|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 28, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
So there you were in your late teens, a journalist, a very good golfer with a possible career in that, and a singer — you were just emerging as a really quite specially gifted singer — how did you choose which paths to take and, before we come to that, did they ever come into conflict with each other?
No, I don't think so, and I certainly didn't choose, I've always had this feeling that ... I'm a fatalist as you'll probably realise, but the pattern was already being made out for me, and I think events just led me into one and the other, and I have a strong feeling that's why one shouldn't really regret anything or look back because what's meant to happen is going to happen. And I always felt that if a good engagement came and something else in ... was about to put it off, alright, it's ... I was sad and it upset me at the time, but later on you realise, no, it was just as well it happened, and where my ... you might say feelings went, I loved whatever I was doing, I loved it, and I loved the golf when I was playing it and I loved working and I always loved studying, that was never any problem for me, I just loved studying.
Studying music, yes, languages, anything, I really enjoyed studying and that's why I always enjoyed practising golf. I would be seen hitting balls, you know, just hitting and practising when no-one else would be thinking of doing it ...
So you never saw it as a chore?
AAnd the same with your music practise, it wasn't ever a job you were made to do by anybody?
No, no. And I could never understand some of my friends who are, were, made to practise and if they didn't they would be in trouble, and I thought how ... how very funny ... [laughs]...
But that wasn't how you'd felt about your schoolwork, so what was the difference?
Oh, oh, that was ... oh, that was a ... very different.
Could you tell me what the difference was?
I'll try and put it simply, but one such as mathematics — maths one and two as they were called — they didn't interest me, and very few things ... didn't interest me, but they ... they didn't and I think that it followed in a line because ... nothing like that happened after I left school. I didn't have to be in at 9 o'clock or 8:30 or whatever, I didn't have to go and sit at a desk, I had my golf dates fixed, and I had my lessons and my, ha ha, my hourly worksheets for study of the violin or the singing, both subjects I loved, and for me there was a very ... it was as like black and white. The black was having to go to that desk and sit there all day and study things that I wasn't very keen on, as I say, I loved geography and I loved history, and I think that's about the full stop.
And so once you were doing music and golf, you could never be found in a swimming pool escaping what you had to do — you were there on time and ready to go?
Absolutely ... [laughs] ... Yes.
So what happened if you got a golfing engagement and at the same time you were asked to do something with your music ... how ...[interruption] would you sort that out?
... Oh no, there was no conflict there at all fortunately because golf's always in the daytime and daylight, and most of the singing engagements were at night. Mind you, I did have one big conflict later on, but I won't jump ahead now. We're progressing very slowly with my life aren't we?
Yes, you can jump ahead, what happened when you had a conflict?
Well, are you sure now because it's a ...
Yes. Between golf and music?
I was singing with the Carl Rosa [Opera] Company during the war within ... World War Two. I was in Manchester, and the British Open was on, being played over at Liverpool at Royal Lytham St Annes, and I had weeks before, of course, put in my entrance because my fellow golfers at the club that I belonged to in England, Bakersfield, they said, 'Oh you must go in for this, Joan, have a - have a crack you know,' you know my handicap, everything was legal, and I was still playing quite good golf. And I was tempted so I did. I filled in the form, put it in, paid my fees and the time came for the draw to come out, and it was fairly early in the morning, yes it was, because ... I didn't realise — many things I didn't realise but this was a very important thing I didn't realise — that in championships in Europe they played two rounds a day, and we don't here, or we didn't, we just played the one, and I'd never thought of that of course, and who was I drawn against but the USA champ Louise Suggs, in the first round. So I had a performance that night ... [interruption] ...
Did golf and music ever come into conflict for you?
I expect so, but not much, no. Really not at all in my youth when I was playing a lot of golf because I played in the daytime, and I had my music at night.
And found energy for both?
... [laughs] ... Yes, I had boundless energy obviously. And never thought really that I could be tired, I think that thought didn't reach me ‘til many years later. It's reaching me now.
Maybe you've a right to get tired occasionally now. So in the course of your life, these various interests, you were able to maintain them all ... and did you ever find a situation in which you were committed to one and it created a problem for the other?
