NANCE GRANT, A.M., M.B.E. - AUSTRALIAN SOPRANO
I was taught piano at age of 8 to 14 years, and then under my mother’s tuition I began singing and realised that was all I wanted to do. From then on singing took over my life. At age 17, I was accepted by Mr Mannering, an accepted singing teacher, to learn the art of singing. After this period I was accepted by the eminent Melbourne singing teacher Henri Portnoj to learn art songs, lieder, oratorio and study languages.
This step enabled me to perform Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) Young Australia radio recitals. This gave me experience for future concert recitals and touring throughout Australia, which I continued to perform throughout my career.
My first professional stage role came in 1954 to sing the role of Nadine in The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Strauss at the beautiful Princess Theatre in Melbourne. This was a lovely role, most suitable for my voice at that time with the well loved solo of "My Hero". In one of my critiques, my voice was likened to that of Gladys Moncrieff a well known and loved Australian musical comedy soprano. It was a huge learning experience with eight performances a week, plus rehearsing through the day for the next show the little known Wildflower. We were all exhausted at the end of these six weeks.
In 1957 I was winner of the final series of Mobil Quest, a prestigious singing competition. In 1960 I was the winner of the ABC Concerto and Vocal competition and then performed at special concerts in all capital cities with orchestral accompaniment in each city.
At an early stage in my career I was privileged to perform the oratorio The Creation under Sir Malcolm Sargent. I had sung this oratorio several times, before preparing for a performance of the work under the musical direction of Sir Malcolm. Our first meeting brought out the usual nerves whenever meeting a new conductor. I was always concerned with this meeting and our first piano rehearsal together, 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, led to a very trying couple of hours.
With Sir Malcolm, I launched into the soprano recitative 'And God said...' only to be halted by Sir Malcolm - the other "god" in the room, giving some simple advice which I would remember for the rest of my 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." Unwittingly this conductor's approach was exactly what previous conductors had often stifled in my delivery interpretation.
I am philosophical about this and when addressing any performance most people take a strong musical approach, but the music will look after itself. It’s the text that you have to get out to the people at the front.
Jeremy Vincent, a Melbourne journalist, wrote an article about me.
"Now Grant's career was well on the way and the Portnoj era was coming to a close and the concert, recital and oratorio platform was her home away from home. Through oratorio and concert performances showcasing opera highlights, she joined some of Australia's leading singers on the concert platform from one side of Australia to the other.
“Still blessed with a voice ideally suited to opera's bel canto heroines, she was yet to appear in a principal role in a fully staged opera. But without the distraction of stage direction she was able to use her performances to hone her technique and delivery of the text, and to observe and learn from other singers.
“"I was just happy to sing with the orchestras and I loved the oratorios because of the way the four singers interacted. You could listen to the singers and hear the text. And when I wasn't singing it allowed me to watch the different people in the audience, and when I stood up to sing I would sing to this one or that one."
“Balancing a growing family life and learning her music and associated texts, and remembering it all, was a challenge. As time went on life with a family of three children really became busy.
"”When learning something I would be up at 6am, have the washing on and getting everything organised - including the lunches. My husband Ian would take the boys (Grant and David) to school and I would take our daughter (Gwyneth) to school. I would generally work on a role from 9am to midday and following a quick lunch be back at the piano again from 12.30pm -3pm before collecting the children from school."
“It was during this juggling of family and career that sometimes Grant began to doubt herself and her ability to deliver the best performance possible. "I never ever made a mistake, but often wondered whether I would."
“Eventually a role in a full opera production would come her way. But it was going to be on her terms, and her family life was not going to be negotiable. On the eve of a performance of Haydn's The Creation in Melbourne, Grant turned down a request to interrupt the Haydn rehearsals and fly to Sydney to audition for Edward Downes the new Music Director of Australian Opera. She admits not even being aware who Downes was. Not to be turned down lightly, Downes soon revisited his offer and asked Grant to find time in her schedule the following week. She accepted and a few days later found herself standing in "an old barn of a rehearsal room" facing a semi-circle of eight chairs and a pianist from London whom she had not met before.
