This year marks the centenary of the arrival of baritone Count Ercole Filippini in Australia. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1885 to Italian parents, he made his professional debut in his home city, before gaining a contract with Italy’s prestigious La Scala opera house in Milan in 1912. With the closure of theatres in Europe during World War I, Filippini joined the Gonsalez Opera Company for a tour that included India, China, and the Philippines, followed by 14 months in Australia and New Zealand from June 1916.
Count Ercole Filippini in the title role of Rigoletto, c.1914 and Contessa Nancy Filippini as Marguerite in Faust, Perth, 1930. Images courtesy of Coralie Tonti-Filippini.
When the tour ended Filippini remained in Australia and, in 1918, opened a school of opera in Sydney. One of his students was a young music graduate, Anne McParland (later known as Nancy), and by the end of the year the couple were married. In 1919 Filippini joined Frank Rigo’s touring company, which featured other Italian principals and Australian singers.
During the 1920s, the Filippinis set up Grand Opera companies in South Australia and Western Australia, all the while envisioning a national audience. Ercole performed onstage while Nancy produced and directed. She became Australia’s first female conductor of symphony orchestras and later joined her husband in lead roles.
Programmes for the Italo-Australian Grand Opera Company, 1927 and 1932. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.
The pair were dedicated to making Italian opera widely accessible, touring regularly to the outback and remote corners of the country as well as major cities. In order to make ends meet, Ercole also sang in vaudeville venues and cinemas, and together with Nancy, experimented with shortened versions of operas. In the early 1930s they broadcast regularly on ABC radio in Perth, even performing full operas with their company in the studio.
Nancy Filippini, Sonara House Studio, Melbourne, 1936. Image courtesy of Coralie Tonti-Filippini.
Ercole Filippini died at the age of 48 in 1934. Nancy continued her involvement with singing, broadcasting, and leading choirs and orchestras; she died in 1987, aged 91. Instrumental in sharing Italian opera across Australia, their musical legacy also continues through many family members including grandson, singer-songwriter Paul Kelly.
“Opera Pioneers in Australia” is on display in Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne until 30 August 2016.