Having returned home in 1910 after success abroad, the third instalment of FRANK VAN STRATEN’s biography of tenor Walter Kirby focuses on the years 1912 to 1926.

A position of genuine eminence

Walter continued to sing frequently for charity, but major professional engagements were elusive. His principal income was from teaching and from the countless social set ‘At Homes’ at which he entertained.

On 24 October 1912 he turned the tables and presented his very own ‘At Home’. It was spectacular. He staged it at the Grand Hotel (now the Windsor) in Spring Street and invited dozens of the city’s most celebrated citizens. Punch covered the event in detail: ‘The gifted tenor made an admirable host. He welcomed his guests in the wide corridor leading to the large reception room. This handsome room, made still more artistic with a number of rich foliaged palms and delicate pink roses, was soon crowded to overflowing, and many of the guests lingered in the corridor, listening to the program with intense enjoyment. It was a delightful program. Everyone was in good voice and the items were well selected. Mr. Kirby filled a dual role with marked success. He never sang better or with more effect; and he was an untiring host in seeing to the comfort of his guests. He was most enthusiastically encored for every number.’ Punch went on to detail the musical program and list dozens of guests, including ‘a party from Government House’. The report concluded: ‘Signor Di Gilio’s band played a charming program of music during the reception. Refreshing tea, coffee and wine cups and dainty refreshments were deftly served both in the reception room and in the corridor.’

In 1913 Walter sang for the first time in Tasmania. Promoted as ‘Australia’s Caruso’, he gave well-attended concerts in the Hobart Town Hall and at the Mechanics’ Institute in Launceston. From Tasmania Walter sailed to New Zealand. He spent seven months touring his homeland. He was well received, but The New Zealand Observer had reservations: ‘Time seems to hang very heavily upon the hands of Walter Kirby, the noted tenor. His foot is upon the native asphalt, but he sighs for the broader ways of imperial cities. He raises a few highly skilled notes now and then as he remembers his happy days of exile, but most times he looks sad and depressed, for the good people of Auckland cannot seem quite good enough to fondle the man who has sung to queens and been the darling of princes. He has threatened two or three times to go away back to Russia or Berlin or somewhere where they have some blue blood. Now that the Prince of Wales threatens to come to New Zealand, why can’t he wait?’

Walter’s final weeks in New Zealand coincided with the visit of the great American dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, who was as renowned for her glorious voice as she was for her three failed marriages, her extravagant Parisian wardrobe, and her hearty commercial endorsement of a wide range of products including Coco-Cola and her own line of beauty preparations. As Walter told it, he was singing in his room at the Grand Hotel in Auckland when someone knocked on his door. It proved to be Madame Nordica, who expressed surprise at the quality of his voice and asked him to join her tour, replacing Canadian baritone Paul Dufault. In Melbourne in November 1913 they gave several enthusiastically received concerts at the Taits’ recently opened concert hall, the 2400-seat Auditorium in Collins Street. Tragically these were to mark the end of Nordica’s stellar career. On the way back to America, her ship, the steamer Tasman, was stranded on a coral reef for several days, and she suffered hypothermia. She was transferred to Batavia (now Jakarta) and died there of pneumonia in May 1914.

Walter’s 1914 diary was filled with innumerable charity concerts, engagements to sing at society ‘At Homes’ and wedding ceremonies, and regular appearances at the Taits’ Saturday ‘Pops’ concerts at the Auditorium. He sang at the gala opening of the Plaza Ballroom, an elaborate update of the well-worn 1887 Victoria roller-skating rink adjacent to South Yarra railway station. He sang, too, at the Austral Salon’s ‘Welcome Home’ to Dame Nellie Melba on 20 August, and organized a ‘Grand Patriotic Festival and Sacred Concert’ at the Princess Theatre on 30 August to raise funds for the Red Cross. War had been declared on 28 July, and this was the first of Walter’s countless contributions to the nation’s war effort. As well as Walter, the participants included baritone Frederic (real name Frederick) Collier and his wife, soprano Elsie Treweek, flautist John Amadio, and the ground-breaking Magpie Ladies’ Orchestra.