“What she did know however was ‘Ah fors'e lui' and 'Caro Nome', two of her bel canto calling-cards. A third offering was requested and 'Czardas' from Die Fledermaus, was also performed, however as she had not worked on the piece in recent months, she slipped on the second verse and bravely redirected the pianist to stop and restart the piece a page before the mishap. She recalls her audition ended with a 'good top E'.
“Grant then met with Downes and General Manager Stephen Hall and there was now negotiations to be done. A full-time contract with the company was offered to begin with the role of Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. Grant still in her late 30s suggested a guest position with the company. After an awkward pause Edward Downes agreed. the third phase of Nance Grant's career had begun.
“Needless to say, Grant didn't know anything about the role of the Marschallin and wondered whether anyone had realised she had never sung a principal role in an opera before. Again her vocal talent had won the day and perhaps her naivety was an advantage.
“To help her find her feet with the company, she took the opportunity to quickly learn the role of Amelia in Verdi's A Masked Ball, taking the role in the second cast for a season in Tasmania. An experience she refers to as a "try out".
“More importantly, she did have some concerns about her forthcoming Der Rosenkavalier performances. The first cast Marschallin would open the season and Grant spent a week watching her prepare. However as the second cast Marschallin, Grant was somewhat dismayed to discover there were no rehearsals scheduled for her. Again Downes came to the rescue. He organised for the famous act-one bed to be available during the production's sitzprobe (the first rehearsal that singers have with the orchestra) 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 the bed. But then 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'. "It was a nightmare," she reflects but all went well.
“The highly esteemed German Professor Clemens Kaiser-Breme had been brought to Australia to work especially with the company singers. Grant doubted that her guest status
would allow her to take advantage of this training, however Kaiser-Breme quickly saw her potential. All was arranged and Kaiser-Breme ultimately coaxed her to Germany for intensive study.
“It was Downes who predicted that Grant would eventually end up singing Wagner. There was no doubt her voice was growing. And, of course Wagner eventually did cross her path. The following year she returned to Germany to work with Kaiser-Breme to hone her skills for Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. During this visit she had the opportunity to audition on the stage of Bayreuth. Her recollections of the occasion are vividly etched in her memory, especially the wonderful acoustic, but there was no room for Violetta or Gilda here. This time her calling cards would be 'Elizabeth's Greeting' from Tannhäuser and Leonore's 'Abscheulicher' from Fidelio.
“Back home, resuming her usual routine managing family and Australian performances, it would only take a few weeks for a letter from Wolfgang Wagner at the Bayreuther Festpiele Germany to arrive offering two small roles in The Ring and the chance to work on a major role for the following year. Unfortunately Edward Downes had other plans. Grant was already signed for a production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, with no understudy scheduled, and worse, these performances overlapped with the proposed Bayreuth rehearsal schedule.
“Always true to her contractual commitments, Grant was unable to take up her first international offer and Bayreuth never made it to her diary. Ultimately there would be no further move to spread her wings overseas, although Downes was adamant that should she agree he could 'fill her books' with performances in Britain and Europe. But no, it was a decision Grant does not regret. She didn't want her books filled overseas. She was happy being a big fish in a small pond in Australia.
“Grant would go on to sing more than 17 operas under many different conductors, but ultimately Downes would become her career mentor, guiding most of her performances over the ensuing decade. While many considered him to be a formidable character in the opera world, Grant confesses she loved working with him even if he did sometimes reprimand her. She recalls a dress rehearsal of Suor Angelica when for some unknown reason she became quite emotional when it came to sing the character's main aria - would she be able to get through it? Obviously the conductor felt something was awry and soon afterwards, Downes was at the dressing room with a stern message: "What do you mean by the way you carried on with that aria?. You can't get emotional when you're singing on stage. You just go on and sing the role." And from then on she did just that.
“Looking back she recalls: "If he hadn't come to the dressing room I probably would have been a cot case on the night because it would have grown more and more emotional each time. It was marvellous that he came round and let me have it."
“Again, when she eventually assailed Ariadne auf Naxos and unwittingly veered from the rehearsed plan, Downes was back in the dressing room, with a comment: "You did your own thing! I don't mind you doing your own thing if I know what you are going to do. l'll follow you but I need to know."
