Dora Labbette (soprano aka Lisa Perli)
by Charles A. Hooey
Surely the strangest event to occur at the Royal Opera Covent
Garden between the wars was the time when a mysterious, veiled
stranger showed up to audition for the rôle of Mimi in
an upcoming series of La Bohème performances.
It was no contest. Clearly the newcomer had the goods and was
signed on the spot. Still heavily veiled, she came to a rehearsal,
only to have a chorister blurt out, "Blimey! It's Dora!" The
conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham whirled about and snapped, "Signorina
Perli, if you don't mind!" But the secret was out. Dora Labbette's
operatic career was underway in an unusual and auspicious manner.
For years she had been a beloved oratorio and concert artist,
but she fretted over the inactivity and yearned for something
more. Opera was the obvious alternative but a career in opera
was almost impossible in England at the time. The public had
long held a deep prejudice against their own singers, preferring
instead foreigners with exotic names and lofty reputations.
In the beginning …
At this point, we should backtrack. In 1983, tenor Ian Partridge,
shortly before Dora’s death, interviewed her for a radio
broadcast. She explained her earliest times..."I did not come
from a musical or a wealthy family. No, (I had) no education
at all... (We were) very poor people. I was born in Purley,
and then my father went to Hastings for his health."
was born on 4th March, 1898, the daughter of John
William Labbett, a railway porter and Nellie Labbett (nèe
Berry). "Dorothy Bella Labbett" actually arrived at their residence
in Woodside, a community to the north of Croydon, a town on
the southern outskirts of London. Purley, an area to the south
of Croydon, about five miles away, would later support the story
of her name change. By 1901, the Labbetts were in Hastings,
the small town on the south coast of England made famous in
history for the battle of the same name.
(How did you come to music?) "I really don't know except...I
was cleaning a window when Florence Aylward walked down the
street and said, `Oh, do come to my flat and sing to me sometime.'
I said, `Yes, with pleasure.' Madame Aylward was a well-known
composer of songs, her most famous being, "Beloved, T'is Morn."
At seven, Dora received piano lessons from Dr. Herman Brearly,
the esteemed gentleman who would become Hallé chorus
master and at ten she was heard in public in Hastings, singing
"The Guardian Angel" by Liza Lehmann.
(How did she know you sang?) “I was a member of the Oriana
Choir and someone said `Oh! That girl can sing!' and that was
it. So, I walked all the way from Hastings to St. Leonard's
to sing for her, and she said, `Oh! you've got a beautiful voice!
Would you come and sing at my Cafe Chantant?' I said, `Yes.'
I had to go and sing at the Café as a little kid. And,
Oh, I was a great success ...really and so she said, `You'd
better have some training. I must take you to Liza Lehmann.'
So Liza taught me all this business, you know...Clever. Make
you stand, and walk properly...and then, I went to Guildhall.
She was so good at it, `cause she never tried to change my voice,
never made me sing higher than I could. She was very, very good,
she really was...and such a nice person. Charming. I used to
go and stay with her sometimes in London. Very, very kind to
me." Dora had tried for and gained a scholarship to attend Guildhall,
where she became one of their most famous students. Named gold
medallist in 1916, she was recipient in 1917 of the Landon Ronald
prize...as "likely to become the best artist of all the students
that year." A review by an unnamed critic in The Times
describes a concert in which she participated on 3 July 1917:
A vocal and instrumental concert by the students of the Guildhall
School of Music was given at Queen’s Hall yesterday. Queen
Alexandra and Princess Victoria occupied the Royal Box, and
remained till the close of the performance. The hall was very
nearly full, and the music reached a consistently high standard.
Miss Labbette sang “Solveig’ with quiet sincerity,
and pleased every one with her ‘Cherry Ripe.
As the result of a lasting friendship formed with William Boosey
at Tillets, famed artists representatives, she began to sing
at Ballad Concerts, Promenade and Sunday evening concerts, now
billed as "Dora Labbette," the "e" being tacked on presumably
to give the name an elitist French flair.
"I got a contract (worth) £500 a year which was a lot
of money in those days... for singing one of their songs on
my programme everywhere I went. It was pretty hot stuff, wasn't
it? ... £500 a year." (Were you doing many ballad concerts
at that time?) "Yes, I kept on doing it, as it suited me. Ha!
Ha! So, I sang the songs I liked, not always the ones they wanted
me to sing."
She was quickly in demand, for, as an English soprano, she found
that oratorio and ballad concerts put bread on the table. Often
concerts were sizeable affairs, and surely none was grander
than when she sang at the London Palladium on 11th
February 1917 for the Sunday League in a vastly varied programme
with Caroline Hatchard, Helen Blain, Ruby Heyl, Herbert Cave,
George Baker, Norman Allin and the Royal Artillery String Band
conducted by E. C. Stretton.
Things were happening off stage too. She had met a charming
fellow, a dashing Captain in the Royal Engineers, David Rogerson
Strang, and on 15th April 1918, seven months before
the Armistice, they were married in the Parish Church of St.