Yes, yes, out at that wonderful course in from Liverpool, Royal Lytham St Annes, the British Open was on, and I was playing a lot. I was playing for the Buckinghamshire team, this is ... I'm never good on dates but around about in ... in the ‘60s, I think, about that time, and ... or late ‘50s oh it doesn't ... it's not important, but the thing, the thing was that I did have this conflict on one occasion when ... I was talked into entering the British Open because I had kept my golf going, and I was on a low handicap still, so I felt, yes, I was very tempted and I thought I'd love to play in the British Open. It used to be one of my dreams, so I felt this is the moment. I filled out the form and sent it in, my fees etc, then the draw came out and I realised for the first time when I saw the draw that they played 36 holes a day. That was on land mainly because we only played 18, and there I was booked to sing Tosca I think in Manchester, with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, and my golfing fun was way over at Liverpool, not that far really on the map but knowing I had two ... a performance that night, and two rounds if I got through the first round, it was rather shattering, and I realised that I had to go through with it, I couldn't withdraw with the ... you see, when I also got my opera dates, I didn't realise that the two were going to clash, so over I went, and I was drawn against the champion of the USA, a very very sweet person Louise Suggs, and we started off and I couldn't ... the hole was like a bucket, every blessed putt I hit went in, and the ... that was extraordinary as you know ... can imagine. Ha, and Louise was two down at the ninth, ha ha, I was two up and we had a giggle, and my great friend Lolita Marriott, really, it was then that she came to me at the ninth hole and told me that if I ... I've told you this back-to-front because I didn't know that they played the 36, that's right, I'm sorry ...
And you discovered this at the ninth hole?
I ... yes, she came and told me that if I won my match then, I would have to stay on and play in the afternoon, and that I couldn't ... I could not possibly have got back to Manchester in time, because the performances were all very early after the war. You know, they used to start at a reasonable time like 8pm before the war, but after the war it was anything from 6 o'clock that a performance would begin and it just depended on the city that you were in. Anyhow, she told me that and then I still say to this day it would have made no difference, Louise would have beaten me anyhow, but of course I did have this on my mind, and the hole was no longer looking like a bucket to me ... [laughs] ... but the game changed anyhow, Louise won, and she eventually won the championship so it was a great experience, I enjoyed it and I'd made that silly error.
And Louise has always been grateful to Tosca?
... [laughs] ... Oh ho, oh we had a good laugh about it and ... I've always upheld that I would never've won it anyhow, of that I'm sure, I would have cracked up later — sooner or later. But I ... [laughs] ... I had one big conflict that day.
Going back to the beginning of your career, back there in Sydney, what was it that really, do you think, made the difference for you in giving you an opportunity to develop as a world-class singer?
I had a wonderful fairy godmother — it's the only way I can describe Lady Gowrie, who was at that time Lady Hore-Ruthven, the wife of the Governor of New South Wales. This ... I feel that I'm boring anybody that's going to listen to this program because everybody now must know this story, that her ... to me, I seem to have said it time and again, naturally, because it was the big opportunity, the most wonderful opportunity that could have happened. I used to wonder what going overseas ... I'd only been to New Zealand with the golf team, that was the very first golf team that ever travelled outside of this country, I was in that. The baby of the team, and ... I naturally used to wonder what it would be like to go abroad, then ... there were only flitting things that just flew in and out of my mind at the time, I was so busy with all the other things, that I was having flirtations with: my golf, my singing my ... [laughs] ... my everything, and my writing and ...
... Lady Gowrie was at an afternoon soiree and ... she said that she was sitting on a very hot day and she could hear the bees and the flies and the everything humming around, and she was almost dozing off to sleep during the concert that was being put on for her ... she told it in such a fascinating way, I can't repeat it in the same manner, but she suddenly heard a voice ... and she described it as a peerless voice, and she said, ‘I woke up immediately, and looked down at the stage and saw this young girl.’ I went off having done my little bit, and I was very unhappy backstage because they ... the committee had not wanted me to be on the program as I was very young, I was not professional, and they had booked professional singers to give a program because of the magnitude of the occasion, having the Governor's wife there ...
So how had you got on the program?
Well this was ... I was pushed on it by someone that always played for me in Sydney, a Miss Lute Drummond — she always was Miss Drummond to me — she was at the committee meeting when they were deciding who should be on, and she thought, ‘this is an opening for this young girl, Joan, whom I play for,’ and she spoke up and put my name in and of course she was told no, not a hope. She went on pushing and someone else supported her. And in the end the committee decided that they'd let me go on and just do one little group in the first part of the program. Somewhere towards the end of it, coming up, and — of the first half I mean — so I went off, hurried off, picked up my bag, because the other singers had shown me all too clearly that I was not one of them, and that I shouldn't have been there, and I was very sensitive, I couldn't have mistaken their looks and their behaviour, and I stuffed my music in a very funny little bag I had, and off I went. As I was going out of the door, a lady came in, a lady came running up to me and she said, 'Oh umm Joan, they'd like you to sing again. Will you go back?' and I, of course, I didn't know what to say, and I said yes, yes, and back I went, and they said the request is also would you sing again The Green Hills o’ Somerset.
