Ercole and Nancy Filippini: Opera Pioneers in Australia

SAM_7108

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.

Ercole Filippini_RigolettoNancy Filippini_Faust

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.

1989.010.007 programme2016.000.034 programme

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_piano

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.

Now Showing – Theatres of War: Wartime Entertainment & The Australian Experience

Theatres of War: Wartime Entertainment & the Australian Experience, Gallery I, Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Carla Gottgens
Theatres of War: Wartime Entertainment & the Australian Experience, Gallery 1, Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Carla Gottgens

What a great response we have had to our new exhibition, Theatres of War: Wartime Entertainment & the Australian Experience! Thank you to everyone who has already been in and taken the time to let us know how much you have enjoyed it.

As part of the national commemoration of the Anzac Centenary we were very keen to explore the often overlooked role played by the performing arts in the lives of Australians during times of war, both on the home front and in the field. Theatres of War explores the power of performance in bringing people together, lifting spirits and offering a form of escapism during times of great adversity.

In researching the exhibition within our own rich Performing Arts Collection we were struck by how many well-known Australian performers had carried out relatively unknown war work. Performers such as Dame Nellie Melba who received her DBE for her fundraising activities during the First World War and Norman Hetherington (aka Mr Squiggle) who entertained his fellow soldiers in the jungles of New Guinea during the Second World War. More recently singers Kylie Minogue and Doc Neeson, and comedians Hamish and Andy have provided a morale-boosting connection to home for soldiers on active service.

Theatres of War: Wartime Entertainment and the Australian Experience, Gallery 1, Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Carla Gottgens.
Theatres of War: Wartime Entertainment and the Australian Experience, Gallery 1, Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Carla Gottgens.

Many of these performers have generously lent material for inclusion in the exhibition and we are thrilled to have on display the famous piano used by Australian prisoners in the Changi prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Instruments used by prisoners in Changi POW camp during World War II. Instruments kindly lent by the Australian War Memorial. Photo by Carla Gottgens
Instruments used by prisoners in Changi POW camp during World War II. Instruments kindly lent by the Australian War Memorial. Photo by Carla Gottgens

The exhibition continues until 20 September 2015.

The Many Facets of Anne Fraser

Helmut Newton, Portrait of Anne Fraser, c. 1950 Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Helmut Newton, Portrait of Anne Fraser, c. 1950
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Anne Fraser (1928 – 2005) was born in New Zealand and came to Australia at an early age. She began her career as an advertising designer before working with the National Theatre in Melbourne. In 1955 she became the first full-time designer for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). In this role she designed the original 1956 production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and its subsequent London and New York seasons.

After leaving the MTC, Fraser worked for a short time for the South Australian Theatre Company in the late 1960s, before being invited to become Head of Design at the Old Tote Theatre Company in Sydney in 1971. She worked with the company for six years, spending a year in Europe and the United States during this time.

In 1977 Fraser began working as a freelance designer. She again designed many productions for the MTC, including The Doll Trilogy (1977), Ring round the Moon (1977), Electra (1978), The Man who came to dinner (1980), Amadeus (1981) and The Real Thing (1984).

Costume design from the 1981 Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne. Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Costume design from the 1981 Melbourne Theatre Company production of Amadeus at the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne.
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Costume design by Anne Fraser for the 1981 Melbourne Theatre Co. production of Pete McGynty and the Dreamtime at the Athenaeum Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Costume design by Anne Fraser for the 1981 Melbourne Theatre Co. production of Pete McGynty and the Dreamtime at the Athenaeum
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Fraser also designed for ballet and opera companies. Her work for the Victoria State Opera includes productions of The Return of Ulysses (1980), Die Fledermaus (1981), Eugene Onegin (1983), La Traviata (1992) and set designs for My Fair Lady (1988). In 1985 Fraser worked on Capriccio andCountess Maritza for the State Opera of South Australia. For The Australian Ballet she designed the productions of La Sylphide (1985) and Don Quixote (1993).