Mark Hamilton Terrace in London. She was twenty, the soldier
thirty. His father was William Strang, a famous artist of the
previous century, and the son inherited a good deal of Papa's
artistic talent and temperament.
Afterwards, they lived at 70 Carlton Hill, St. John's Wood,
a smart London suburb, where on 18th April 1919,
their daughter Joan was born. Strang wanted Dora to give up
her singing career, but she resisted, and nineteen months later,
she walked out of marital life, pulling a handcart heaped high
with her belongings. Dora and infant Joan took lodging at 3,
Pembridge Place, Notting Hill, another desirable suburb. Carrying
on, she wrote to Edward German on 29th January 1921,
"I think the two songs you have chosen for me to sing at Bournemouth
on April 19 will do beautifully. I am looking forward to the
concert with much pleasure."
With that most sterling of English tenors, Hubert Eisdell, Dora
also began a series of wonderful duet recordings in 1922 for
Columbia. With Muriel Brunskill and Harold Williams in September
1928, they recorded Liza Lehmann's 1896 cantata, In a Persian
Garden. Liza had died in 1919 but her husband, Herbert Bedford,
oversaw the recording. Later, Dora's son recalled that his "mother
and Eisdell much enjoyed their many musical partnerships. His
wife, Kitty, worked often with my mother accompanying her, and
it was Kitty who first introduced me to the piano. Some years
later she returned to Australia and we lost contact."
Consummate oratorio and concert artist, including the
With her sublime, boy soprano-like purity of voice,
allied to womanly passion, she became a regular on Henry Wood’s
ever popular promenade concerts (see Proms appearances listing),
singing there on many occasions. At Queen’s Hall and later
at the Royal Albert Hall, she made a number of appearances,
beginning on Thursday, 30 August 1917 in which she sang Louis
Spohr’s ‘Rose, softly blooming’ from Zémire
und Azor with Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall
orchestra and Liza Lehmann’s ‘ Fly away, pretty
moth’ accompanied by pianist Frederick Kiddle, with whom
she began a long association as an accompanist It must have
been valuable experience for a singer at the outset of her career.
A complete listing of her Proms appearances can be found later
in a companion piece to this article.
In addition to quality presentations at the Proms, she was frequently
heard in concerts throughout the British Isles. On 9th
November, 1923, she sang in a concert with the Hull Philharmonic
and another in Liverpool early in 1924. She always took her
art very seriously. Once when singing on the Palace Pier, St.
Leonard's, two young men walked noisily across the hall. Dora
ceased singing, and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, you must keep
still. I cannot have you walking about whilst I am singing.
Please shut the door and stop rattling the money." There was
momentarily a dead silence, then applause. At the end of her
song, she received a thunderous ovation.
Late in 1925, she returned to Hull twice, at a recital on 21
November at Queen's Hall and then on 17th December
for a Messiah with Edith Furmedge, John Booth, Joseph
Farrington and the Vocal Society.
Her marriage in a shambles, Dora considered herself fancy-free.
Enter Beecham ..."He sent for me to do a recording of Messiah.
He'd been to a gramophone place in Savoy Hill and saw my picture
on the wall and said, `Who is that? I'd like to see her'...
(and at this point, wistfully) Oh yes! ... I loved him...no
question about that."
That year at the Leeds Festival on 6 October, 1928, she sang
in A Pastoral Symphony by Vaughan Williams. At the final
rehearsal, after she had brought the work to its peaceful conclusion,
Beecham showed his dislike for the work by continuing to beat
time. “Why aren’t you playing?” he asked.
Willie Reed, the orchestra leader, piped up, “Because
it’s finished.” “Thank God” said Beecham.
For the holiday season that year, he gave a stupendous performance
of Messiah at Queen's Hall on 15th December
with the London Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir, quite
surprising everyone with his beauteous soprano, Dora Labbette,
who sang with John Coates, Margaret Balfour and Harold Williams,
and the way he made the musty old work sound so fresh and gloriously
There were more Messiahs, including one in Manchester
with Muriel Brunskill, Walter Glynne and Norman Allin, Harty
conducting. On 2nd May 1927, she linked up with Beecham
at Captain H. G. Amers's 6th Annual Complimentary
Concert, singing "Ruhe sanft" from Mozart's Zaide and
a pair of unidentified encores, one by Handel. From June through
October, Beecham managed to complete his recording of Messiah
for Columbia with Dora, Eisdell, Brunskill and Williams giving
their all for this maestro as he went about removing centuries
In January 1928 Beecham departed for America, leaving Dora busy
on the concert stage, including an appearance with the Vocal
Society in Hull on 7th March. When he returned to
stage a very special event on 22nd March, Dora eagerly
rushed back to London to share in the excitement. Absent since
1919 from association with the Royal Philharmonic Society, Beecham
was back to conduct Handel's Solomon in his own re-orchestrated
and revivified version. Curious music-lovers flocked into Queen's
Hall on 22nd March as Dora, Lilian Stiles-Allen,
Clara Serena and Harold Williams took their places to partake
as he peeled off layers of Victorian muck to return another
amazing work to its original beauty. King George V and Queen
Mary were amongst those enthralled. To show their high regard,
the RPS awarded Beecham their Gold Medal, the highest award
in British music. On 15th April, he and his singers
reprised at the Royal Albert Hall.