But perhaps the year’s highpoint came in New Zealand. Walter had briefly returned to his homeland for a series of recitals, but at the Wellington Town Hall on 18 September he took the tenor role in the Royal Wellington Choral Society’s concert presentation of Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah—the opera’s New Zealand premiere. His Delilah was local contralto Mina Caldow who, like Walter, had studied and found success overseas. The performance was judged a triumph for the singers, but it seems the work was a little beyond the capabilities of the 250-strong orchestra and chorus.

Early in 1915 Walter revisited Tasmania, offering singing lessons as well as five concerts. During his stay he was frequently the guest of the state governor, Sir William Ellison-Macartney, and Lady Macartney. Both were keen musicians, and Her Ladyship accompanied Walter in many private recitals at government house. Also in attendance was Her Ladyship’s mother, Mrs. Hannah Scott. She presented Walter with several books detailing the adventures of her ill-fated son, the late Robert Falcon Scott, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.

For Walter, most of 1915 was devoted to activities designed to support the war effort, and he developed an unusual way to raise money. Often unannounced, he would visit a popular restaurant or social gathering, and ‘auction’ performances of his most popular songs. Table Talk reported that on ‘Belgian Flag Day’, 26 March, he sang at the Oriental, Menzies and Savoy hotels, at the Café Francatelli and at the Vienna Café, his efforts raising a splendid £121 [$12,800].

On 11 August Walter joined soprano Amy Castles and flautist John Amadio in an outstanding concert at the Melbourne Town Hall to help the Australian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. They were accompanied by an orchestra of 82 and a choir of more than 200. The Argus was impressed: ‘Very flattering attentions were paid to the gifted Australian, Mr. Walter Kirby, who has, by natural talent and arduous study, raised himself to a position of genuine eminence. As he has so often shown, Mr. Kirby proclaimed himself not merely a fine tenor, but (what is not always the case with tenors), a fine artist as well. In sheer beauty of tone his voice was a delight to hear, and similarly attractive were his technical finish and excellent feeling for atmosphere.’

 Walter’s activities were widely covered in the local press, but in New Zealand on 3 December 1915 the Wellington weekly Free Lance published this odd piece: ‘The matrimonial affairs of Melbourne’s principal tenor, Walter Kirby, occupy much attention—so a Melbourne correspondent writes. Mr. Kirby is not married, but it is said he may be soon. Rumour hath it that he is at present paying much attention to the daughter of a deceased doctor. The girl is musical, and very well dowered. Walter Kirby first lifted up his sweet tenor—probably it was not tenor in those days—in Auckland. As to the above the only thing surprising to The Free Lance is that Mr. Kirby has not taken the matrimonial plunge much sooner.’

For Walter, the highlight of 1916 was the visit of the Italian Gonzales Grand Opera Company. He was, of course, in the audience for its Australian debut at the Princess Theatre on 17 June, but behind the scenes he acted as a host, guide, advisor and translator for the company, few of whom had any knowledge of English. He became particularly close to the leading tenor, Bettino Cappelli, so close, in fact, that on the last night of the season, when Cappelli was not scheduled to sing, he insisted that Walter join him and the Italian consul in a decorated box, and to take a bow for himself. And, reported Punch, when the company departed for Sydney, ‘he found their throbbing gratitude almost too much to be borne. Seeing them off by train at Spencer Street, he was talking to Signor Cappelli through the open carriage window, when suddenly the departing Italian jumped up from his seat, exclaiming that “he must go out on to the platform for a minute”. He swept out in a whirl, rushed up to Mr. Kirby, and before our astonished tenor could defend himself, kissed him resoundingly on each cheek, a fervent expression of “a little gratitude for his many kindnesses”. Mr. Kirby blushed purple with embarrassment.’

The Gonzales company returned to Melbourne for a second season in 1917. In June, Walter was one of the guests of honour when Cappelli’s four-day-old son was baptized Melbourne Vittorio Carlo Cappelli in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Walter also spearheaded a series of remarkably successful Saturday evening concerts at the 1700-seat Lyric Theatre on St Kilda Esplanade. In more recent years the Lyric was transformed into the now demolished Earls Court dance palais.

For his January 1917 concerts in Hobart, Walter was accompanied by a brilliant 31-year-old Melbourne pianist, Doris Madden. A niece of Sir John Madden, she had been Melba’s accompanist on her 1914 Australian tour. From 1939 she enjoyed a successful career in the United States as a soloist, teacher and music columnist for The New York Times. She died in 1976.