“Wagner would eventually come her way, with concert performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung and fully staged seasons of Tannhäuser, The Flying Dutchman and her last new production of Lohengrin when in 1986 she stepped in for Margreta Elkins and learnt the role of Ortrud in just three weeks. It was the only time in her career when she went into rehearsal still holding the score. Her voice had grown just as Edward Downes predicted.
“Ultimately, when she came to her final public performance in 1991 it wasn't hard to end her career. She was sixty years old and before long a new door opened with another great Australian soprano Dame Joan Hammond coaxed Grant to work alongside her with young singers and help guide their careers.
“True to form, Grant hesitated and told Hammond that she wouldn't know where to start. Hammond complimented her: "You've got one of the near perfect vocal techniques I've ever known. So much so that I'd like to have you come and teach with me. I will show you how." It was the start of a five-year relationship and one which would ultimately lead to Grant teaching voice to young singers giving master classes at the Victorian College of the Arts.
“Those lessons from her mother all those years earlier paved the way for a great and enduring career. But her mother had one last request. The singers' home was devoid of any lasting obvious record of her performances. For no reason other than available time to do otherwise, photographs had been locked away in storage, memories of life deserving of recognition kept hidden. And so, Nance Grant set about documenting her career, framing photographs and reinstating memories in preparation for her mother’s next visit. Her mother's eyes lit up when Grant's final operatic project was completed. Now photographs were framed and installed on a prominent wall on the singer's home.
"That’s just what I wanted to see." came her mother’s response, knowing too that her own children now had something more than memories to recall their mother's career. Not long after that Nance Grant's mother died, aged nearly 95.
“Looking back, would Grant do it all again?
"I suppose I probably would. I'd just fall into it like I did this time. I never ever thought I would sing opera, but as with everything it just happened. I love opera. It is not just a job and I think because I was a guest artist that I looked forward to it. Yes, I was nervous as could be in the dressing room but once I was in the wings and stepped on stage I was right. Whoever I was playing, I wasn't me anymore. I've had everything, including family and 56 years of happy married life, And got the best out of it all."
In an article written by Moffatt Oxenbould, Artistic Director of Opera Australia on the release of the CD album The Art Of Nance Grant he covers my operatic career with Australian Opera as it was then called.
“There are inherent dangers in recalling the beautiful voice of a much loved artist nearly twenty years after that voice was last heard in public. Time can sometimes make the heart grow fonder by endowing one's memories of past pleasant evenings spent in an opera house or concert hall with a deceptive rosy colouring that doesn't always accord with the reality of hearing recordings of those same performances.
“No such dangers mar our enjoyment of the recordings of soprano Nance Grant made in the 1970s and early 1980s, collected by Melba Recordings and issued on CD for the first time. I had the privilege of being associated with Nance Grant in most of her performances with The Australian Opera during this period and, as an opera lover who has always derived immense pleasure listening to "historic recordings" of legendary performers and performances - despite the often problematic quality of the original recording set-up - I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience of hearing Nance Grant again. My admiration for this notable Australian artist remains steadfast - enhanced by the pleasures afforded by this CD collection.
“When Nance Grant's vocal talent was remarked on 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 and a distinguished line of Australian sopranos - Dame Nellie Melba, Florence Austral, Marjorie Lawrence and Joan Hammond - were held in high esteem by many of their countrymen. But their careers had flourished and been based overseas, so the surest course for Australian artists wishing to follow their example was still to find the means to travel abroad to establish satisfying professional lives at the highest level.
“Paradoxically, opera was becoming more popular in Australia. Post World War II immigration brought new Australians whose origins were in European cities in which opera house was a true centre of everyday cultural life. J.C. Williamson - the dominant Australian theatrical entrepreneur of the time - brought Italian opera companies to our shores in 1949 and 1955. Italian principals of variable quality were supported by gifted Australians in some principal roles and as members of the chorus. 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 both companies pooled resources to present seasons in several cities. In 1954 the Australian Elizabethan Trust was formed, with full Government support, and it was at first hoped that the merger of the two state groups would continue under the auspices of the Trust. This was not to be, however, and in 1956 the Australian Opera Company was formed, presenting four Mozart operas and playing in all capital cities. This company survived, changing its name and character several times - The Elizabethan Trust Opera Company between 1957 and 1969 then the Australian opera between 1970 and 1997 when it became Opera Australia, following a merger with the Victoria State Opera.