Handel's music figured in Beecham's concert on 20th
September in Harrowgate as Dora sang two arias from Solomon
and "The song of Iole" from Hercules. After the applause
died away, she added "Non mir dir" from Don Giovanni.
Moving on to Leeds on 4th October, she sang Debussy's
La Demoiselle Élue in French with Lottie Beaumont,
a fugitive from the ladies' choir. Then with Harold Williams,
she sang Brahms' A German Requiem with Beecham conducting
as he did for the Debussy. Two nights later she soloed in Vaughan
Williams' "A Pastoral Symphony.”
On 1st December she travelled to the Winter Gardens
in Bournemouth to sing Mozart - "Non so piu" from Figaro
and Handel - two arias from Hercules, the latter presaging
a complete performance five days later in Queen's Hall. Hercules
was a rarely heard secular oratorio and Beecham's latest revival.
With fewer choral attractions, it was keenly admired for its
action, numerous recitatives and arias that Dora tackled with
gusto as Iole with Stiles-Allen (Dejanira), Brunskill (Lidas),
Tudor Davies (Hylus) and Horace Stevens (Hercules/Priest). Some
numbers were omitted as Beecham had injured his right hand and
could not finish editing the score in time.
The Christmas season meant at least three Messiahs for
Dora, each time with Beecham. On 16th December she
sang in Royal Albert Hall with Hubert Eisdell, Muriel Brunskill,
Harold Williams, the Philharmonic Choir and the Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra. Two nights later, they repeated in Blackburn with
the Municipal Choir and the Liverpool Orchestra. Then, back
in London on 23rd December at the Golders Green Hippodrome,
Margaret Balfour replaced Brunskill and with the Royal Philharmonic
again but with the London Choral Society. How uplifting it must
have been for audience members at one of these musical events!
On 17th December 1928, Dora's marriage to Strang
was finally annulled, after lasting a little over ten years.
With Joan entrusted to her mother's keeping, nannies would have
been kept hopping.
Indeed, her profession made its demands. She sang Delius's "Songs
with Orchestra" on 8th February 1929 in Kingsway
Hall with Beecham leading the Wireless Symphony Orchestra. The
same programme was to have been given in Cheltenham, but Beecham
contracted influenza, so it was cancelled. He was still under
the weather on 16th March so Arthur Sims conducted
Bach's B Minor Mass in Bristol with Dora, Margaret Balfour,
Steuart Wilson and Robert Easton. Also falling by the wayside
was an Imperial League of Opera concert in Plymouth on 18th
March. By 29th April, however, Beecham had recovered
so they took part in Captain Amers's 8th Annual Concert
at the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne where Dora sang three songs
by Delius and two arias from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.
That summer on 24th June and 10th July,
Dora recorded five of Delius's songs with Beecham at the piano.
Then, in mid-September they were in the Theatre Royal, Dublin,
for a pair of concerts, sponsored by The League of Opera. On
the 14th she sang The Cradle Song by Delius, "Voi
che sapete" from Figaro and Grieg's Nightingale.
The next evening, she returned with "Deh vieni" from Figaro
as well as songs and ballads, those titles now unknown.
By now, Dora was highly regarded as a concert artist, and a
perfectionist with a particular bête-noir. She
wrote (in Musical Masterpieces of 1926) "Often enough I have
arrived at a concert to find the accompanist engaged totally
unable to play the music of pieces I have selected, and they
have had to be altered on the spot in favour of something simpler."
This criticism was not directed towards Beecham or certain others
such as Gerald Moore. In his book, "Am I Too Loud?" Moore bemoaned
the cool draughts that plagued many halls..."It is a mystery
to me how ladies can endure it...however, Dora was up to any
emergency. I played for her in a perishingly cold hall where
she sang like an angel and was a vision of loveliness. As I
cowered over the fire in the artists' room, I asked her how
she managed to keep warm in her diaphanous gown. For answer,
she raised her skirt and revealed a pair of corduroy trousers
pinned up well above her satin slippers."
The Delius experience
Now, as a special salute to his ageing friend, Frederick Delius,
Beecham organized a festival of his music, an honor never before
accorded to a British composer. As a Herculean supporter of
his music, Dora was primed to take part.
(You met Delius?) "Beecham used to take me lots of times to
sing for Delius at Grez-sur-Loing, a commune in the Seine-et-Marne
département in north-central France. Oh! It was a beautiful
spot with a river running down at the bottom of the garden.
It's the `Summer night on the River.' (Did Delius comment?)...Oh,
no! He used to sit there and revel in them... He couldn't see,
To finalize festival plans, Beecham arrived at Grez in the first
week of September 1929, clutching an armful of scores. Perched
on a stool near Delius, he expounded on his musical choices.
