of the difficulty a prophet has to find honor in his own country. He is about to visit Europe shortly to pursue his musical studies, and a bright future undoubtedly lies before him.”

In 1900 entrepreneur George Musgrove assembled an international company to present ambitious seasons of grand opera in Melbourne and Sydney. With his keen eye for talent, Musgrove chose Walter for the role of Ruiz in Il trovatore. It would have been his debut in staged opera, but it was not to be. On 18 October Table Talk reported that Walter ‘found his nervousness an insurmountable barrier at rehearsals and so wisely decided that his time for grand opera was not yet’—but an item in The New Zealand Observer put it differently: ‘Walter Kirby was first chosen by the management for the part, but he is in serious trouble with an infection of the throat and he has had to decline an offer from Mr George Musgrove to appear in grand opera. By-the-way, Mr Musgrove’s conductor has a high opinion of Kirby’s voice, and prophesizes a great future.’

As early as 24 February 1898, Punch had reported that at a recent meeting at Allan’s: ‘a large section of the prominent citizens of Melbourne’ had determined to sponsor a benefit concert in the Melbourne Town Hall to raise funds to send Walter to England ‘to study his profession under the best masters—a laudable idea. He is a singer of great promise, only wanting the finishing so necessary to make a good artist. Lady Brassey and Lady Holled Smith are taking a great interest in the concert, and the patronage of nearly all lovers of music has been secured.’ Other reports reveal more of Walter’s distinguished benefactors: the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Richard Neville, Janet Lady Clarke, Sir Rupert and Lady Clarke, the Honorable Rupert Carrington and the Honorable Mrs Rupert Carrington, and the Victorian Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden and Lady Madden.

Kirby 1.4 Fundraiser 1910Announcement of a concert to raise money to send Walter Kirby to Europe for further study, Melbourne Town Hall, 31 August 1902. Private Collection.On 2 March 1898, the ‘large and brilliant’ attendance at the concert included the Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey, Lady Brassey, and many of Melbourne’s gracious and good but, reported Punch on 14 April, ‘The financial result has not been at all satisfactory, and will not enable Mr Kirby to seek European instruction as intended. Another appeal in a few months' time to an ever-generous public and worked on different lines might assist this deserving young artist to obtain the continental experience so necessary for a successful musical career.’ There were to be many more benefit concerts and functions.

A now virtually forgotten phenomenon of turn-of-the century entertainment was the cyclorama. These were huge buildings housing vast painted canvas representations of historic events, enhanced with realistically modelled foregrounds, music and sound effects. Melbourne had two. The first, on Victoria Parade, Eastern Hill, had opened in 1889. One of its most popular presentations had been Jerusalem, a depiction of the Holy City at the time of the Crucifixion. The Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden, launched a return season on 31 July 1902. For the occasion, baritone Horace Stevens sang ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and Walter contributed ‘The Holy City’ and ‘Star of Bethlehem’.

Meanwhile, the benefits continued. At a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on 30 August 1902 he was supported by a roster of leading local singers and, unusually, two great favorites from the musical stage, George Lauri and Carrie Moore (Australia’s original Merry Widow), as well as ‘a successful humoristic recitation’ contributed by vaudevillian Hector McLennan, father of actor and broadcaster Rod McLennan. The Age noticed that, ‘All the more highly priced seats at the Town Hall were full but the back of the hall was poorly attended.’ Its report went on to say, ‘We have often had occasion to speak in favorable terms of the quality of Mr Kirby’s voice, which, it may be remarked, is still in an excellent state of preservation. He sings easily and without effort, gets his effects as a rule naturally and by strictly legitimate means, and uses his voice well; but at the same time, the doubt will arise whether by sending Mr Kirby “home” the best possible service is being done him by his friends. In England they have singers in plenty, and if some of the rumors which travel halfway round the world be true, not every budding Melba who goes to London for a “career” finds one. We have every desire to see Mr Kirby rise as near to the top of the tree as his undoubted gifts will warrant; but Saturday’s concert was in many respects more like a society “function” than a concert.’ The Australasian was similarly grumpy: ‘Such farewell benefits are really very sad. We know by experience that if the beneficiary is very good and succeeds, he will not return, while if he is very bad and fails, he will return. It is a case of heads you win, tails I lose.’

Though it seemed Walter’s departure was imminent, Melba stepped in again. The great diva was on her first major tour of her homeland. With her was a supporting party including four singers, a harp soloist, and a bevy of accompanists. When her manager, George Musgrove, revealed plans to extend the tour to Western Australia and then to New Zealand, her tenor decided to leave the company and in December 1902 Melba announced that Walter had been engaged to replace him.