As we have already seen, the New Zealand press often had news of Walter that did not appear in the local papers. On 15 February 1918, for instance, the following intriguing item appeared in The Free Lance: ‘From the Victorian capital comes a little narrative of a silvery-voiced tenor whose reputation clings to the concert platform, the Melbourne “Block” and vice-regal drawing-rooms. He is reported recently to have had an offer to appear on the music-hall stage, but, as the descent from social engagements and a certain standing involved some sacrifice, the offer was rejected. The remuneration offered, it is said, was quite attractive from a lay point of view. Can it be that the silvery-voiced one referred to is our own Walter Kirby?’

Walter celebrated the last day of the war, 11 November 1918, in the Edmonton Private Hospital in Brisbane. His health had not been good, and his holiday trip north ended with a severe bout of pneumonia. He was well enough to return to Melbourne to attend, via a window in the nearby Grand Hotel, the State Memorial Service on the steps of Parliament House on 17 November.

The next few months were difficult for Walter. The Spanish flu pandemic meant social events and charity concerts were fewer, and paid appearances were scarce. Perhaps in desperation he announced that he would give a ‘Farewell Recital’ in the Princess Theatre on 26 November 1919—though there was no indication of where or when he intended to go. He was treated to a packed house and the patronage of the Governor-General of Australia. According to Table Talk: ‘After his recital Mr. Kirby entertained some friends at supper at the Grand Hotel, where they spent the remainder of the evening dancing the jazz. Among those who accepted invitations were Sir David and Lady Hennessy, Sir Robert and Lady Best, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Emmerton, Senator and Mrs. Keating, Miss Verah Madden and Dr Harold Smith, plus Mr. John O'Hara and Miss Diana Wilson [stars of the play Lightnin’ then at the Theatre Royal].’ Just over a year later, on 4 December 1920, Walter gave a second ‘Farewell’ recital in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Princess 1921Advertisement for the Good Friday Concert at the Princess Theatre, 25 March 1921. From The Herald, 19 March 1921, p.6.Before this, though, on 13 May 1920, he sang before a gathering of 10,000 at the Exhibition Building. The occasion was another farewell, this time to Archbishop Mannix, who was about to depart for a visit to Rome. Walter’s fellow artists were soprano Maggie Sherlock, contralto Ella Caspers and baritone Ambrose McMahon, backed by the 1000-strong Christian Brothers’ Boys’ Choir and several bands. The Age noted that: ’the hall was decorated with 100 red and green electric lights picking out a huge cross and a shamrock, and Sinn Fein flags were everywhere.

In April 1921 Walter paid a rare visit to Sydney to sing at the Town Hall in a major St Patrick’s Day concert. The reviews were ecstatic. Said the arts journal The Triad: ‘To many people in this state Walter Kirby is but a name; others of us have not even heard of him. But to lovers of vocalism in Italy, Ireland and England, Mr. Kirby is well known as a tenor who has the three essential qualities of a real singer—the voice, the right method, and the gift of interpretation.’ The journal’s reviewer helpfully hinted that the city should import a comparable talent, ‘because, generally speaking, our tenors are a wretched lot.’

Early in 1922, when Walter returned to Sydney for a holiday, Truth similarly extolled him in a column headed ‘The Doings of Mr. Kirby’: ‘This heading is likely to mislead Truth readers; but it had better stand. It is not so much what Mr. Walter Kirby does as what he does not do that concerns us. Mr. Kirby is said to be in Sydney; in fact, to have been in Sydney for some time. This should mean more than it does, for Mr. Kirby is the only really fine tenor singer in Australia. He has a voice, a style, and a repertory of music of sufficiently high grade to make him a distinguished singer in any company or in any quarter. Yet we never hear him. Nor is he heard in Melbourne, his place of residence, except on rare occasions. Certainly, the frequent appearances of an artist so well-graced vocally would be of immense advantage to many of our students, who rarely hear a good tenor voice and a good singing method combined in a local singer. Those who know Mr. Kirby and admit the excellence of his singing are sometimes disposed to be hyper-critical of this fine artist. Mr. Kirby certainly has some eccentricities of deportment and even some affectations of manner which have become second nature to him. But these offend only the dull and conventional-minded. To the more tolerant, they serve only to make of Mr. Kirby a picturesque figure in our art life as well as an extremely well-equipped singer. The Melbourne tenor sets a high value on his art and talents and is right in so doing. His fees are high; he is not at the beck and call of every bounding patroness of our “charity” shows. He knows, as we know, that a voice like his and a beautiful Italian singing style such as he commands are qualifications rarely met with in this part of the world. And so, when is Mr. Kirby going to be heard in Sydney?’