Then, as the dinner hour neared, he announced that he had brought
an English nightingale to sing a few songs and on cue a taxi
pulled up and out stepped Dora, a vision of enchanted loveliness
in pink. To honour her guests, Jelka, Delius’s wife, picked
two roses from a nearby bush and pinned one on each visitor.
Then it was party time.
The festival, which began on 12 October 1929, consisted of six
concerts spread over three weeks, four in Queen's Hall and two
in the more intimate Aeolian Hall. At the latter venue, Dora
and Nash appeared on 23rd October, her scintillating
offering being two song groupings: 1) "The Nightingale," "Autumn,"
"La Lune Blanche" and "Klein Venevil" and 2) "Twilight Fancies",
"Am schönsten Sommerabend war's", "Margaret's Lullaby"
and "Spring, the sweet Spring," all accompanied by Evlyn Howard-Jones
at the piano.
A Mass of Life concluded festivities on 1 November, after
which Beecham called for a round of applause for the composer.
Although very frail and not expected to come, he could not resist
attending such a key event. He expressed his gratitude to Beecham
for the inspired presentation of his music.
Afterwards, in Liverpool on 3rd December, Dora tackled
Debussy's "La Demoiselle Élue" with Eleanor Toye,
and added songs by Delius: "The Nightingale," "Evening Voices,"
"Sweet Venevil," "Lullaby (Cradle song)" and "Spring, the sweet
Spring" with Beecham tickling the ivories. Closer to Christmas
on the 19th, she helped with a Messiah at the Leeds Town
Hall with Frank Titterton, Dorothy D'Orsay, Robert Easton, the
Choral Union and the Symphony Orchestra.
Now, since Dora was divorced from Strang, Beecham began proposing
marriage, offering to part officially from his wife Utica in
America. Dora thought this might not be regarded as legal in
Britain, and urged him to seek a divorce in London, although
she acknowledged this would be difficult to accomplish as Utica
would very likely oppose it. It was a stalemate.
Back in action at Queen’s Hall in London on 28th
February 1930, Dora helped Beecham repeat Handel's Solomon.
She was cast as Solomon's queen, facing Keith Falkner with Stiles-Allen
as the Queen of Sheba and Tudor Davies as Zadok. How many heard
the national broadcast? Then on 1st April, she joined
Beecham for a concert with the National Orchestra of Wales in
Central Hall, Newport. She led off with Grieg's "The Nightingale,"
then Leila’s aria from Bizet's Pearlfishers, "Deh
vieni" from Figaro and "The Cradle Song" by Delius. For
the 8th Eastbourne Festival on 24th November,
she sang an aria from Handel's Ode to St. Cecilia, Mozart's
"Deh vieni" and another Handel aria. In Liverpool on 2nd
December, with Dennis Noble, she sang Brahms Requiem
and repeated the Ode.
To usher in 1931, Dora went to Glasgow for a further run at
Solomon, this time with the local Choral Union and Keith
Falkner, Stiles-Allen and Davies. That year Solomon opened
the Leeds Festival on 7th October, Dora joining Falkner
and Stiles-Allen with Walter Widdop as Zadok. That evening she
returned to sing in Cherubini's Mass in D Minor with
Astra Desmond, Francis Russell and Horace Stevens with Mrs.
Norman Strafford and Hubert Eisdell stepping up for the sextet,
"Et incarnatus." Dora visited Hull for the last time on 17th
December to sing Messiah with Etty Ferguson, Percy Manchester
and Joseph Farrington.
Falkner was a fan: "I first sang with Dora Labbette at a Goldsmith's
Dinner. She was lovely to look at, probably the best-dressed
soprano of her day and, while she had a pronounced London accent,
it was never evident in her beautifully enunciated singing."
At rehearsals, when Beecham became overly pompous, she would
fire off a heavily accented put-down that instantly deflated
Dora appeared as soloist at a subscription concert in Cambridge
Hall, Southport on 20th January 1932. Especially
notable was a new work by Sir Edward Elgar, his Nursery Suite,
conducted by J. E. Matthews. Dora then stepped on stage, as
a critic for The Herald reported: “The very name of Miss
Dora Labbette brings great pleasure to a very wide public, for
both as a BBC artiste and in recording for the gramophone she
has earned fame. A more charming and cultured singer has never
appeared at one of these concerts. So finished is the art of
her voice production that she sings as naturally as a bird,
and she won the most enthusiastic applause. Her sweet, pure-toned
soprano, especially in its middle and higher ranges, made her
rendering of ‘L’Air de Marthe,’ from Rimsky
Korsakov’s ‘La Fiancée du Tzar,’
a truly delightful performance, for which she was accompanied
by the orchestra. She completely expressed its mood, and her
diction and phrasing were flawless. As an encore she sang Roger
Quilter’s ‘It was a Lover and His Lass,’ a
vivacious individual interpretation that the audience found
After the interval, she re-appeared with a piano accompanist,
Walter Wright, and re-engaged the Herald man on the scene: “Later
she achieved sure success with a group of songs, which included
two by Delius - the familiar ‘Evening Voices,’ with
the poignant perplexity of the wistful Princess yearning in
her ‘turretted [sic] keep’ expressed with feeling
and sublety [sic], and ‘Sweet Venevil,’ sung with
winsome, romantic spirit. She gave ‘The Nightingale’
(Grieg) with artless piquancy, the charm of her voice matching
the engaging quality of the words and the music. In response
to the applause she gave the Sussex folk song, ’Come my
Own One’ (arranged by Butterworth), in a cheery style
that captured its breezy humour, and proved the wide resource
of her art with an air from ‘Le Roi d’Ys’
(Lalo), which she sang as an additional encore.”