Preliminary sketch for set design created by Anne Fraser for the Australian Ballet production "Don Quixote" first performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, 1993 Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Preliminary sketch for set design created by Anne Fraser for the Australian Ballet production “Don Quixote” first performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, 1993
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Set design for Swan Lake, Borovansky Ballet, 1957 Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Set design for Swan Lake, Borovansky Ballet, 1957
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Fraser won several Green Room Awards for her designs throughout her career and in 1993 was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her services to the arts as a theatre set and costume designer. Anne Fraser passed away in Melbourne on 20 October 2005.

Collection Holdings

In 1996 Anne Fraser donated material relating to her career as set and costume designer. The Performing Arts Collection now holds over 2,000 objects in the Anne Fraser collection. Her extensive collection ranges from miniature dolls that a young Fraser created of favourite stage and screen performers whilst a student, to letters, contracts, catalogues, programmes and many hundreds of set and costume designs. After her death in 2005, an additional 146 designs, including working / preliminary drawings for various productions, were donated to the performing arts collection on her behalf by Blair Edgar.

Miniature doll of Renee Asherson as 'Katharine' in "Henry V" made by Anne Fraser c.1940  Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996  Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne  As a commercial art student at the Melbourne Technical College, Anne made miniature dolls of her favourite theatrical performers. She said she would be so impressed by their performances that she "just had to do something about it".
Miniature doll of Renee Asherson as ‘Katharine’ in “Henry V” made by Anne Fraser c.1940
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
As a commercial art student at the Melbourne Technical College, Anne made miniature dolls of her favourite theatrical performers. She said she would be so impressed by their performances that she “just had to do something about it”.
Early design by Anne Fraser as a student Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Early design by Anne Fraser as a student
Gift of Anne Fraser, 1996
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The collection reflects the designer’s work with many of Australia’s performing arts companies including The Australian National Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, The Australian Opera, The Victoria State Opera, The State Opera of South Australia, Playbox Theatre Company, The Australian Ballet and the Old Tote Theatre Company.

Dame Nellie Melba

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Australia’s most famous opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931).  Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Melbourne, later changing her name in honour her native city. After studying singing in her home town she travelled to Paris in 1886. Her talent was recognised by the influential Mathilde Marchesi who became her teacher and ardent supporter.

Melba made her operatic debut in 1887 at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. This was to be the beginning of an auspicious international career.

Signed photograph of Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c.1889 Purchased, 1998 Performing Arts Collection
Signed photograph of Dame Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c.1889
Purchased, 1998
Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection

Melba performed in the great opera houses of the world – the Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera House and Manhattan Opera House in New York, and most notably the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London. She became Covent Garden’s prima donna, returning season after season. Throughout her career, Melba worked with prominent musicians and composers including, Enrico Caruso, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi.

Melba remained a loyal Australian and Melbourne was always her home. She returned to her beloved country for several triumphant concert tours and eventually collaborated with J.C. Williamson Theatres to form the Melba-Williamson Opera Company, bringing great opera to the people of Australia.

During World War I, Melba began teaching at Melbourne’s Albert Street Conservatorium (later the Melba Memorial Conservatorium), encouraging and promoting local talent. She also performed in many charity concerts to raise funds for the war effort. For this patriotic work, Melba was awarded a D.B.E. in 1918.

Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection holds a significant collection of performance costumes and accessories worn by the singer, which were donated by her grand-daughter Lady Pamela Vestey in 1977. Melba’s most famous operas are represented, including Otello, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Faust, La Boheme, Romeo and Juliet and I Pagliacci. The most elaborate item is a gold cloak, hand-painted and sewn with jewels, which was worn by Melba in Lohengrin and designed for her by the Paris-based couturier, Jean-Phillipe Worth.