“Nance Grant was accepted as a student by the eminent singing teacher Henri Portnoj and in 1953 first became involved with the National Theatre Opera School and Gertrude Johnson, doing scenes from opera at St Peter's, Eastern Hill. In National Treasure, Frank Van Staten's book on Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre, Nance Grant recalls being a member of the chorus of the National's The Tales of Hoffman in 1954, performing for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. "I was a lamp post! We were all dressed in black and we had to stand with our arms out with lights on our heads. It seemed like all night to us! It was the first time I was part of a big professional show. I was completely in awe of Marie Collier and John Shaw. Just being in the chorus and watching all these principals was a lesson in itself. It was so exciting and so wonderful for all the young singers. Just to be in the chorus was a feather in your cap." In 1954 she also sang leading roles in several musicals on the same stage.
“Winning the Mobil Quest in 1957 and the ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition in 1960 were highlights in the young soprano's subsequent Australian based career - built principally on recitals, broadcasts and concerts. In the 1960s her operatic activity was limited to ABC studio television performances mimed to a pre-recorded soundtrack. For a while it seemed that Nance Grant's place in Australia's musical life would be as a well regarded concert artist - a gracious lady with a happy home life, a loving and supportive husband and three growing children.
“In 1971 the noted British operatic conductor, Edward Downes accepted the position of Musical Director of The Australian Opera - to take up his appointment in 1972 - a year before the long-awaited opening of the new Sydney Opera House. He came to Australia and heard many singers - some already working with the company and others who were not. In Sydney he heard Nance Grant and asked her to join the Australia Opera in Sydney as a principal artist on a full-time basis. She faced a considerable dilemma - family responsibilities in Melbourne meant she could not contemplate undertaking the sort of touring schedule full-time operatic singing would entail. On the other hand, leading roles were being talked about that she had dreamed of since her first professional appearance in The Tales of Hoffman seventeen years earlier! Fortunately common sense prevailed and a guest artist contractual arrangement was negotiated, providing for specific roles and defined periods on which she would work with the company while maintaining her home base in Melbourne.
“A golden operatic decade followed for Nance Grant. Edward Downes cast his "new" soprano carefully and she went from success to success - relishing the opportunity to collaborate with excellent conductors, coaches and colleagues and also 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 season with the Australian Opera she sang the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and 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 the lieder singer’s attention to text.
“The fact that she had not done a great deal of work on the operatic stage before 1972 was curiously an advantage, because she was endearingly trusting and attentive to the directors and conductors, who encouraged her to find dramatic truths of the characters she portrayed. I directed her as Puccini's Suor Angelica for the first time in 1973. She followed a colleague in the role whose strengths were intense, almost reckless, histrionics that it would have been foolish for Nance to try and emulate. It was stimulating to work with her to find a gentler heroine, bringing out the nobility of character - who is a princess by birth and a nun, not by vocation, but only because she has been punished for bearing an illegitimate child seven years before the action of the opera takes place. Nance's Angelica was convincing because of her sincerity, her acceptance that her punishment was warranted - but at the same time a woman who could not find peace because her maternal instincts could never be replaced by 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 the glorious but difficult vocal writing Puccini brought his creation to life.
“Nance was never interested in artificiality or excessive theatrics but had the gift of endowing her roles with appealing clarity and humanity. in 1974 she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for the first time, in a production directed by John Bell - a young classical actor and director who was coming to opera for the first time. Perhaps inevitably, the staging of such a challenging work was not a complete success for a novice director encountering for the first time a working situation in which the artistic leadership of the production was shared with a conductor. But I recall John Bell's gratitude and surprise at the flexibility and willingness of Nance Grant and several colleagues to "go" in the direction in which he was taking them - remarking that trained actors would almost certainly have been disputatious and much more suspicious in a similar situation.