Which I see is on your piano ...
Ha, that's by accident, not by ... well, I won't tell you how.
And so you sang The Green Hills o’ Somerset again.
Yes, I repeated it. Then after I'd finished the second time, I knew — I sang something else, I can't remember what it was, but I received a note asking me to go to Government House on a certain date, and this was the opening because Lady Gowrie, Lady Hore-Ruthven then, had expressed the wish there and then on that very day that this girl — to find out what her circumstances were and whether she could afford to go abroad, or what could happen — she was determined that I should be given a chance to be sent overseas to study. She was so struck with my voice, and that was my big opening. And then she put all her feelers out and worked and of all ... things the golfers came in once she had expressed the wish. Because they didn't know, oh you know, that I was the singer, and everything was done for her, I knew it wasn't for me, of course not. But she was the one and it was she who wanted to see this thing through, and she knew that she could manipulate it, I think, from her position which was also very true, and she got the golfers interested, and they put on competitions some of them went in, and to get money in, and money began to go into this fund for me to send me abroad. It seems a trifling sum now, but it was a great deal of money in those days, a relative ...
... I think it was about 10 thousand.
Hmmm, so in those days there was really no way in which you could have advanced your career without going abroad, was there?
It was the only way out, and everybody knew that?
Yes. Oh yes.
So they rallied behind you and they got this money together, and the golfers lost their golfer though by supporting you as a singer?
Yes I ... I was told I was a very silly girl, to think of giving golf away, and at a stage when I was at the top on the lowest handicap and in Australia ... and I always remember Mr EJ Tate of JC Williamson’s, because he had asked me to play in a mixed foursome with him, and he wasn't a good golfer but he thought he'd like to play with this young kid, you know, heh heh. So I played in a mixed foursome with him, and after that he ... took me aside and he said, ‘You know, Joan, I've been in the theatre world for a long time’ — he was then pretty old, I suppose he was probably younger than I am now, but he seemed very old to me then — and he said, 'You're making a great mistake, going overseas and with this fund being got for you, you should stay here, you should be playing your golf,' he said, 'It's a much much better ... place for you.' But then there was no professionalism in golf in those days, it was all amateur, and I was wanting a career, a profession anyhow. Apart from my absolute determination and love of singing, I had to make a profession and I wasn't happy doing anything but singing by then, so I said yes, and I appreciated their ... his kind words etcetera, I said I'd think about it, but of course I ... there wasn't a doubt in my mind what I was going to do, but I thought it was very kind of him and he gave me a few inklings about the professional world because he knew I was a ... was as naive as could possibly be, and I suppose he saw all kinds of terrible things that would happen or could happen to me in the career that I was choosing. Later on I realised what he ... what he meant and what he was hinting at, but I didn't at that time, and again I say it wouldn't have made any difference.
Where did you go to study in Europe?
Vienna. Went from Sydney to Vienna.
What year was that?
... [The year] 1936, there you are, my maths is not that bad. Someone's sure to correct me and say ... [laughs] ... it was not but it was, 1936.
And how was Vienna, how did you choose Viennas your destination?
I didn't choose it, it was chosen for me. The Vienna Boys’ Choir was out here at that period, the director was having interviews naturally with everybody in Sydney to do with the musical world, and I think the committee that had been formed to ... to look after this trust for me, and the fund and organise it all, thought it would be a good idea to have a word with him, which happened and then they decided with Lady Hore-Ruthven's permission, because she was still the one in charge of everything, that it would ... would've ... would be a good idea perhaps to go straight there. Many didn't want that because they had the idea in those days that the German voices were heavy, and all manner of things which they were thinking for my sake of course. Some wanted me to go to Italy and some I think to England and anyhow it was settled and I went to Vienna, and it was also settled to, help my finances, that I went and lived with the Boys’ Choir up on the mountain behind Vienna, a very lovely position. It was one of Prince Rudolph’s old hunting places, had only one bathroom in it ... [laughs] ...
How did a girl ... from Australia ... get on with only one bathroom?