Perth greeted Melba’s arrival in Western Australia with great warmth—and even turned on a heatwave to match. The first concert at the Queen’s Hall in William Street on 13 January marked Melba’s Perth debut—and Walter’s too. The press, like the packed audience, were wildly enthusiastic, but The West Australian had one criticism: ‘Mr Walter Kirby has a tuneful and expressive tenor voice, but his stage manner is not entirely free from affectation.’ It was probably the first mention of a trait that was to characterise Walter for the rest of his career.

The party returned to Melbourne where, on 31 January 1903, Melba and Walter participated in a benefit concert at the Town Hall marking the retirement of the much-feted Australian tenor Armes Beaumont. It was their only joint appearance in Melbourne. Later that year, when both Walter and Melba were in London, an obscure Melbourne paper, The Arena-Sun, speculated cheekily: ‘Will Walter call on Melba, one wonders, or did that severe slap he received at the Melbourne concert make as much impression on his feelings as on his cheek? The haughty lady had expostulated with him on taking an encore. Walter listened, but erred again. This time Melba did not use words, but her plump, jewelled hand, and Walter’s face bore the impress for quite half an hour after.’

A concert at Launceston in northern Tasmania was to be next, but Bass Strait’s heavy seas made Melba so ill it had to be abandoned. She and her party took the train to Hobart where they were to board the SS Moeraki for the trip to New Zealand on 13 February. It was a Friday. And Walter missed the boat.

How this happened was never explained, but in his 1967 biography of Melba, John Hetherington gave an unsourced and largely fanciful account of what followed, and this has been repeated by several other writers. Inherent is the suggestion that the incident led to Walter developing a deep hatred for the diva. Contemporary reports tell a different if less colourful story, confirming that Melba continued to support and encourage him.

Melba engaged John Prouse, a sturdy local bass-baritone, to replace Kirby in her first New Zealand concert, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Dunedin on 18 February. Earlier that day Walter had disembarked from the steamer Rimutaka in Wellington. He got to Christchurch in time to sing in Melba’s second New Zealand concert there on 20 February.

Surprisingly, several New Zealand reviewers were less than impressed by their returning prodigy. Christchurch’s The Press grumbled: ‘Mr Kirby was faulty in his singing of “Angels Guard Thee” and also in his second number, “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby”. His production lacks smoothness, and he has a tendency to use the tremolo effect far too much,’ while The New Zealand Observer said: ‘The supporting company was of mixed quality. Local interest naturally attached to Mr Walter Kirby, the tenor, who was an Auckland boy. He has undoubtedly improved since he went to Australia, both in method and in vocal powers, but some of his mannerisms still remain. When London studies have weeded these out, and put the polish upon his style, we may expect to hear great things of Mr Kirby. The rest of the performers made up a concert of good average calibre.’

The Melba party sailed back into Sydney on 13 March. The country was still experiencing what is recognized as the worst drought it has ever endured. Melba had been moved by the devastation she had seen on earlier tours, so drought relief was a cause close to her heart. To raise funds, she and her party—including Walter—appeared at a hastily-arranged charity matinee at the Sydney Town Hall on 18 March. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 2800 people had packed the venue and that the proceeds—£700 [$105,500]—were the most yet raised at a charity concert.

On 11 April, almost on the eve of his long-delayed departure for Europe, Walter participated in an extraordinary Easter event staged in Wirth Brothers’ huge circus tent which was pitched in St Kilda Road, on the site of today’s Arts Centre Melbourne. ‘Bioscope views’ displayed on a large screen hung in the centre of the ring were mingled with mainly religious vocal items accompanied by a military band. The Age was shocked: ‘Most of the items were appropriate to the season, but the introduction of The “Zaza” Kiss, as displayed on the sheet [the screen], would have been in questionable taste at any part of the program, and following, as it did, a rendering of “The Lost Chord” it was almost revolting’.  This intriguing attraction, which had been teasingly advertised for many days, was apparently inspired by a controversial episode in the drama Zaza, then playing at the Princess.

A few days later, armed with funds for two years’ tuition, dozens of letters of introduction, and an adulatory testimonial from his recently recruited pupils, Walter took the train to Adelaide, where he boarded the fashionable French liner Ville de la Ciotat, bound for Marseilles.


To be continued


Special thanks to:

Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove

Principal references:

Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002

Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976

Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990

John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967

Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016

Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001

John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951