“Within the Australian Opera she was stimulated and occasionally challenged by the opportunity to work with major operatic conductors - Sir Edward Downes, but also Richard Bonynge, Carlo Felice Cillario, Sir Mark Elder, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir John Pritchard, William Reid and Georg Tintner. She enjoyed the comfort and camaraderie inherent in an ongoing association with a trusted group of colleagues and the stability of an ensemble company with a permanently engaged support staff. At that time the Australian Opera regularly brought out guest consultants for voice and interpretation to work with the company - and Nance Grant appreciated the opportunity to polish her Mozart and Strauss roles with Jani Strasser who had been long associated with Glyndebourne Festival Opera. But for Nance the most important of these expert vocal advisers was Professor Clemens Kaiser-Breme - a regular 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 in this repertoire. She undertook further intensive coaching with him in Germany culminating in an audition and an offer to sing at Bayreuth - which she was unable to accept because of a clash of dates with already contracted performances of Ariadne Auf Naxos with the Australian Opera. Nance Grant was that sort of artist - she would not let an organisation down if she had made a commitment to appear - even if a more prestigious engagement was subsequently offered.
“Her ongoing association with the Australian Opera gave her the opportunity to sing some of her major roles in revivals over several seasons - sometimes in different productions. In these revivals - as the Marschallin, Leonore in Fidelio, Donna Anna and Countess Almaviva - she was never content to simply repeat what had been done before but confidently made best use of the operatic craft skills that she had developed in the interim.
“Her repertoire grew - and she proved an ideal interpreter of two of the roles Benjamin Britten wrote for the British soprano, Joan Cross - Lady Billows in Albert Herring and the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia. Sadly the company did not have Peter Grimes in its repertoire at that time, as another Joan Cross role - Ellen Orford - would surely have suited Nance Grant to perfection. Lady Billows under the masterly direction of Englishman John Cox, revealed a finely judged comic talent - which was also exploited when she sang Alice Ford in George Ogilvie's production of Falstaff for the first time in 1979. In both these roles she allowed humour to emerge naturally from the reality of the character's situation - never forcing comedy for effect's sake.
“In collaboration with the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras, the Australian Opera presented 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.
“In addition to her work with the Australian Opera she sang three very different roles with Victorian State Opera under its Musical Director, Richard Divall - Elisabetta in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda opposite June Bronhill in the title role, Ortrud in Lohengrin and Elektra in Mozart's Idomeneo.
“It’s 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 Grant, a confident, rich voiced heroine, exquisitely costumed, radiating nobility of both sound and spirit to the delight of all lucky enough to have been 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 in 1975, when, as Ariadne, she took centre stage in the Sydney Opera House? She could certainly have allowed herself to feel justified pride knowing she had reached a position of eminence in her own land without first having to establish a career across the seas. I'm certain that above all she felt privileged to make music with serious and gifted colleagues and was humbled to know she had reached a point in time when she was genuinely acclaimed as one of her country's finest operatic artists."
Looking back over my career, I feel very privileged to have had the experience of working with some of the world’s best conductors. Many were brought out to Australia by the Australian Broadcasting Commission for concerts where I sang oratorios and for orchestral concerts throughout all capital cities. I enjoyed working with so many of the greats such as Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Pritchard, Carlo Felice Cillario, Sir Mark Elder, Richard Bonynge, Willem Van Otterloo, Georges Tzipine, Walter Süsskind, Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Edward Downes. My last two Wagner concerts with the Australian Opera were with Sir Charles Mackerras both here in Melbourne and Sydney, were Sieglinde - Die Walküre and Gutrune - Götterdämmerung. The Sieglinde was a great success, where we had Rita Hunter as Brünnhilde and Robert Gard as Siegmund. It was a most memorable night for everyone.