And the bath, the bath ... ohhh again, I ... this is a story that I ... I think I've told and told because it was a nightmare for me. The very first day, I was shown in and it looked lovely when I saw the two big rooms that I was allocated, and I thought there's a bathroom and toilet, everything there. Not at all. There was no bath or shower, no toilet, it was just a little washroom and I thought, how funny, you know ... and I went looking for them and of course couldn't find them, so I had to ask the rector where could I find the bathroom, and naturally would find the toilet, but I had to go to a strange place for the toilet because the little boys — it was all boys there, you see.
Were you the only girl?
... I was the only girl, but there was a countess living there, and the countess had the prince's rooms which were very beautifully set up, and a huge lovely bathroom, but that was the only bathroom in that house. I don't know how the boys washed, they were down in the basement ... [interruption] ...
Maybe they didn't.
No, maybe they didn't ... [laughs] ... well, this rector certainly got a shock when I said I must have a shower every day ... [laughs] ... I think his face'll change colour and he didn't know what to say at first, and then he said I have to have a word with the Gräfin Kinsky, and I ... of course, the Gräfin Kinsky, but I soon got to know her.
And that was the countess?
She was a charming charming person, and she used to help me with my German, she'd go around, we'd sit in the garden and she'd talk to ... with me all the time, and naturally I got to pick up the language much quicker, and she gave permission for me .. [laughs] ...to go and use the bath.
So you got your bath ... [interruption] ...
... Not really — not every day though.
What about your musical education ... what about your singing?
Well, I ... [Robin continues] ...
Did it turn out to have been a good place for you to go, Vienna?
... Again, that was fate, I mean there I was, the castle was wonderful because I had plenty of room to practise and the ... the director of the boys, he played for me, and I did a lot of work ... learnt a lot of Lieder and did a tremendous amount of ... work up there with him, because I had the time, but ... going to a teacher was very difficult because I had to go into Vienna, and I'd only ever had one teacher, that was at the Conservatorium in Sydney, see he did me no harm, in fact he ... it was just ideal because he neither did me any harm nor did I progress much, but the voice went on naturally, and I think he realised that if he did start tampering with it, [it] could possibly spoil something. Then they took me into Vienna, and I had to go by tram, which took 40 ... 40 minutes into the heart of the city, and from there — which was opposite the Opera House — I had to leave the tram there, and walk right down a street called the Kartnerstrasse, right down to the river, and go over to what was called the second district, and that's where this teacher was that the rector fixed up for me, and of course I didn't know whether she was good, bad or indifferent. She wasn't very good but she was a very sweet person, and that's when it makes it hard, when you know you're not progressing, and you've got to go on.
So you knew enough to know you weren't progressing?
Oh yes, oh yes.
How was that so — because you really hadn't had a great deal of exposure to anything that would have given you a standard to judge by?
No, no. I was very lucky because ... and I've always said, since, 'nature is the best guide of all,’ and I knew that if my ... muscles were aching, that something was wrong. And I was not singing correctly. And I sometimes ... after a lesson I'd find I had aching muscles, and I thought this is not ... no good. And I did most of it on my own. That was quite a time for me because when it became winter, I only had the thinnest of clothes, and the people in charge of me, here, sort of had no idea what winter meant in Europe, of course I didn't ... but I ... you'd think some of the older people did, and would have advised ... sent me off with some warm clothes. And I was wearing thin-soled shoes, my ... I kept little accounts — this is where my great mathematical brain was overused — I made a note of everything I spent every day ... the fares and my having my shoes soled, that was my most expensive item, having my shoes soled, because I walked everywhere. I couldn't naturally walk the tram journey, but I walked always from the Opera House right down across the river, which was quite some walk there and back. And ... my shoes just ... the cobblestones, that was another thing they weren't accustomed to, cobblestones, and the walk from the tram at the other end, up to the castle Wilhelminenberg - it was a long, long 20 minutes.
Having patrons who are paying for you and supporting you, to whom you must be grateful, must be a bit of a mixed blessing. Did you find it so? Were you conscious of the fact of being, as it were, accountable for everything to these women back in Sydney?
I never thought of them as women back in Sydney. I didn't think of anything like that at all, it's strange. I just thought, I am accountable, I must be accountable for all that I spend, and keep a record of everything that I spend, that I knew I had to do, and it was one of the first things I bought myself before I left Sydney was a little book with the pounds, shillings and pence, you know, what do you call them? Anyhow ... [interruption] ... you know what I mean.
Little account book. Yes, yes.