For a rival newspaper, the critic A.K.H. also approved but detected
a flaw: ”Miss Labbette’s style has broadened and
lost nothing in its freshness while ceasing to be quite so naive
and artless. Her two Delius songs were well expressed, but the
free treatment of ‘Twilight Fancies,’ with one or
two little slips in the words, was not so successful as the
delightful movement of her ‘Venevil.’”
In February, 1932 she returned to Glasgow to sing in a performance
of Handel's Semele with Falkner, Margaret Severn and
Heddle Nash. Then on 20th May, she helped Beecham
promote Delius, by singing Vreli in the first broadcast of A
Village Romeo and Juliet with Jan van der Gucht as Sali
and Dennis Noble doing triple duty as The Dark Fiddler, Manz
and First Bargee. In June, Beecham took Dora to Paris, and then
to visit Delius, where he played most of A Village Romeo
and Juliet with Dora singing Vreli and Beecham doing what
he could as Sali. Her singing was exquisite and they stayed
till almost midnight.
For much of 1933, Dora was occupied with the demands of motherhood
after giving birth to a son, Paul, on 23rd March.
As she was still working, she did not seek maintenance for herself
or her son, but Beecham insisted upon drawing up a legal document
to provide financial support when she ceased singing. He also
agreed subsequently to fund Paul’s education. He would
call in from time to time to listen to the lad’s beginnings
at the piano.
On 12th November, according to The Musical Times,
"Sir Thomas Beecham inaugurated his chairmanship of The Music
Club with a delightful concert at the Mayfair Hotel. The programme
was of just the right length, and it was given under congenial
conditions...and (concluded with) the recently produced Idyll
of Delius, in which Dora Labbette and Dennis Noble were soloists."
Then at Queen's Hall on 30 November, she sang in Dvorak's Stabat
Mater for The Royal Philharmonic Society with Edith Furmedge,
Heddle Nash and Keith Falkner.
When Delius died on 10 June 1934, Beecham asked Dora to go immediately
to Grez to help Jelka with arrangements. Though Delius had asked
that he be laid to rest in a country churchyard in southern
England, this was not at the time possible, so he was temporarily
interred in a Grez churchyard.
Later that year, Dora was invited by the Oxford University Opera
Club to appear as Telaire in Rameau's Castor and Pollux.
Then, for the Leeds Festival she appeared on the morning of
3rd October to sing "Benedicite" by Vaughan
Williams with Sargent conducting and the next morning in Mozart's
Mass in C Minor with Elsie Suddaby, Heddle Nash and Keith
Falkner, Beecham conducting. Then, it was on to St. George's
Hall in Liverpool on 9th October to sing an aria
from Figaro and Delius’s "To Daffodils," "So white,
so soft, so sweet" and "Spring, the Sweet Spring," with Beecham
his inimitable self at the piano. On 9th November,
she gave a similar concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
at Colston Hall in Bristol, the same Delius plus two arias from
Figaro but as Beecham was indisposed, Hamilton Harty
conducted. For a Messiah on 13th December,
her last in Hull, she sang with Doris Cowan, Jan van der Gucht
and Robert Easton.
As has been shown, Dora Labbette had labored well and assiduously
in the admirable world of oratorio, but she always regretted
the lack of action. A few arias sung in concert simply whetted
her appetite to sing a complete opera. But who would take her
seriously? Blessed in her endeavors by baritone Dinh Gilly,
she took a tentative, first step in March 1935 when for the
London and Provincial Opera Society, with Barbirolli conducting,
she essayed Juliet in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet with
Lisa Perli, the operatic soprano
Now it was time for the fateful Bohème. Dora was
ready and to audition, she adjusted her blond wig and showed
up to see how she would fare. Beecham gleefully joined in the
fun; an Italian-sounding name was chosen as "Lisa Perli" was
born. As she explained, "I had two names while I was singing,
Lisa Perli and Miss Labbette. Harold Holt gave me the name `Perli'
as I was born in Purley."
She gave her initial performance as Mimi in La Bohème
on 28th September 1935 at the Garden with Clarence
Raybould conducting during a brief German-Italian season Beecham
held, allied with the Imperial League of Opera. The Daily Telegraph,
not fooled at all, trumpeted, "DORA LABBETTE A SUPERB MIMI!"
