For Australian music lovers in their middle years, Nance Grant was more than a central player in the world of opera, oratorio and concert: in everything she did, Nance set authoritative bench marks.
Ironically, it was only after her career was over that one began to realise what a monumental achievement her body of work had been, and how lucky we were to have grown up with the constant presence of a great artist. Yet, despite her peerless vocal artistry, Nance was the very antithesis of a Diva. She was warm and open, free from affected airs and graces, and as committed and generous to her friendships offstage as she was to her colleagues on the platform.
Nance was always prepared, always professional, and equipped with a rock-solid technique framed by an irresistible beauty of phrasing. In all of the major productions in which she sang – from Die Walküre and Der Rosenkavalier, to Les troyens and Lohengrin, far too many of them never recorded and lost forever – she always delivered heartfelt and memorable performances.
The antithesis of the modern singer who spends more time in airport lounges than in opera houses, Nance Grant rooted herself and her career in her native Australia, choosing a path that allowed her time and space to develop her roles and an approach to interpretation that was profoundly musical.
Singers today tend to do too much and perhaps as a consequence lose personality and individuality in their singing. Nance did the opposite. She chose a path that allowed her to develop interpretations which were profoundly musical. She gave herself time and space to develop her roles.
Anyone encountering these magnificent and characterful performances for the first time will discover one of Australia’s musical secrets. I am proud to be issuing these recordings for the first time.
NANCE GRANT: An operatic career in her own land
There are dangers in recalling the beautiful voice of a much loved artist nearly 20 years after that voice was last heard in public. Time can make the heart grow fonder by glossing memories of pleasurable evenings in an opera house or concert hall in a manner that doesn’t always accord with the reality of hearing recordings of those same occasions.
No such danger mars enjoyment of the recordings made by soprano Nance Grant in the 1970s and early 1980s, and issued now on CD for the first time.
I had the privilege of being associated with Nance Grant for most of her performances with The Australian Opera Company during this period and, as an opera lover who has always derived immense pleasure listening to ‘historic recordings’ of legendary performers, I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of hearing her again. My admiration of this notable Australian artist remains steadfast, enhanced by the pleasures afforded by this CD collection.
When Nance Grant’s vocal talent was first remarked upon in Melbourne in the early 1950s there was little prospect of the young singer being able to make a full-time operatic career in her own country. Good singing was certainly appreciated here, and a distinguished line of Australian sopranos – Dame Nellie Melba, Florence Austral, Marjorie Lawrence and Joan Hammond – were held in high esteem. But their careers had flourished overseas, and the surest course for aspiring Australian artists wishing to follow their example was still to travel abroad to establish satisfying professional careers at the highest level.
Paradoxically, opera was becoming more popular in Australia. Post-World War II immigration brought new Australians with their origins in European cities where the opera house was a true centre of everyday cultural life. J.C. Williamson’s Theatres, the dominant Australian theatrical entrepreneur of the time, brought Italian opera companies to our shores in 1949 and 1955.
But the greatest opportunities for young Australian opera singers came from two remarkable ladies – the former soprano, Gertrude Johnson, in Melbourne, and Clarice Lorenz in Sydney – who formed ‘National’ opera companies in 1948 and 1951 respectively, presenting seasons of popular operas to growing audiences. In 1952, the two companies pooled resources to briefly present shared seasons in several cities. Then, in 1954, the Australian Elizabethan Trust was formed with Government support, and, in 1956, The Australian Opera Company. (This company changed its name and character several times, finally settling in 1997 as Opera Australia following a merger with the Victoria State Opera.)
Nance Grant’s first appearances in musical theatre were at the Moonee Ponds Town Hall in four productions by Cid Ellwood. She was accepted as a student by the eminent Melbourne singing teacher Henry Portnoj and in 1953 became involved with Gertrude Johnson at the National Theatre Opera School. In National Treasure, Frank Van Straten’s fascinating book on Johnson, Nance recalls being a member of the chorus of the National’s The Tales of Hoffmann in 1954, performing for Queen Elizabeth II in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. ‘I was a lamp post! We were all dressed in black, and we had to stand with our arms out with lights on our he ads. It seemed like all night to us! It was the first time I was part of a big professional show… Just being in the chorus and watching all those principals was a lesson in itself.’ In 1954 she also sang leading roles in several musicals on the same stage.
Winning the Mobil Quest in 1957 and the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition in 1960 were highlights in the young soprano’s Australian career, built principally on recitals, broadcasts and concerts. In the 1960s her operatic activity was limited to ABC studio television performances mimed to a prerecorded soundtrack. For a while it seemed that Nance Grant’s place in Australia’s musical life would be as a well-regarded concert artist.
But in 1972 the noted British conductor Edward Downes took up the position of Musical Director of Australian Opera. In Melbourne, he heard Nance Grant and asked her to join the company as a principal artist on a full-time basis. But with family responsibilities in Melbourne and unable to commit to sustained periods away from them in Sydney, she became a guest artist and a golden operatic decade followed. Edward Downes cast her carefully and she went from success to success, relishing the opportunity to collaborate with excellent conductors, coaches and colleagues and a wide range of different directors.