... to make a note of things, and so I really, all I did, I had the one person that I kept in touch with who was put in charge of that committee, and in charge of what I was doing, and she was the ... one of the top golfers and ... one of the leading, you might say, of our ladies’ golfing union. She was very high up in that, and I used to write and tell her what I was doing, what I ... and if I wanted something special, to buy a score or anything, what it was going to cost, and the money, and she would write back and ... the day came when I wrote and said I ... I had to have a fur coat. Well you can imagine what exploded back here in Sydney when they heard that Joan, little Joan, was wanting a fur coat. They envisaged a mink, a sable, you know, oh ...
You just wanted to be warm?
No, but all the ... all the winter coats in Europe are furs, every one of them. If they're not outside it, the lining is a fur, because it's the only thing in those wintry ... and they're calf fur ... everything, the cheapest, I mean, the cheapest coat of all has a fur inside it in the winter there, and ... mine was no ... no different, I mean, it would have been cheaper than my winter coat back here. But of course I didn't think of saying, well, look it ... it's only going to cost me so much, and it's the fur is in the lining or ... it wasn't a lining it was some ... a cow or calf or some ... I don't know, whatever they ...
Yes, yes. But you could ... but they didn't appreciate this. So did you ... [interruption] end up getting a coat or did you stay cold?
... No, they thought I ... they thought I was, you know, playing the prima donna, which I also didn't know what that meant at that stage. I'd heard the expression but I never thought of it in connection with myself, and you can imagine the heads wagging and saying she must think she's bigger than she is the ... [laughs] ... wanting a fur coat. I heard all this when I came back of course in 19 ... 46, I got the full strength of what went on and how they'd said how dreadful ... wasting the money that had been put in the fund for me to learn how to sing, to me wanting a fur coat at that stage. But I was, I suppose, the coldest person there who ever existed at that stage, and it made a big difference to my health later on, because I got cold after cold. I used to arrive up at the castle with my feet soaking wet because I didn't have boots.
... So did you ever get your warm clothes?
Oh, I got a warm coat in the ... in the end I had to.
... I also ... because I didn't know about warm underwear. You see you don't think of those things out here, naturally. I mean, our youngsters going abroad now must always think of the winter over there, it's very severe.
So what happened when you decided that your singing teacher wasn't quite up to scratch?
I had to make that decision of saying that I was not having any more ... lessons because of the cost. And ...
So did you change teachers?
No, oh well ... I did eventually, but I didn't go to one in Vienna. It was very hard, but I knew that I had to do it, and I can understand how students come up against this when they become attached to a teacher and they know that teacher is not ... really doing anything for the voice, and that they're not making the slightest bit of progress. And many of them fail and cannot ... haven't got the strength of character to say ‘I've got to change’.
... but you found that strength of character, and you did say that you would stop lessons?
... Yes, oh yes. Oh, I couldn't see any other way, I had to do it. I knew she was very upset, and I explained and I said I'm not going to anyone for a while, I'll just have to wait and see what I can do.
But in the meantime, it wasn't just the weather that was going cold in Vienna, because this was the period of the rise of the Nazis and the Anschluss in Austria.
That had already really begun before I arrived in Vienna, as I discovered later on from the boys at the castle, once I could begin to converse with them. I went around with my little dictionary, just as one of the senior boys did, and we used to quickly, you know, thumb through for the words we were wanting, and I didn't know ... I ... just as I was naive about so many things, I was about politics. I wasn't interested in politics, not a scrap, and this was going on really under my nose for a long time, until I realised that many of the boys there that I was talking to were all Nazis. That I ...
How did you realise this?
Well, because it was a growing concern in Vienna, Nazism, and it wasn't openly discussed, but the boys used to talk about it, and they would ... the question of the Jews kept coming up and you see my ... the teacher that I was learning from, this second district as they called it, was what was known as a Jewish district, and she was of course a Jewess, and I didn't ... I mean, that fact never occurred to me, and still wouldn't if I were there and wanted to go to a teacher, but I realised later on how involved they all were, and I'd just been going blithely along, getting on with what I wanted to get on with, which was studying roles, going to opera performances, and learning all that I could learn. And so this sort of idea of politics didn't hit me until nearer the time when Hitler did come to Vienna on one occasion, and while I was there, and it was all this ... I was just told, as I was in Florence, when he and Mussolini met there, I was ... I had the same thing happen only that was later, and ... those ... the full thing didn't really hit me because I wasn't interested.
Did you hear him speak?
... that was again ...
[end of tape]