March 2005

Great soprano who loved Australia


By ANDREW MCKINNON


Few performances really stand out in the memory of a producer.

The one which is indelibly imprinted on mine is the first recital given by Victoria de los Angeles on her 1993 Australian and New Zealand tour.

The recital took place in the Sydney Town Hall on Saturday May 22 and from the first note of the charming aria by the 18th century composer Baldassare Gallupi, Evviva Rosabella, one was aware of a quite remarkable phenomenon - a capacity audience held spellbound by a radiant diva bringing more than 50 years of artistry to her performance.

As the evening progressed through more Italian arias, followed by lieder, French chanson, Spanish and Catalan song, an Argentinian milonga (which became one of the most popular songs on the tour), a Mexican lullaby, a Portuguese fado, an English folksong, and then an encore from Carmen, the audience was swept along on a tide of goodwill and pleasure. Many in the audience remarked not only on this marvellous artist's sweetness of tone but also her superb diction when singing in seven languages.

At the end of the recital, there was a thunderous ovation. The front of house manager, very experienced in the overseeing of concerts, told me that he had never experienced such a reaction from an audience. He said he felt the pillars of the Town Hall vibrating with the impact of the applause and the near pandemonium!

Perhaps the best summary of the extraordinary atmosphere was expressed in a charming note I received from the young son of the then Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney. "Never in my 141/2 years," he wrote "have I seen such an excited audience!"

It was in every sense a triumph with the sceptics being proved so dreadfully wrong in their prediction that Victoria would no longer be able to sing as she always had.

The following day, I called on Victoria and her manager in her beautiful suite at the Inter-Continental in which the opera-loving general manager Wolfgang Grimm had thoughtfully provided a piano. She was clearly delighted at the response of the audience the previous night and was so very content.

We spent hours talking about a diverse range of subjects, including growing up in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, the art of singing, the impact which soprano Brigit Nilsson had made on her, her memories of Sydney during her first visit in 1956 when in her words, there seemed to be nothing to do on a Sunday except to go to church!

Victoria de los Angeles at the Sydney Town Hall after the first recital of her 1993 Australian tour: left to right, tour presenter Andrew McKinnon; the then Governor-General of Australia, Bill Hayden; de los Angeles; pianist John Champ; Mrs Dallas Hayden; soprano Joan Carden; Mrs Ulrike Nuñez and Spanish Ambassador Antonio Nuñez. de los Angeles died on 15 January 2005 at the age of 81.

She clearly loved Australia and was delighted with all the advances she had seen during her several tours here. She thought we were a very lucky country indeed and that we should enjoy our beautiful environment. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent.

The 1993 tour took in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Wellington (NZ), Adelaide, Canberra, Penrith, Townsville, Alice Springs, and Darwin. Everywhere, the audiences showered her with affection but in Darwin, they went a step further and showered her with streamers! She was so overcome by this gesture that when I went backstage after the recital, she was crying,! "That audience was so beautiful", she said, " I feel so wanted."

At the end of the 1993 tour, I asked her if she would return and, to my joy, she replied immediately and with alacrity: Yes, with pleasure!

Dates in 1995 were set and this time it was to be with her great friend and accompanist Geoffrey Parsons. Sadly he died a few months before the tour and once again she was joined by her Catalan compatriot Albert Guinovart, who is not only a sought-after concert pianist but also a distinguished composer.

The 1995 tour got off to an unfortunate start when Victoria slipped as she arrived at the Sydney Town Hall. A doctor was called who advised her that he thought she had sprained her ankle. Refusing to cancel or postpone the recital, despite my offer to do so if she wished, she went ahead. The next day, an x-ray in Macquarie Street revealed was that she had broken the fibula in her left foot.

It was then that she showed her truly remarkable grit. She gave every recital on the tour (standing, which she said was her preference) and met every official engagement. The audience was enchanted but behind the scenes it was sad to see her confined to a wheelchair.

Many have marvelled at how Victoria retained her beautiful tone until well into her 70s. One clue may be that she firmly insisted on a requirement that any tour be scheduled so that she sang only once every three nights.

Another may well have been her easy acceptance of all that life dealt to her. She made no demands and was willing to undertake anything which might be requested of her to assist the success of a tour. She loathed publicity but was still prepared to do it to assist. Such was her dislike of this aspect of the profession that the only time I ever saw her nervous was before delivering a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra.

She drank several cups of coffee before she could face the ordeal of talking about herself. It was a complete departure from her usual pre-performance calm.

The successful outcome of both the 1993 and 1995 tours was an open sesame to some of the world's greatest singers. Some, such as Mirella Freni and Alfredo Kraus, proved to have too high a fee expectation to enable a tour to take place, but others such as Teresa Berganza, Nicolai Gedda, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Inessa Galante, and Thomas Allen all came to Australia for the first and only time under my auspices.

For that, and so much else, I shall always be grateful to Victoria de los Angeles.




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