Sir Edward Downes was my mentor. When I first auditioned for him in Sydney I was immediately offered a full contract with the Australian Opera. However with a wonderful husband and three young children, I didn't want to be away from my Melbourne home for so many months each year. I was bold enough to ask for a guest contract, and Ted said yes straight off. This was the beginning of over ten wonderful years working at the Sydney Opera House and other capital cities with my great mentor. Ted chose repertoire he thought suited me and I had great success during this time. I learnt so much from him, and my performances with him were very special to me. When I was singing the role of Suor Angelica in the final dress rehearsal, I found I became quite emotional when singing her big aria. I almost wondered how I was going to be able to continue singing to the end. I guess being a mother, it really hit home what a terrible predicament she had been through. After the dress rehearsal there was a loud knock on my dressing room door, and I brightly said ‘come in!’ Ted Downes rushed in and said, "How dare you get all emotional when you are singing a role on stage letting it affect your vocal quality. It’s fine to be into that role, but draw the line before the emotional side shows through." I was shocked with the way he had spoken to me. After, when reflecting on the situation, I was so thankful he had come to see me and explained this whole situation, realizing I could have made a fool of myself on stage with this aria on opening night. This was the first and only time Ted was so forthright about the emotional issue. I have often thanked him over the years when I felt I was getting too involved with a character. As usual he was my mentor giving invaluable advice.
Another great conductor who helped me in my formative singing years was Sir Malcolm Sargent. My first performance with him was to sing the soprano role in The Creation by Haydn and such a wonderful oratorio. I was always nervous before my first piano rehearsal with any conductor, and more so because of this great man. When we came to the recit. "and God said" I sang two lines and he stopped me with "do you always deliver this recit. like this." I explained its not how I would like to sing it, but other conductors want it sung like this. He then asked how I would like to sing it and I replied that I would ignore the commas and rests, and use the words as in a sermon, as the words give the real meaning. "Let me hear you sing" was his reply. I did and when finished he said "That is exactly how I want to hear it." We didn't have to stop for anything else in the rehearsal and it was one of the most enjoyable rehearsals I have ever had. The performances under Sir Malcolm were pure magic. Everyone’s diction was very clear and the audience reaction was overwhelming. I also had the privilege of working with Sir Malcolm over the next two years each time he returned to Australia.
We had many wonderful producers engaged by Australian Opera and all had varying qualities of expertise. John Cox was invited out to the Sydney Opera house by Australian opera to produce Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. We had a very strong cast and John’s production was fantastic. We all had a lot of fun, as John was so good to work with, and well thought of by all the cast. It was a great success with the public.
Another wonderful producer and good friend was John Copley the renowned Englishman. He was a joy to work with. All his productions worked and were always most successful with audiences. When the singers read the list of a new production and John Copley was the producer everyone knew it would be a great success. His productions lasted many years and always seemed to be fresh and meaningful no matter who was singing the roles. His productions made it easier for singers to perform, without all the running around and lying down to sing as required by some of today's producers. A truly singer’s producer all the way.
Jani Strasser from Lewes and Glyndebourne came out to Sydney for Australian Opera to coach the singers in preparation of The Marriage of Figaro. This was so that we were ready for John Pritchard to arrive and take over for the Sitzprobe. Jani was such a dear and imparted such knowledge to us all. He was so pedantic about it all but his knowledge of all the roles and the music was invaluable. He stayed until after opening night. He came to my dressing room after the performance and said, "My dear, you were a wonderful countess and looked beautiful, sang well too with all my coaching." This was very special too for Jani to say anything like this. It was unusual for him to hand out accolades.
Then there was Herr Professor Clemens Kaiser-Breme of Essen and Bayreuth, Germany. The professor was brought out from Germany to coach our singers in the German repertoire. I was singing the role of the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, a role I particularly loved to sing. After the performance, there came a knock on my dressing room door and in walked this unknown gentleman. He introduced himself and explained he would be coaching German repertoire and would like to work with me on German roles. He enjoyed my Marschallin very much and could see me singing some suitable German repertoire, such as Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Fidelio etc. I was a little overwhelmed with him thinking that these roles could be in my future. I explained that as a guest artist I was not included in any coaching. `We shall see" was his reply. The next day one of my colleagues said that my name was on the rehearsal sheet to work with the Herr Professor. So began a wonderful association with Professor Kaiser-Breme. Such a warm and generous man. He arranged for me to go to Germany on his return from Australian Opera, to study Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. I was to be there for three weeks with three lessons a week. Once we started working together, I found it an absolute joy to be able to learn how to breathe correctly deep down in the body. This enables you to sing those lovely long phrases required in Strauss and Wagner. Once we started he gave me a long lesson every day over the three weeks rather than just three per week. I think he enjoyed our lessons as much as I did.