And in Crescendo, "It is a long time since I have heard such
a perfectly satisfactory all-round Mimi. Not only is the voice
beautiful in quality but she is a singer of rare distinction.
There are no conventions in her delineation of the pathetic
little girl. She is the girl herself, Mimi to the life." The
Cockney gal had triumphed. Brava! During a five-city provincial
tour that followed, "Lisa" proved she was no "one shot wonder,"
surely as Mimi in the flesh for most of fourteen performances,
the last coming in Leeds on 23rd November with Nash
and Dora and Beecham conducting. A memento, Act 4, of this combination
exists in a recording Columbia made soon after with the London
Philharmonic. It is a gem.
(What do you remember about singers you sang with?) "Harold
Williams was a nice man...a lovely bloke... Nash? Oh, he was
a very nice singer. I liked him very much and he liked me. He
was a bit tricky, you know, cause he always talked a lot and
he swore with every word almost and once…it was in Romeo
and Juliet...I was laid out on the bier, and he came up
to me and I said `You're on my train.' Well, off the stage he
went and came on again and he did it again. I said, `You are
still on my train.' He said, `Yes, and now the poison bottle
has gone into the bloody footlights. Now, you go and find it!'
Ha! Ha!"...All of course at a point when the plot dictated that
the unfortunate Juliet was quite dead!
the end of 1935, Beecham sailed to America for a third series
of concerts with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, beginning
on 2 January 1936. Dora accompanied him (see photo left - on
board at Christmas). Then back with Covent Garden during a visit
to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow on 9th March 1936,
‘Lisa’ sang with Nash in Romeo and Juliet
as Beecham conducted. He was again at the helm eight nights
later when she sang Mimi with Dino Borgioli, Stella Andreva,
John Brownlee and Robert Easton. Then late in August, she travelled
to Vichy where she sang Mimi in the Casino with Martinelli as
Rodolfo. It was the start of campaign that in the following
year would make Lisa Perli’s Mimi the toast of Europe.
The first appearance in Germany we have traced took place on
1 October 1936, when she sang Mimi with the Berlin State Opera
in Unter den Linden. Fortunately The Times in London
received a review from its correspondent there:
“German Praise For English Singer”. Miss Lisa Perli,
the English opera singer, had an undoubted success at the State
Opera in Unter den Linden last night when she took the part
of Mimi in the second performance of La Bohème
with the striking new Berlin setting. It is very rarely, indeed,
that an English artist sings as a guest in the German opera,
and it was a pleasure to note the enthusiasm with which her
dainty yet impressive performance was greeted in a country which
is particular in its choice of Mimis. Miss Perli, who sang in
Italian, fitted in smoothly with the rest of the excellent company,
and as the music critic of the Angriff put it, ‘overcame
the difference of language by a great naturalness’. ‘Her
interpretation of the part.’ he goes on, ‘was altogether
something rather unusual here, more simple and natural, more
delicate, and more deeply thought out than the German tradition
makes it. Equal tribute is paid by the critics to her voice,
and her management of it in the interpretation.’
Early in 1937 she sang the rôle of Mélisande in
Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in
Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées.
On hand were officials from Covent Garden, who afterwards pleaded,
"Lisa, you must sing Mélisande during the upcoming Coronation
season." And so, on 25th May 1937, she strode upon
the Garden stage as the only English principal in this very
French Opera with André Gaudin as Pelléas and
Vanni Marcoux as Golaud with Albert Wolff from Paris conducting.
The media in unison agreed she was making splendid progress
as "Lisa." She repeated her Mélisande in Bordeaux and
In the autumn of 1937 she was a guest singer at the Berlin Staatsoper,
and also at Munich and Dresden where she sang the rôles
of Mimi and Mignon. The latter opera was presented in Berlin
on 16th October, 1937 with Marcel Wittrisch as Wilhelm
Meister, Erna Berger as Philine and Josef von Manowarda as Lothario
with Werner Egk conducting. In Vichy she also appeared as Desdemona
with Giovanni Martinelli as Otello and Cesare Formichi as Iago
with Maestro Salfi conducting.
During a new Imperial League of Opera season at the Garden,
she portrayed Antonia in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann
on 6th December, 1937 with Ben Williams as Hoffmann,
Noel Eadie as Olympia, Monica Warner as Giulietta and Arthur
Fear as all three villains. Robert Ainsworth conducted as he
did four nights later when La Bohème was given
with Perli and Nash.
Dora Labbette had made the songs of Delius popular, so it was
right and proper that she was invited to Abbey Road on 11th
February 1938 to record: "Whither," "I Brasil," "The Violet,"
"Sweet Venevil" and "Twilight Fancies" with Beecham leading
the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
(And Gigli?) In June 1938, Dora sang twice in La Bohème
with the great Beniamino Gigli as Rodolfo..."He used to hold
my arm and use it like a pump to get his top notes out! Ha!
