Unsung Heroes – Linda Parker

Welcome to the first in an occasional series celebrating the career of Australia’s many unsung heroes. Today we celebrate the life and times of Linda Parker. Born in 1912 in Kongwak, a small town in South Gippsland, Parker’s rich and varied career as singer, musician and folklorist was buffetted by both the Depression and World War II.

Linda Parker as Mimi in "La Boheme" 2010.011.024
Linda Parker as Mimi in “La Boheme” 2010.011.024

As a young girl Parker showed promise as a pianist, won many competitions and scholarships including admittance to the Melba Conservatorium in Melbourne where she studied under director Fritz Hart. A true musician Parker showed great promise not only as a pianist but with many musical instruments, from the violin and viola to the organ at St Patricks Cathedral. Fritz Hart, who was also conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, suggested she experience some orchestral sound and, much to her delight, asked her to play bass drum, triangle and tambourine in the orchestra.

While at the Melba Conservatorium she attended classes with Nellie Melba who would give occasional interpretation classes. When in Melbourne Melba would also attend the student’s concerts and visit them backstage, and even invite them to her Australian home, Coombe Cottage, for the student’s annual picnic. As Parker recalls, Melba would don a chef’s hat and apron and proceed to help with the barbeque.

Image of 2010.011.029 Linda Parker (and others) at a picnic at Melba's property "Coombe Cottage" November 1929
Image of 2010.011.029
Linda Parker (and others) at a picnic at Melba’s property “Coombe Cottage” November 1929

Linda recounts how Melba took hold of her hands and commented on their strength. Linda refrained from mentioning that their strength was probably due to all the cows she milked as a child.

By the late 1920s, it had become clear to her mentors that Parker should head overseas to further her music training. Funds were raised through concerts and at the age of around nineteen she sailed for London in July 1930.

Linda Parker leaving Melbourne, 1930Image of a photo within an album 2010.011.030.
Linda Parker leaving Melbourne, 1930
Image of a photo within an album 2010.011.030.

She took a scholarship in Paris with renowned pianist Ferdinand Motte-Lacroix and absolutely reveled in the cultural life Paris had on offer. Unfortunately, she had to return to London due to her Australian savings being drastically devalued when England left the Gold Standard. Here she attempted to make ends meet capitalising on the international interest in all things Russian by joining a psuedo-Russian folk group followed by time as the lead singer in a group of sixteen musicians called Don Rico and His Gypsy Girls who dressed in gypsy costumes and sang songs in broken English. After touring the United Kingdom for six months she managed to save enough money to go to Leipzig to study lieder with the famous lieder singer Elena Gerhardt. During her time in Leipzig she lived with a Jewish family during Hitler’s rise to power. Parker remembers being shocked by the anti-Semitic messages on park benches and buildings, and the incredible hysteria that followed Hitler and the Third Reich.

By 1934 Parker was back in London where she found work wherever she could, including work in cabaret and radio before forming a close harmony trio, The Radio Graces. Parker’s big breakthrough came in 1939 when she sang in a concert at Wigmore Hall which produced brilliant reviews leading to widespread professional booking. Unfortunately these concerts were not to be. War was declared on the 3rd of September 1939. All contracts were automatically cancelled. Devastated Parker offered her services to the Women’s Land Army but was rejected as not ‘robust enough’ to work in the field. As fate would have it Parker was again rescued by music when the BBC invited The Radio Graces to be stationed at their new studios in a country mansion in Worcestershire. Despite this regular work including solo parts designed to entice her to stay, Parker was encouraged by Australian opera star Joan Hammond to pursue her ambitions to become an opera singer.

With renewed confidence she sent her glowing press notices from her Wigmore Hall recital to Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. Following a successful audition she received a contract in 1942 to sing Mimi in La Boheme and Paminia in The Magic Flute. This was the breakthrough she had been working towards for so long.

Flyer promoting a recital by Linda Parker at Wigmore Hall (circa 1923-1946). From 2010.011.006
Flyer promoting a recital by Linda Parker at Wigmore Hall
(circa 1923-1946). From 2010.011.006

She received impressive reviews including this one by Edwin Evans from the Daily Mail who wrote:

“The cast, a good one all-round includes one very successful newcomer in Linda Parker, an Australian girl who starts with the inestimable advantage of being able to look the character. There have been Mimis of all shapes and sizes, yet not many in whom one could believe in the theatrical sense – but here is one whose demure charm makes one ready to accept the story as it stands – and she sings the part admirably.”

In 1945, the War in Europe over, Sadler’s Wells was sent to Germany to entertain the occupation forces. Touring under the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), they performed for survivors of a concentration camp and Parker recounts how she would never forget the sight of these people with a “not of this world” look in their eyes. Having survived the War in England with its bombs and doodle bugs, and having witnessed indescribable destruction on both sides, Linda Parker returned to Australia in 1947 having appeared in over 300 performances with Sadler’s Wells.

Back in Australia, she featured in broadcast recitals with the ABC before returning to England for a short stint which included concerts and broadcasts in Germany during the Berlin Air Lift in 1948. Although she returned to Australia to marry, she became increasingly frustrated by the lack of professional opportunities in Australia and spent much of the 1950s performing and travelling throughout the world.

A new chapter in her life began when she brought a Spanish guitar in Barcelona where she took lessons and set about collecting traditional folk songs. On her return to Australia in the early 1960s she appeared in her own television series with the ABC called Linda Parker and Her Guitar and in 1965 recorded ‘Folk Songs Round the World’. During this period she was also offered a position in charge of music at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) where she relished the opportunity to pass on her expertise and to encourage students to learn singing as an extra string to their bow.

Linda Parker-Warmsley passed away in 1994 having lived a full and adventurous life during a turbulent time in history. Through her tireless drive, bravery, and talent she became a star in her own right and although no longer a household name, this collection donated by Parker’s niece Maureen O’Halloran provides a tantalising glimpse into an extraordinary life.

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Performing Arts Collection

Arts Centre Melbourne's Performing Arts Collection is the national leader among specialist performing arts collections in Australia. Established in 1975, it is formally recognised as a State collection and encompasses the history of circus, dance, music, opera and theatre. The Collection features over 640,000 items including costumes, designs, photographs, set models, puppets, props, posters, programs and archives.

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