Walter took the hint. Towards the end of the year he announced that he would be giving concerts in Sydney and Brisbane. Brisbane came first. His two concerts at Her Majesty’s Theatre were received rapturously, but what was described as a ‘slight operation’ meant that the Sydney concerts were postponed.

The rapidly increasing popularity of movies was reflected in the use of Melbourne’s main concert venue, the Auditorium in Collins Street, for film screenings—it was later recycled as the Metro, then the Mayfair—and the building of smart new suburban cinemas. In 1921 Walter had sung at the gala openings of two of them, the Rivoli in Camberwell and the Rialto in Kew, as well as at the Victory in Malvern and at the Palais in St Kilda. Another unusual venue was the Tivoli Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne’s most popular vaudeville house. There, on Sunday 23 October 1921, he presented a ‘Grand Festival of Sacred Song’. The state Governor and Lady Stradbroke and the Lord and Lady Mayoress were in the audience. The well-attended event raised £220 [$18,050] for Lady Stradbroke’s Hospital Day Appeal for the Sick and Homeless.

In 1923 Walter did two things that were then considered quite revolutionary. Firstly, during his season in Brisbane, he participated in an Australia-wide radio broadcast. Fully professional radio would not start until November, but around the country there were many enthusiastic amateur broadcasters paving the way. One of the most prominent was a Brisbane radiologist, Dr. Val McDowall, who had set up his 4CM studio and transmitter at what was then one of the city’s tallest buildings, eight-storey Preston House in Queen Street. On 1 October the Brisbane Daily Mail enthused about the previous night’s broadcast of a studio concert: ‘The bright particular star of the occasion was Walter Kirby who, in an adventurous spirit, had cast aside all preconceived ideas respecting radio, and consented to lift up his voice in that glorious song for which he is justly famed. He was almost lamb-like in his readiness to sing into the quaint contraption—an instrument resembling the old-fashioned type of telephone—that was held before his face. With what effortless ease he produced the liquid notes! Voice and artistry combined to produce an effect which it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear at 4CM’—albeit via earphones and a cat’s whisker. Thus Walter became the first artist of any stature to broadcast in Australia. Interestingly, a little over two years earlier, Dame Nellie Melba had pioneered broadcasting in Britain by singing for an experimental broadcast—but she got £1000 [$82,000] for her trouble.

Walter’s second surprise was his appointment of a woman to manage his concert appearances and publicity. Though The Herald said that Kathleen Malone was ‘following a new occupation for women’, Miss Malone was already experienced in concert presentation, and a familiar figure at first nights and social gatherings. Her first assignment for Walter was to organize further concerts for him in Brisbane and—at last—in Sydney. These were successful, but his return to Melbourne was not.

Kathleen Malone had announced that Walter would give three concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall. The first went reasonably well, but the second, on 25 October 1923, was a disaster. The Herald said that barely 200 people were in the body of the hall, mostly occupying the cheaper seats at the back; there were fewer than a dozen in the gallery. At the end of the concert Walter thanked the audience then launched into a bitter tirade: ‘One goes to Europe for years of training to make a name and to make oneself worthy of one’s hires, but because one is an Australian, one is not appreciated. Had I come back with a Russian or an Italian name, this place would have been packed tonight. I can assure you that this series of concerts is the last I shall give in Melbourne for many years. I thank you.’

Walter began 1924 with a series of concerts in Sydney and in several Tasmanian centres. He was back in Melbourne for the brilliant debut of the second Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company on 29 March in the lavishly redecorated and renamed His Majesty’s Theatre. Table Talk described it as, ‘What in London used to be known as a diamond night—truly a most brilliant sight. Everywhere the eye glanced a sea of faces of beautifully dressed women—everywhere, for the gallery was but a second dress circle in effect—and diamonds lending their gleams enhanced the effect. Many men wore their decorations, which tell so much—also women who had distinguished themselves.’

