Marjorie Lawrence 1907 – 1979
- Marjorie Lawrence 1907 – 1979
Marjorie Lawrence 1907 – 1979
Marjorie Lawrence was born on 17 February 1907 at Dean’s Marsh, a small farming community near Geelong in Victoria.
After she won the 1928 Geelong Sun Aria contest, she headed for Paris, where Brownlee recommended that she study with Cécilie Gilly.
Marjorie Lawrence made her debut as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at Monte Carlo in January 1932.
‘Marjorie Lawrence was a great inspiration to both of us when we were growing up in Sydney in the forties,’ wrote Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. ‘She gave wonderful concerts and recitals and we were always there. We were privileged to know her when we went to Europe and to know her was to love her. We were thrilled when she came to our performances and doubly thrilled when we all appeared together at the Rights of a Child Concert for the 30th birthday of UNICEF in New York in 1976. Her courage stands as an example to every musician and in fact to mankind.’*
Marjorie Lawrence was born on 17 February 1907 at Dean’s Marsh, a small farming community near Geelong in Victoria. Her father was a good baritone, her mother played church organ, and her six brothers and sisters were talented singers and musicians. When she was 18 Lawrence took a job as a domestic servant in Melbourne, earning enough money for singing lessons from Ivor Boustead, who had also coached John Brownlee. After she won the 1928 Geelong Sun Aria contest, she headed for Paris, where Brownlee recommended that she study with Cécilie Gilly. Her progress was rapid.
Marjorie Lawrence made her debut as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at Monte Carlo in January 1932. The following year she auditioned for the Paris Opéra. She sang some of Ortrud’s music from Lohengrin, knowing there were few singers who could handle the demands of the role – and it was as Ortrud that she made her Paris debut. By 1934 she was one of the most highly paid artists on the international opera circuit. New York heard her stunning mezzo for the first time on 18 December 1935, when she sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. ‘The audience was taken by storm’, reported The New York Times, ‘and a burst of applause interrupted the performance.’ She made headlines a few weeks later when she galloped on a horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre in Götterdämmerung.
Lawrence was one of the Met’s shining stars for nine years, tackling 12 roles in 74 performances, including a sensational Salome in 1937. Though she longed to sing Wagner at Bayreuth, her conscience would not permit her to sing in a Germany under the Nazis. Instead she decided to come home.
In 1939 Lawrence made a concert tour of Australia under the management of Archy Longden. On 17 June, amid an avalanche of publicity, she gave her first Australian concert in the austere setting of the Globe Theatre at Winchelsea, which her father had built and of which, incidentally, she was a part owner. Her subsequent Melbourne Town Hall concerts were packed, but she failed to draw audiences in Sydney. Longden claimed unfair competition from the ABC, which had recently toured soprano Lotte Lehmann. A campaign by some of Sydney’s most prominent women ensured a full house for her last appearance. It was so successful that Lawrence agreed to an extra concert for the ABC. She sang the closing scenes of Götterdämmerung and Strauss’s Salome with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and ‘the Town Hall rocked on its foundations with the thunders of appreciation.’ Soon after, because of the war, the ABC banned any music for which living German composers would receive royalties, and decreed that its artists should use English translations when they sang German lieder.Lawrence capped off her Sydney visit with a season at the State, one of the city’s great picture palaces.
‘This will let me sing to Australian people who could not afford to hear me at the Town Hall’, she explained. ‘The musical standard will not be lowered, but I shall sing songs that I consider will interest an average Australian audience.’ She started with Elisabeth’s Greeting from Tannhäuser.
On 29 March 1941 at the height of her fame, Lawrence married Dr Thomas King, an American osteopathic physician. Soon after, while she was singing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in Mexico City, she was suddenly unable to stand. Poliomyelitis was diagnosed. With the same determination with which she had tackled her career, she tackled her disease. The controversial Australian, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, assisted with her treatment.
It was only 18 months before Lawrence re-appeared in public. In 1942, seated in a wheel chair, she sang at a concert in Minneapolis. She returned to the Met, singing Venus in Tannhäuser from a divan. She appeared at the Met for the last time in 1944 – though she did take the stage as an ‘honoured guest’ for the gala that closed the old Met in October 1966.
In 1944 Lawrence sang in concerts in Australia for J. & N. Tait and travelled 50,000 miles entertaining wounded and disabled troops in the South-West Pacific. She sang in occupied Europe in 1945 and 1948. The French Government awarded her the Diamond Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.
By 1947 Lawrence was able to sing from a standing position, albeit strapped to a contraption designed by her husband. With this supporting her she sang Elektra with the Chicago Symphony in December 1947. She toured Australia again for J. & N. Tait in 1949.
In 1951 Lawrence returned for the ABC. She sang in acclaimed concert versions of Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Salome under Eugene Goossens and, in Melbourne, made her only appearance in fully-staged opera in this country: she was a splendid but sedentary Amneris in the National Theatre Movement’s Victorian Centenary Arts Festival production of Aida at the Princess.
Lawrence retired from public performances in 1952. She was Professor of Voice at Tulane University, New Orleans (1957-60), and at Southern Illinois University (1960-73), where she was also the director of the Opera Workshop, opera productions, and established the Marjorie Lawrence Opera Theatre. In 1974 she joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and also ran opera workshops at her home in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
In 1976 Lawrence visited Australia for the last time. She attended the season opening at Sydney Opera House and sang ‘Waltzing Matilda’ at a Music for the People concert in Melbourne. She was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1977 for her services to performing arts.
Lawrence’s autobiography, Interrupted Melody, was published in 1949. It was filmed in 1955 with Eleanor Parker as Lawrence and Glenn Ford as her husband. Eileen Farrell provided Ms Parker’s singing voice.
Marjorie Florence Lawrence died on 13 January 1979 at Little Rock, Arkansas. Her papers are preserved in the Southern Illinois University and there are copies in the National Library at Canberra.
*quote courtesy of Marjorie Lawrence International Vocal Competition, Opera Music Theater International, Washington DC; www.OMTI.org
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Helen Griffin: ‘Marjorie Lawrence’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 10
Royston Gustavson: ‘Marjorie Lawrence’ in The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, 1997
Marjorie Lawrence: Interrupted Melody, Invincible Press, 1949
Marjorie on a bike