Ha! He smelled of garlic...all romance was gone!" That autumn,
she returned with the English Opera Company on 15th
October in Faust to sing Marguérite with Frank
Sale as the older Faust and Nash the younger after Harold Williams
as Méphistophélès had worked his magic.
Dennis Noble sang Valentine. When the Covent Garden English
Opera Company went on tour, "Lisa Perli" sang in Faust
with much the same forces.
Down under with trouble brewing
During the summer of 1940 Beecham sailed off to Australia with
his lady, the exotic "Lisa Perli" on his arm. Originally he
had planned to give four concerts in Melbourne but so great
was the demand for tickets that he agreed to conduct two more,
one a charity concert for the Red Cross on 9th July
in the Town Hall with Lisa making her first of her seven appearances
on the tour. She sang "Deh vieni" and "Voi che sapete" from
Le Nozze di Figaro and "Batti, batti" from Don Giovanni.
Two nights later Lisa and Harold Williams offered Brahms' A
German Requiem, especially poignant in view of the unhappy
times about to come.
Moving on to Brisbane, she sang at the City Hall on 25th
July in Handel's Messiah with Evelyn Hall, Godfrey Sterling
and Williams. For the occasion a Queensland State and Municipal
Choir swelled to 340 with the addition of nine local choirs.
During each lull in activity, Beecham would relate to Dora for
hours on end a host of now forgotten topics. Anyone familiar
with his autobiography A MINGLED CHIME can imagine the seductive
speech, even the nuances and accent. Could there be writings
from these fascinating sessions tucked away somewhere? But for
both it was not in general a happy time with Beecham dropping
acidic insults at every turn, signaling he was thinking of ending
his fascination with Dora.
In Sydney on 6th August, she appeared at a Grand
Patriotic Concert in the Town Hall, to offer an aria from The
Magic Flute, "Knowest thou the land" from Mignon,
and "The Nightingale," a traditional song arranged by Beecham.
On 24th August, she joined Heddle Nash and Harold
Williams in interpreting "Spring, The Seasons" by Haydn.
Next, moving over to Adelaide on 5th September, she
shared Dvorak's Stabat Mater with Evelyn Hall, Nash and
Williams. Then, at the Capitol Theatre in Perth on 18th
September, she participated in Messiah with Elsie Fisher,
Nash and Williams, as a final offering for the Aussies.
The next day Lisa and Beecham began a four day train journey
to Sydney, where a frustrating delay of eleven days awaited
before they could sail to Vancouver. Dora was filled with anxiety
over the safety of their son, Paul, then seven years old, and
left to endure the blitz. She longed to be on her way home to
be with him. From Vancouver, they travelled by train across
the vastness of Canada eventually arriving at Montreal, where
at the beginning of November 1940, Dora boarded ship for Britain
despite the high risk of being torpedoed by a U-boat en route.
Beecham intended to follow after completing engagements in Canada
and the United States. However, success at these concerts led
to a conductorship at the Metropolitan Opera in New York so
he remained in the USA. Dora later told her son that when she
bade farewell to Beecham at the dockside in Canada, she had
a strong premonition that he would never return to them. When
Beecham gave a concert in Vancouver on 7th November
1941, Miss Betty Humby played Mozart's Piano Concerto No.
24; she would soon become Lady Beecham.
Once back in wartime Britain, Dora resumed her career with a
series of broadcasts for the BBC that included operatic arias
with Boult and the BBC Orchestra. She also worked for the Motor
Transport Corps, delivering medical supplies to hospitals; acted
as water taster during a scare that the Germans were poisoning
reservoirs; and helped to raise money to equip the London Philharmonic
Mobile canteen, which she drove to the scene of air-raids to
provide refreshments to ambulance workers, fireman and beleaguered
She still dabbled in music although her heart was probably elsewhere.
When the BBC presented a studio performance of Boughton's Immortal
Hour in 1941, Dora appeared as Etain. In April that year,
a plan was put forward to record A Village Romeo and Juliette
with Dora as Vreli and Beecham conducting. Though he claimed
there was a unanimous demand for the piece, Walter Legge and
his confrères begged to differ and the project never
In the Spring of 1942 on tour with the Met, Beecham was conducting
Faust in Boston while Dora ironically was singing the
rôle of Marguerite in English in less glamorous circumstances
in a blackened-out Glasgow with the intrepid but thread-bare
Carl Rosa Opera during a three week stint at the Theatre Royal.
She alternated Marguérite with Mimi in La Bohème.
News of Beecham’s marriage to Betty Humby on 18 January,
1943 must have come as a devastating blow to Dora, because he
had continued to write to her in the most affectionate manner
even though he was deeply committed to Humby.