Walter made sure he was in the audience for the gala first performance of every new opera in the season. He was keen to assess the success of Alfred O’Shea, a 35-year-old Sydney tenor of Irish heritage, who was cast in several major tenor roles, most notably as Rodolpho opposite Melba’s Mimi in La Bohème.

Around this time Walter moved from his rooms at 32 Collins Street to number 5, almost opposite. These were at the Spring Street or ‘top end’ of the gracious street, and a haunt of the city’s artistic community. Many of the era’s great painters had studios at number 9. It was a short stroll to the Austral Salon and the Auditorium, and a jaunty cable car ride to the fashionable heart of Collins Street, ‘The Block’ where, at Allan’s music store, Walter taught his pupils. He was a familiar figure at Allan’s. In his book The Music Sellers, Peter Game quotes Allan’s secretarial stalwart Rai Feil: ‘He was a “difficult” personality and often very irritable and petulant. He liked to get a new song before anyone else in Melbourne had sung it. When he was ready for [us] to hear it, he would come in, kneel down, close his eyes, and sway around a bit. Gravity was a bit hard to come by on those occasions, but when he sang the voice had the quality of the angels.’

Australia’s first professional radio stations, 2SB and 2FC had begun broadcasting in Sydney towards the end of 1923. Walter made a quick trip to Sydney to sing on 2FC on 8 May 1924. ‘Live’ broadcasts were a frequent feature of early programming, and Melbourne’s 3LO—founded by a consortium including theatrical entrepreneurs J.C. Williamson and J. & N. Tait—was launched on 13 October 1924 with a ‘live’ broadcast from Her Majesty’s Theatre of Melba in a charity performance of La Bohème. Walter made his Melbourne radio debut on 24 April 1925 when he was the soloist in a concert at the Auditorium by the Victorian Postal Institute Choir, which was transmitted ‘live’ by 3LO. He made a few more appearances on 3LO but, though ‘the wireless’ had the potential to provide him with a useful extra source of income, he was reluctant to embrace the new medium. In February 1928 he told an interviewer that he had ‘the gravest apprehensions as to the effect of wireless on musical art’, and in August Wireless Weekly announced that ‘he would not be broadcast for any money’.

Though the demand for Walter’s participation in ‘At Homes’ and other social events began to dwindle, he was kept busy with innumerable concerts supporting a wide range of charitable causes—many of which he organized himself. Particularly affecting was a concert at Mont Park Mental Asylum on 15 May 1925 to raise the spirits of 1000 mentally affected soldiers. The Argus reported that ‘cigarettes, sweets and fruit were distributed, and the artists were conveyed to the hospital in cars provided by Sidney Myer’. On 15 December 1925 Walter sang at a benefit for the City Newsboys’ Society at the Palace Theatre, and a few days later at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind’s Christmas Concert at Ormond Hall, St Kilda Road.

Walter was invited to appear in several unusual theatrical galas, such as a tribute to the much-loved veteran actress Maggie Moore at His Majesty’s on 13 October 1925, and a fund-raiser at the Princess on 13 July 1926 to help the indefatigable Shakespearean actor and producer Allan Wilkie, who had lost his entire stock of scenery, props and costumes in a fire at Geelong.

Walter continued to teach and coach aspiring and—occasionally—professional singers. Entrepreneurial giant J.C. Williamson Ltd engaged him to help musical comedy favourite Dorothy Brunton prepare for her role as a nervous operatic soprano in the play The Climax. ‘She took her voice to Walter Kirby,’ said Table Talk, ‘and had it shingled and manicured, with a permanent wave thrown in.’ ‘The Firm’ employed him to coach Robert Chisholm, Marie Burke and Warde Morgan of the Katja company, and Harriet Bennet and Reginald Dandy, the stars of Rose-Marie. So successful was Walter’s teaching that in 1926 a Madame Marion Rowse was advertising in The Argus, offering voice production lessons at her home at 4 Coppin Grove, Hawthorn, using ‘the Walter Kirby Method’.

In December 1926 Walter headed north. After a concert with the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra in Central Hall and a Christmas concert in the city’s Theatre Royal, he went on to Sydney to prepare for yet another new adventure: recording.


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