Cloak worn by Dame Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891.  Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.
Cloak worn by Dame Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891.
Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth.
Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.
Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

Since the time of this generous donation, many additions have been made to the Performing Arts Collection. Original photographs, many of which are signed by Dame Nellie, illustrate her life and career. Programmes, some printed on silk, trace her Australian and international opera performances and concerts. Letters and cards written by Melba to friends and pupils provide an insight into the personality of this great performer. Opera scores (including Madame Butterfly signed by Puccini), books, monogrammed items, and records are also part of this important collection.

Opera Australia – New Acquisition Agreement Announced

This week Arts Centre Melbourne and Opera Australia announced a new acquisition agreement that will see the Opera Australia Archive become part of the Performing Arts Collection.

Arts Centre Melbourne and Opera Australia’s agreement will ensure the preservation of Opera Australia’s substantial archive of production, performance and company material – including costumes from the Dame Joan Sutherland Archive – through a new ongoing donation agreement with Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.  The new agreement will ensure that the history, repertoire and stage magic of Australia’s pre-eminent opera company will be preserved in perpetuity.

Costume worn by Dame Joan Sutherland as Elettra in Idomeneo, The Australian Opera, 1979.
Designed by John Truscott.

To celebrate the new agreement, five significant items from the initial acquisition – including two Joan Sutherland costumes – have been selected to be displayed in the Smorgon Family Plaza until 28 July.

Chosen to indicate the extraordinary depth and personality of Opera Australia’s repertoire, the display includes:

  • The iconic L’amour sign created by Academy Award-winning designer Catherine Martin for Baz Luhrmann’s staging of La Boheme (1990)
  • Elettra costume, worn by Dame Joan Sutherland for the 1979 staging of Idomeneo, designed by Oscar winner John Truscott
  • Anna Glawari costume, worn by Dame Joan Sutherland for the 1978 production of The Merry Widow, designed by Kristian Fredrikson
  • Countess Almaviva costume created by worn by Joan Carden for the 2001 staging of The Marriage of Figaro created by British designer Michael Stennett
  • Two props designed by Dan Potra for the 2001 Opera Australia commissioned production of Batavia
  • An additional costume from the 1995 production of Nabucco, currently on loan to RMIT Gallery, will join the collection in June.

Costume [detail] worn by Joan Carden as Countess Almaviva in
The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia, 2000
At the launch of this new display on Monday, Victorian Minister for the Arts Heidi Victoria MP said, “This new partnership adds another dimension to Arts Centre Melbourne’s impressive Performing Arts Collection, Australia’s largest and most significant collection of performing arts history and a treasure of our state.  It will bring with it memories of many years of great performances and productions for all to enjoy.  Opera Australia couldn’t have chosen a better place to house part of its history, and I thank them for sharing and entrusting these treasures with the people of Victoria and Australia.”

Arts Centre Melbourne Chief Executive Judith Isherwood said, “Our new acquisition partnership with Opera Australia is an important milestone and really cements the national significance of our Performing Arts Collection as Australia’s largest collection of performing arts history and traditions.  While we already have 200 items in the Performing Arts Collection archives are associated with past Opera Australia performances, these have come from individual donations and other collections.  Through our new agreement, the Performing Arts Collection will be directly connected to the archives of one of Australia’s most important performing arts companies and we will be able to better document and preserve the history of opera performance in this country.”

Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini said, “Opera Australia is not just about singers, we are also about creative artists working in design fields including costumes, sets and props.  These artists produce a staggering amount of carefully crafted materials that have to be both spectacular and durable – they get quite a beating over the course of a production run!  We are very happy to be sharing some of these with Arts Centre Melbourne, and are appreciative of their care and curatorial expertise.  We hope that audience members coming to see some of the operas we have at Arts Centre Melbourne this season, will enjoy the opportunity for a sneak peak at the pieces on display, ahead of the performances.”

Costume worn by Dame Joan Sutherland as Anna Glawari in
The Merry Widow, The Australian Opera, 1978.
Designed by Kristian Fredrikson.

Arts Centre Melbourne presents:  Opera Australia Archive Acquisition Display  Arts Centre Melbourne, Smorgon Family Plaza  15 APRIL – 28 JULY, 2013  FREE

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.