In April 1943, Dora decided to take part in a production in
English of André Messager’s operetta Monsieur
Beaucaire during a provincial tour culminating in a performance
in London’s West End. As “Lisa Perli,” she
portrayed Lady Mary Carlisle when the tour opened at the Grand
Theatre, Blackpool on 3 May, followed by openings in Leeds and
Edinburgh. It was well reviewed but box office receipts hardly
merited risking the London venture. And so, on 22 May, the final
performance at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal marked the closure
(almost) of Dora’s singing career. That year she made
a final appearance in opera fittingly as Mimi with Sadlers Wells
Though only forty-five and singing as well as ever, she felt
betrayed by Beecham’s abandonment and had lost the will
to continue performing. She moved to the village of Sidlesham,
close to the West Sussex coast to grow tomatoes, keep chickens
and breed spaniels.
Their son, a distinguished solicitor, now retired, reported
that "She never at any stage in her life kept programmes, press
reviews, etc. which held little interest for her, and in 1941
she destroyed whatever letters and papers she had in relation
to my father. I was seven when the relationship between my father
and mother broke up. It destroyed my mother's wish to continue
with her career, so she spoke little about it in later years,
though I was very conscious that her memories of it were very
precious to her."
In a letter just prior to her passing, Constance Shacklock,
recalled how as a newcomer on the opera scene, she encountered
the fabulous Dora..."I saw quite a few of her performances -
she was a great favorite at Covent Garden during the Beecham
days..." And fond memories were retained too by Isobel Baillie
and expressed in her auto-biography "...I rarely shared the
same platform or programme, though I did see one of my close
contemporaries, Dora Labbette, through many stages of her career.
I first saw her from afar in the 1920s at such engagements as
the Saturday afternoon ballad concerts...I admired Dora not
only for her singing but also for the way she looked, always
so elegantly dressed and always so beautiful! When, in 1935,
she was furtively transformed into a newly `discovered' soprano
`Lisa Perli,' Dora at last broke the chains of her reputation
as an oratorio and concert singer by which she felt constricted
and limited. Her subsequent stage successes were such that she
seemed the ideal person to contact when I realized that an appearance
as Marguérite in Gounod's Faust while on tour
in New Zealand was more or less inevitable. I visited her in
a house in St John's Wood, London, where she was preoccupied
with some war work. We grabbed a quiet corner with the score
in front of us and Dora gave me an idea of what stage actions
I should attempt."
In that late radio interview, one can sense the sadness, the
longing and everlasting love for Beecham, and the regret over
so many lost years. In her 86th year, with lung cancer
having metastasized to engulf her body, Dora suffered a stroke
and she died on 3rd September 1984 in Selsey, near
Chichester. Dora Strang departed this world near the glorious
cathedrals, site of many of her triumphs. Among the tributes,
Eva Turner in OPERA wrote: "She was renowned in the soprano
part in Messiah and I vividly recall her triumph as Mimi
in La Bohème at the autumn season at Covent Garden
in 1935. She was an outstanding artist but also a warm and lovable
personality (who) always rejoiced in the success of other singers.
Her sense of humour was quite delicious."
Not one to forget good friends, she remembered in her Will Kitty
Eisdell, then in Tasmania. This bequest, however, was not realized,
as Kitty predeceased her would-be benefactor.
Later during a radio talk about his famous parents, Paul Strang
noted: "My mother had a very remarkable voice. She developed
it at a very young age. I think she was 15 or 16 (?) when she
first sang at the Proms. She was very good looking too and had
a way of captivating audiences with a sort of innocent charm
which you don't find very much nowadays in the musical profession.
She always used to say, `Nobody died on the stage better than
I did.' It was actually true, as she seemed to have a penchant
for these tragic heroines, rather delicate, innocent and always
betrayed. She had a slightly long face with very remarkable
oval chin structure that I think must have had something to
do with the production of her voice as well. Very frank, open
eyes and a very disarming laugh, rather naughty; really, in
fact, she was quite naughty. She liked spicy stories and she
told them with a sort of impish delight."
From the humblest of beginnings, this determined lady had climbed
steadily to the heights, accomplishing all upon which she had
set her sights, except the one thing she desired the most, the
heart of her beloved.
First of all, a mighty "Thank you!" to Paul Campion in London
for delving into Dora's family background. I also wish to thank
Stewart Winstanley of the Delius Society for his rundown on
the 1929 Festival, Christian Springer in Vienna and Graham Oakes
in Wales for data concerning Lisa Perli's European exploits,
and Michael Bott in Bermuda for the 1932 Southport programme
with enclosed newspaper reviews as well as the Proms report.
Also much appreciated was information supplied by Norman Staveley
in Hull. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the help of
the late Denham Ford in providing special Beecham insights.
Radio interview of Dora Labbette by Ian Partridge, 1983.
News accounts and programmes.
“Thomas Beecham An Obsession with Music” by John
Lucas, The Boydell Press, 2008.
“Never sing louder than lovely” by Isobel Baillie,
"Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart, C.H. A calendar of his Concert and
Theatrical Performances" compiled by Maurice Parker with Supplement
by the late Tony Benson. Special thanks are due to Tony for
vetting the article, in the process calling upon his vast knowledge
of matters Beecham. As well, many thanks to others mentioned
in the text.
Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2010
issue of The Record Collector.