The following year my husband Ian and I went back to Essen for another ten days tuition. We worked on Fidelio and Strauss’s Four Last Songs which I adored singing. The Professor then drove us down through Bavaria to Bayreuth for further study. He had booked us into a Pensione just outside the town. He also did a lot of coaching with other singers there. He told me I would be singing for Horst Stein the next afternoon. Maestro Stein was at Hannover and Hamburg. I sang in an outside rehearsal room. On our way back to the pensione he said we may be going back that evening to sing again. At about 6pm there was a knock on the door, and the professor said, "My dear Miss Grant we will leave at 6.30pm to go back and sing in the Festspiele for Herr Wolfgang Wagner." On the way in I asked if he would be playing for me again. "Oh no there will be a répétiteur there to play for you." I worried all the way in. I understood German speaking, but didn't have the confidence to speak myself. When I walked into the Festspielhaus I was in awe, to be in the world of Wagner - everywhere lovely wood. This surely must be good acoustically. I walked across the stage to a man with his back to me looking through music. When I approached I said "I'm sorry I don't speak German" he immediately turned and said, "That’s all right I'm from Covent Garden!" When I walked onto that wonderful stage, I was asked what would I like to sing - Abscheulicher from Fidelio and then Elizabeth's Greeting from Tannhäuser. When I sang the first few notes, they filled the auditorium; the acoustics were perfect. What a joy it must be to perform here, as the orchestral sound comes up and out from under the stage.
After this, we flew to London for a few days and then home to Melbourne. Days after getting home a letter arrived from Herr Wolfgang Wagner, asking me to sing Helmwige in the next season. The professor must have been aware of this as he explained that whilst I was there, I would be coached for a principal role the following year. The dates mentioned in the letter seemed familiar, so I contacted Moffatt Oxenbould, Artistic Director at Australian Opera and he explained my last three performances in Ariadne overlapped the dates I was required to be in Bayreuth.
I wrote a letter of regret stating I had already signed my Ariadne contract for 1975 and was unable to accept their invitation. It was a disappointing time, as I realised that Professor Kaiser-Breme had organised this whole situation for me. However it was not meant to be. I sang Ariadne in the Sydney Opera House with my dear mentor Edward Downes and had a great success. Ted also suggested to me that if I went to London, he would fill my book with performances. I was on a great guest contract with Australian Opera singing wonderful principal roles each year with Ted conducting and others also, and still do oratorio and concert work. I felt I had it all.
After over ten years of principal roles with Australian Opera I retired from the company. This was a special time in my life. We lived in Melbourne and shortly after I received a telephone call from Dame Joan Hammond who was head of Music and Voice at the Victoria College of the Arts. She made an appointment for me to come and see her. I had met her only once before, and found her to be quite a forbidding presence with such a world famous voice and name. When I arrived she made me feel most welcome, and said how she had enjoyed my operatic performances. Joan then asked me to come and teach with her at the college. I explained I had never taught before, and she then said, "Nance you have an almost perfect vocal technique, and I want you to impart this to young singers at the college." I felt this would be impossible, as I really wouldn't know where to begin. She said not to worry I will show you how to teach. The next week I was with Dame Joan, sitting in on her lessons. I was given some of the newest pupils to teach the correct vocal technique, then on to lessons in Lied, art song, arias and then the whole gambit to become a singer. I used to also give master classes for the students. These were eight interesting and enjoyable years.
We became good friends with Joan and Lolita, who looked after Joan as befitted her world famous name. It was a terrible time for them when their beautiful home at Aireys Inlet on the great Ocean Road in Victoria was burnt to the ground. Joan lost everything from the gold records, jewelry and all her scores with special markings from all the leading conductors she had worked with … also her lovely gowns. Joan and Lolita really never got over this disastrous time. When we became great friends with them, we found Joan was really a very shy lady, thus giving this forbidding look of hers as a cover. After the fire they purchased a property and added to the house, down at Flinders on the coast, they called it Farthing Cottage after a home they had in England. They had to have open space, as they had a beautiful Alsatian, saved from the fire at Aireys Inlet. Joan was so kind in every way and very thoughtful. She taught Peter Coleman-Wright and Cheryl Barker at the college. Both have achieved accolades with their voices and performances in Australia and overseas.
