Most of the biographies I read are about authors but I couldn’t resist Wotan’s Daughter, a biography of the Australian diva Marjorie Lawrence (1907 – 1979). The Spouse and I courted at concerts and opera, and many’s the time our foundations have trembled to the music of Wagner, of which Marjorie Lawrence was a great exponent. But I was just a little too young to have heard her sing at ‘Music For the People’ at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1966, so that’s not why her name was familiar to me. If you’ve stayed up late watching Bill Collin’s Classic Movies as I often did when it was free-to-air, you too would probably have seen Interrupted Melody, the story of Marjorie Lawrence’s remarkable comeback after she was struck down by polio mid-career.
Interrupted Melody starred Eleanor Parker as Marjorie Lawrence, with (much to Marjorie’s dismay) vocals by Eileen Farrell.
As Davis makes clear in this authoritative and very readable biography, Marjorie Lawrence was remarkable for her achievements both before and after she became disabled. As he says in his concluding chapter, she triumphed in an ‘age of Wagnerian vocal giants‘ who were ‘mostly Germans, Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, progeny of races issuing from the fountainhead of Wagner’s music dramas‘.
That a young Paris-trained woman from a rural community in far-off Australia should have been accepted into that fraternity is remarkable. That she could muster the voice and the artistry to be acknowledged as an equal among these titans is even more so. Marjorie’s life is littered with tantalising and frustrating ‘might-have-beens’, but they should not be allowed to overshadow her achievements. For a few short years she was a glittering adornment to the operatic stage – a true ‘star’, an ambassador for her nation and a dutiful servant of her art. (p. 251)
But having suffered a cruel illness at the peak of her career, she refused to be defeated by it. With the support of her loving husband Tom, she recovered her voice and found innovative ways to appear on stage without her wheelchair being an issue, and she did so at a time when there was less acceptance of disability than there is today.
One of the things I enjoy about biography is reading about the teachers that kickstart a career. Wotan’s Daughter tells us that in Paris Marjorie’s teacher was the formidable Madame Cécily Gilly who developed her ‘bright-toned dramatic soprano‘ and guided her debut at the Paris Opera. But in Australia it was Ivor Boustead who not only protected Marjorie’s voice while giving the young singer a great start, but also saw the need for her to escape from her not very supportive family. This was a time in Australia when artistes were imported from overseas and when women were not expected to have careers, so she was lucky indeed that she had this encouragement from Boustead.
The film of Interrupted Melody was based on Lawrence’s so-called autobiography (which was actually ghost-written by an under-acknowledged Charles Buttrose) but it doesn’t take long before Davis makes good his claim that she was ‘selective about what she revealed, omitting or underplaying anything that might have been harmful to her career‘ and ‘took a great deal of poetic licence in reporting certain events, especially those of her early years‘. (p. xi) Although it’s quite clear that Davis admires Marjorie Lawrence both as an artiste and as a person, the young Marjorie Lawrence who emerges from this book is rather wilful and occasionally selfish. There was, for example, an unedifying dispute over her father’s Will, and her brother Lindsay went to the press to refute her allegation that he had stopped her allowance. Davis’s research revealed bank statements which show that Lindsay had continued to support her even though the Depression in 1930s Victoria must have made it difficult indeed. It’s interesting also to see that Marjorie was selective about crediting her teachers: Reneé Gilly who during Marjorie’s student years in Paris was her accompanist and coach for dramatic interpretation was apparently not the only omission. Marjorie also wasn’t always helpful to potential rivals such as a young Victorian singer called Norma Gadsen, whereas she herself was supported by fellow Australian, the baritone John Brownlee (who was a protegé of Melba’s).
Still, it’s fascinating to learn about how this ambitious young woman was able to break into the incredibly competitive world of European opera, and it could never have happened if she had not had grit and determination. In some ways she was lucky, but it was hard work and her own talent which enabled her success. And it wasn’t just a matter of being able to sing, it was also sometimes a matter of juggling offers from competing opera companies, or learning a complex repertoire in a short time frame. She was a bit of a risk-taker, most notably when she (literally) rode a horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre in the opera Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Her early love life was a bit risky too, and she was lucky she didn’t fall victim to a couple of gold-diggers who fancied the glamour as much as they fancied her!)
There’s some really interesting material about the ABC, then in its infancy and resented by private rivals. For reasons too complex to go into here, Marjorie’s triumphant return to Australia was organised by a private entrepreneur, in competition with ABC concerts by Arthur Schnabel and Lotte Lehmann. In Melbourne this resulted in six major recitals in seven days, which might test the wallets of classical music enthusiasts even today, but Marjorie’s concerts were well attended – everywhere except in Sydney, which inexplicably snubbed her. Their loss, I guess…
But Marjorie’s luck didn’t hold out. She was newly married and at the peak of her career when she became ill in Mexico. There is some speculation that perhaps her illness was not polio at all, but whatever it was it resulted in paralysis. It could have been the end of everything because she was paralysed from the neck down, but after treatment from the controversial Sister Kenny at the Minneapolis Hospital, she gradually made progress so that she was able to sit up, and eventually to be able to control her breathing so that she could sing again. There are heart-warming photos in the middle of the book that show her triumphant return to the stage, performing her roles from a sitting position.
Both before an after her illness Marjorie Lawrence performed at concerts for the troops during WW2, but she had to exercise her authority as a star to be able to sing her own repertoire. Responding to advice that she sing ‘lighter’ music, she rebelled:
What ridiculous impulse was it that made some people, and people in authority too, think that because men had been put into uniforms their taste had suffered some strange metamorphosis, enabling them only to appreciate the flippant and the trivial? Before I had finished my concerts in war areas, I had sung to hundreds of thousands of fighting men of all nationalities and it was a rare occurrence for me to give a concert without having many of the men come to me afterwards and thank me for having sung good music to them. (p. 189)
I wonder what sort of entertainment today’s troops get?
Apart from the very interesting story of Marjorie’s life, Wotan’s Daughter also includes discerning discussion about Marjorie’s voice, using her discography as a source. Davis is a strong advocate for a re-evaluation of her place in operatic history:
Apart from vintage record collections, Wagner historians, a small claque of her devoted former students and the fading memories of some very elderly opera goers, she is largely forgotten – a fate she does not deserve. There is plenty of convincing evidence in the form of personal recollections, contemporary criticism and sound recordings to prove beyond doubt that she is worthy of much wider recognition and a place among the greatest Wagner singers of all time. (p. xii)
Davis not only analyses her voice from its development to maturity and decline, he also compares it to other Wagnerians, and – for those of us who wish to rediscover it for ourselves, a comprehensive discography, some of which is accessible on the internet.
My favourite quotation from this biography comes from Walter Legge, who wrote to Marjorie:
Wagnerian sopranos are the capital ships of the operatic fleet, universally admired but rare and precious. (p. 210)
Richard Davids has done a splendid job in reminding us that Australians can be proud of our ‘rare and precious’ Marjorie, and that the rest of the operatic world should not forget her. This is a book for all lovers of fine music, and an inspirational story as well.
As is usual with Wakefield’s publications, Wotan’s Daughter is a beautiful book. It has high quality paper, cover boards with gold leaf, a stunning dust jacket and generous black-and-white gloss photographs as well.
There are some interesting pictures of Marjorie Lawrence at Cantabile Subito and a brief resumé of her life at Hall of Fame. And, thanks to my friend Karen at GoodReads who found it, here’s a rare clip of Marjorie singing at the Met:
Author: Richard David
Title: Wotan’s Daughter: The Life of Marjorie Lawrence
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press