Her voice was essentially a lustrously bright lyric soprano, ideal for Mozart, Richard Strauss and the lighter Wagner roles. In her first seasons with Australian Opera, she sang the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, the title role in Suor Angelica, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Each role revealed strengths and natural gifts. All her interpretations stemmed initially from the music, to which was soon added a Lieder singer’s attention to text.
I directed her as Puccini’s Suor Angelica for the first time in 1973. She followed a colleague in the role whose strength was an intense, almost reckless, sense of histrionics that it would have been foolish for Nance to try to emulate. It was stimulating to work with her to find a gentler heroine, bringing out the nobility of the character, a princess by birth and a nun, not by vocation, but as punishment for bearing an illegitimate child. Nance’s Angelica was convincing because of her sincerity in accepting her punishment and in being tested by her failure to find peace from thwarted maternal instincts through religious devotion. As a mother herself, Nance dared to explore her innermost feelings for Angelica’s plight while always being aware of the need to do justice to Puccini’s glorious but difficult vocal writing.
Nance was never interested in artificiality or excessive theatrics. Instead, she had a gift for endowing roles with clarity and humanity. In 1974 she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for the first time in a production directed by John Bell. His first production, the staging was not a complete success, but I recall John’s gratitude and surprise at the flexibility and willingness of Nance to follow in the direction he was taking them.
Within The Australian Opera Company, she was stimulated and challenged by the opportunity to work with major operatic conductors, especiallySir Edward Downes, but also Richard Bonynge, Carlo Felice Cillario, Sir Mark Elder, Sir Charles Mackerras, and Sir John Pritchard.
At the time, Australian Opera regularly brought vocal consultants into the company. Nance polished her Mozart and Strauss with Jani Strasser (long associated with Glyndebourne Festival Opera), but to prove even more influential was Professor Clemens Kaiser-Breme, a coach at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival. He was delighted to find in Australia a soprano destined to sing Wagner and Richard Strauss, and nurtured and encouraged her, with further intensive coaching sessions in Germany, culminating in an offer to sing at Bayreuth. Already contracted for performances with Australian Opera, Nance, regrettably, never got to sing in the shrine of Wagnerian opera.
With Australian Opera she sang some of her major roles – the Marschallin (Der Rosenkavalier), Leonore (Fidelio), Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Countess Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro) – in revivals in which she was never content to repeat what had gone before. Her repertoire began to grow, and she proved an ideal interpreter of two roles written for the British soprano Joan Cross by Benjamin Britten – Lady Billows in Albert Herring, and the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia. Under the masterly direction of John Cox, Nance revealed a finely judged comic talent as Lady Billows, a facility gleefully exploited when she sang Alice Ford in George Ogilvie’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff for the first time in 1979. In both roles she allowed humour to emerge naturally from the reality of the character’s situation, never forcing comedy for effect’s sake.
In collaborations with the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras, Australian Opera presented concert performances of major Wagner operas, giving Nance Grant, in 1981, the thrill of singing under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras as Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. With the Victoria State Opera, she sang three very different roles under its Music Director, Richard Divall: Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (opposite June Bronhill in the title role), Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin, and Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo.
It is risky to nominate a single role as the major achievement of any singer’s operatic career. But I think many would regard Nance Grant’s assumption of the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1975 as one that most lives on in memory. Edward Downes conducted a thoughtful and witty production by John Copley with elegant designs by John Stoddart. The cast was strong and at its centre was Nance, a confident, richvoiced heroine, exquisitely costumed, radiating nobility of both sound and spirit to the delight of all lucky enough to be in the audience.
I imagine that Nance Grant has never forgotten the excitement of being a lamp post at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in 1954. Perhaps she felt a similar sense of wonder 21 years later when, again as Ariadne, she took centre stage in the Sydney Opera House. She could certainly have allowed herself to feel justifiably proud knowing that she had reached a position of eminence in her native land without first having to establish a career across the seas, and was rightly, and genuinely, acclaimed and cherished as one of Australia’s finest operatic artists.
Moffatt Oxenbould AM
NANCE GRANT: Local heroine
There are many elements which may combine to bring greatness to a career on the concert platform or on the opera stage. Musical talent is foremost among them: a beautiful and strong voice, passion to communicate to an audience, to stir them, to get inside the composer’s mind and to play on the nuance of the text. For opera you need to add to this a stage presence and an ability to meld the music and the drama convincingly. Some may count longevity as a mark of greatness too, perhaps with a catalogue of recordings and an international calendar of performances providing icing on the career cake.
The Antipodes has given the world its share of international operatic greatness, from Nellie Melba, Joan Hammond and Joan Sutherland, to Kiri Te Kanawa, Yvonne Kenny, Yvonne Minton, and Cheryl Barker. All have made their international mark and some of them continue to do so.
In the 1970s Nance Grant might have joined this list. Instead she opted to forge a career in Australia, becoming first a sought-after concert artist, and then creating characters in more than fifteen operas. Many of these roles were with the national opera company which was striving to find its feet in the era defined by the construction and opening of the Sydney Opera House.