During my career I had a very happy association with the Victorian Opera and performed in three operas. The first was Maria Stuarda by Donizetti when I sang the role of Elizabeth I with June Bronhill singing Maria Stuarda. We enjoyed each others company and had fun in the production. However on-stage it was a different story: we really drew sparks from each other in the confrontation scene. In 1982 I sang the role of Elektra at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. The famous designer John Truscott gave me a beautiful deep blue costume with a very high red stylised wig. All his costumes were wonderful throughout. In 1986 I sang the role of Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. Originally Greta Elkins was cast in this role but three weeks before opening night had to cancel. I learnt the role - it seemed day and night -in that time. It was the one and only time I went into rehearsal holding the score. It was a nerve-wracking time. August Everding was brought out from Munich to produce. I made my apologies regarding holding the score. He replied, "No problem, you will be a marvellous Ortrud." He was so accommodating. It was a wonderful production of course; my Telramund was the Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard . We made a forbidding pair. It was a great season, a role so different to what I was used to singing, but I loved it.
In October 2013 there was a final performance of the Benjamin Britten opera Albert Herring which opened at SOH forty years earlier. Lyndon Terracini, current Artistic Director of Opera Australia invited all remaining members of the original cast to be in the audience on the last night. This was like coming home as I had spent ten wonderful happy years as a principal with Australian Opera at SOH. There were only five principal members of the original cast still alive. It was announced before curtain-up that these remaining original cast members were in the audience to enjoy the final performance. As I had been in many performances of this wonderful opera as Lady Billows, the audience applauded. Looking around the theatre many people were waving to us. It brought back many happy memories.
This marvellous production was produced by John Cox from the mid-1970s. It was as good on the final night as it was when I first opened it. In 1977 there was a royal Command performance for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. All the cast were presented to them at interval and this was a highlight for the cast..
I have been fortunate to have had four Royal Command performances. The first as a lamp post in The Tales of Hoffmann, the second in my own right as a soloist in 1964 at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, then in Sydney for the Official Opening of the Sydney Opera House with Australian Broadcasting Commission’s performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Then again in Sydney in1977 the Royal Command performance of Albert Herring. These three solo principal command performances were very special highlights in my career.
A few years ago my good friend Brian Castles-Onion, coach and conductor with Opera Australia asked if I had any tapes from my career. I replied that there were lots of small tapes, quite often sent to me, often recorded on small hand-held machines during performances. I really did not know what was there, and he said, “Give them all to me and I will go through them and see what could be salvaged.” Anything worth while was put on CDs and through this exercise many were included by Melba Recordings to produce "The Art of Nance Grant" brought out in 2012. I was thrilled that Maria Vandamme put together these two wonderful CDs in memory of some of my career.
During the middle of 2013, I gave Brian some more tapes found during a clean-up and he was able to enhance the sound once again. In October 2013, Brian Castles-Onion under his own label Desiree Records published 3 CDs of mine covering more of my career. The CD pack is titled "Great Australian Voices - Nance Grant”. The sound of this release is remarkable considering the source from early tapes. There is also a most informative booklet with photos of some of my favourite roles.
He has also now published a second release in the series "Great Australian Voices - Robert Allman". Robert had good tapes from so many of his productions over the years, a little easier to put together, nevertheless both are great works of Art thanks to Brian Castles-Onion. I feel blessed to think my family and friends will now have these CDs to remember my performances and a very happy singing career.
Finally, for the record in 1976 I was awarded an MBE (Member British Empire) for my "Services to Music and the Arts": A very special and honoured commendation for me.
Then in June 2013, this year in the Australian Honours Awards I was awarded an AM by the Australian Government for "Significant Services to the Performing Arts, particularly Opera". This was such a wonderful surprise to be recognised by my peers and associates for my singing and contribution throughout an over forty year career.
Nance Grant A.M., M.B.E.
Performances and chronology