She established herself as a soprano with an instrument ideal for oratorio and concert work. Such vocal projects suited her. They allowed time to enjoy a full family life, not uprooting her for long periods. An oratorio performance was often only a three-day stint away from home perfectly suited to her circumstances.
Grant had sung Haydn’s The Creation several times before she prepared for a performance with Sir Malcolm Sargent. ‘I always hated the first piano rehearsal with a conductor because you really didn’t know whether you were good enough to work with them. Whether you knew your work as they would want it performed.’
She launched into the soprano recitative ‘And God said …’ only to be abruptly halted by Sargeant – the other ‘god’ in the room, giving some simple advice which would accompany the singer through the rest of her oratorio career: ‘Don’t take any notice of the rests or the commas, just look at the text as a text and sing it like that.’
This was liberating and freed her from slavishly following musical notation, constraints other conductors had applied. Grant says ‘the music will look after itself. It’s the text that you’ve got to get out to the people at the front.’
For nearly two decades Grant was a leading lyric spinto soprano singing bel canto arias and taking major roles on the concert platforms across Australia. It was a career path which suited her as she was determined to build a family life around her husband and three children.
Her first audition for The Australian Opera did not go well: she was offered a role in the chorus, but after 17 years as a leading concert soprano considered her credentials beyond chorus status.
A year later, it was the formidable Edward Downes, the then musical director of The Australian Opera, who took an interest in the beauty of her voice, inviting her to re-audition for his company. This time her unwillingness to accept a full-time principal position meant her stage career again looked to be thwarted – her family came first.
Downes was not to be refused, and such was his faith in her talent he instead set a precedent for the company, creating for her a guest artist position. For Grant this was the best of both worlds – it allowed her to enjoy her family and extend her career. She was not yet 40 years old but the vocal maturity built through her years on the concert platform was in her musical favour.
Through the next 10 years Downes would steer her singing, introduce her to new roles and begin to point her in the direction of Wagner. ‘In your dreams’, retorted Grant, still favouring the lighter bel canto roles.
Assigned the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Grant was dropped in at thedeep end as she was completely unfamiliar with the opera. Furthermore, she wondered whether anyone had realised she had never sung a principal role before. Again, her vocal talent had won the day. Her openness to direction was an advantage. Her resolution: ‘I’ll do what I’m told.’
To fast track her stage skills, she took the opportunity to quickly learn the role of Amelia in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, taking the lead in the second cast for a season in Tasmania, an experience she refers to as a ‘try-out’. More importantly, she had reservations about her forthcoming Der Rosenkavalier performances, not least of all the lack of scheduled rehearsals for the second cast.
Downes came to the rescue. He’d ensure that the famous act-one bed would be available during the Sitzprobe so that Grant and Yvonne Minton (her Octavian) could ‘work out what to do on the bed’ during their love scene.
Grant recalls: ‘Yvonne was marvellous. She just pushed me around on the bed. But on the opening night, I hadn’t even been on the set of the third act. When it was time to come on, the stage manager told me not to worry: ‘We’ll get you to the right entrance and when you’re ready to come off we’ll be there, too’.’ And they were.
Her fledgling Marschallin caught the eye of the distinguished German Professor Clemens Kaiser-Breme who had been brought to Australia to work with the company singers. Impressed with her talent, he coaxed her to Germany for intensive study in this defining Strauss role. The following year she returned to Europe to work with Kaiser-Breme, this time to hone her skills for Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and to audition on the stage of Bayreuth.
Back home in Australia, it would only take a few weeks for a letter to arrive from Germany offering two small roles in Europe and the chance to work on a major role for the following year. Grant’s international career seemed about to bloom.
But Edward Downes had other plans. The soprano was already signed for a production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in Australia, with no understudy scheduled, and worse, these performances overlapped with the proposed Bayreuth rehearsal schedule.
Ultimately there would be no further action to spread her wings overseas, despite Downes being adamant that, should she agree, he could ‘fill her books’ with performances in Britain and Europe. Grant decided against this, opting to stay close to her family in Australia.
While Grant’s career on the concert platform, including a highly successful partnership in recital with Geoffrey Parsons and on the opera stage in Australia would see her work with nearly 50 major conductors including Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir John Pritchard, Carlo Felice Cillario and Sir Malcolm Sargeant, Downes maintained his role as her career mentor. He reined her in when she became too histrionic at a dress rehearsal of Puccini’s Suor Angelica (‘You can’t get emotional when you’re singing on stage. You just go on and you sing the role’) or in Ariadne when he felt she was too capricious in her performance (‘I don’t mind your doing your own thing if I know what you are going to do. I’ll follow you, but I need to know’). But always Downes seemed to trust the intuitive nature of her artistry.
Grant’s last new production was Lohengrin directed by August Everding, when in 1986 she stepped in for the acclaimed soprano Margreta Elkins and learnt the role of Ortrud in just three weeks. It was the only time in her career when she went into a rehearsal still holding the score. In 1991 Nance Grant retired. A career which had begun in Australia had remained in Australia. For the first time these recordings take her instrument to the world.