|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.
You describe the girl who went over to Viennas very naive ... it was a very strange time for a politically naive girl to find herself in Vienna. What did you make of the Nazis? Did you have any contact with them?
Oh, I must have had so much contact with so many without even knowing. I couldn't at first, of course ... no-one could tell who was and who was not. I did realise when my singing teacher though ... there in Vienna she had a son and daughter, an extremely nice family who were all very nice, and the boy, Karl, well he was a young man, he ... did on occasions when I was talking to them after my lesson, just before leaving ... if he were coming in ... he was in army uniform, and I didn't realise that he was what they called a mischling, he was half-Jew, half-Christian. But he was so anti-Jewish. That was my first sort of realisation of how they felt, and how vehement they could be.
Was this self-protection for him?
I don't know, it could have been, because the mischlings were caught up in the knit when the Nazis eventually came in and took over Vienna. There was no difference, they were just the same as a Jew as far as the ...
Did you ever find out what happened to Karl?
Well I ... first of all, I'll just say that he used to complain about the family upstairs, the noise they used to make, and they were very solid homes there and that ... everybody could practise ... this was what was really wonderful in Vienna in those ... they were all flats, nearly all flats that they lived in, but big, big flats and very thick walls, so I would be having a lesson there on the third floor and ... possibly down underneath was a cellist or something else. The ... the flats were all used as the working places as well as their homes, and Karl would ... go mad at times about this family up above, saying that they're ... they were 'Juden,’ they're Jewish and all ... it was foreign to me, it was ...
What did you think of it, what did you feel about it?
I find ... I thought he was a bit peculiar, quite frankly, I didn't understand what ... why, why the Jew, why why was he making such a fuss ... about a Jew and a Jewish family. Again, of course, it was my naivety that led me into all these nice thoughts that there's some ... that it couldn't be what I was thinking, that they couldn't really be so anti anything or anyone. Then ... I left the mother, of course, and eventually I didn't hear any more, the ... oh, the Anschluss, the coming into Vienna took place and, as you all probably know, that the famous Kartnerstrasse the next day almost ... they had to put outside in Jewish, Yiddish, that their shop was Jewish-owned, and nearly every shop of course in that particular street was under Jewish control. It took place so quickly ... and the changeabout. The only thing I noticed was in the coffee house that I used to go to — for just a cup of coffee that didn't cost me very much I could read the daily papers because they were all there ... [laughs] ... you had ... I got them for nothing in other words if I had ... sat there and had my coffee and read a few papers while I was at it, and this changed for ... because again that was Jewish-owned — and the couple of weeks later when I went into my old haunt, it was ... there was no nice lazy atmosphere about it at all, everything was very brisk and, you know, you had your coffee and that was that, and there was no sitting and reading a paper then, the lazy life had vanished, I think, almost overnight.
But ... when I went back in 1946 ... I suppose I was one of the first to go back to sing in Vienna, of the foreigners, and ... one of the first things I did was to walk down and go over the bridge and ... but the building that they had lived in had been destroyed. I couldn't find anybody that had [met] or knew anything about them, until I met a — quite by accident in the street in Vienna — another student that used to go to this lady, and I asked her did she know anything that had happened to the family, and Karl and Maria, the son and daughter. And she was able to tell me that Maria and her mother had gone to Salzburg, but she had a feeling that the mother had died. Maria was still there. And Karl, of course, she didn't know what had happened to him, because she thought he was in the army but whether he was or what happened I wouldn't know. So I really lost all contact with them.
... [question repeated] ... Did you ever hear Hitler speak?
Oh yes. I certainly did, much to my chagrin. I can say that very honestly because when I was then singing with the opera company it was put on the noticeboard, what they call a 'generalprobe', which is a general rehearsal, and everybody but everybody in and to do with the opera company had to attend and we all sat in the auditorium, anywhere you know, we just sat anywhere, and I can remember there were three Norwegians and myself, and a Greek, I think a couple of ... Yugoslavs. We were the foreigners with the company and I was about in the eighth row back in the stalls, and one of our conductors was sitting along from me, and it came on the screen. And there was Hitler delivering his speech that we all had to listen to, whether we were of Austrian, German, Australian, Yugoslav or what, we had to be there, we had to be present.
What did you think of it?
Oh I ... I thought he was mad, I mean, he used to ... his voice would go rising up here and then one way and his hands would go up and then he'd drop it down and he had a funny voice really to me. It was a very peculiar little voice.
Was your view shared by your other ... friends?
Oh no, I don't think so, all the locals you know ... the Norwegians ... the couple of Norwegian girls they, I think, were with me, not that we could express anything or say anything or do anything, but they didn't go mad like ... as the others did, and I was very surprised to see this conductor getting so excited, and they were all sitting on the edge of their ... the seats there, and looking at this face on the screen, with absolute — it was ... just as though he was an idol, a god, and they all obviously felt this. But I thought the ... he ... at that time he was raving too about Chamberlain and the British, and of course that's when I wanted to sink down, I'd say 'God listen to that', lower in my seat, and oh he ... really raved on about it. And the whole thing was, they were all looking in to ... see what my reaction was, looking along the ... the row, ha, and I never like attention in that sense. I'd never minded being on stage and everybody looking at ... that was different, but in my personal life I always just wanted to be seen but not seen.
Did you feel the danger of the situation?
No, no. I didn't at all.
So you just felt embarrassment, not danger?
Oh, when they [the Nazis] came in, all we were asked to do was to wear a little British flag on our lapel, that the consulate handed out to us. We had to wear that, and ... it was all so quick, the night they sort of walked in and took over, it ... you might say it was like an organised rehearsal and a performance taking place. It was so well-organised and so ... you know, everything very military, and even the ... I mean, the next day the difference was so noticeable because it, as you know, there was ... not a shot was fired, nothing happened in that way at all, it was just a change. The whole city took on a different atmosphere, different mood — they couldn't change the people overnight but there must have been a lot of gnashing of teeth and weeping, I should imagine, in many many homes after that event. No I wasn't ... I had no fear whatsoever.
So what made you leave?
Oh yes. Hmm. One of the most important things of all ... I ... [laughs] ... I was just beginning to wonder what did make me leave. Of course, I had a very important engagement — two, three in fact — offered to me in London, because when I'd gone over for a holiday that, again, my fairy godmother Lady Gowrie had arranged that I should go to London, for the coronation, and she wanted me to be there for that so she had separate little ... bit of money put aside to pay for my fare and I was given accommodation in London. I was there for that and while I was there I auditioned and I sang for the ... I gave an audition for Sir Thomas Beecham ... and [Stanford] Robinson on the BBC ... and, as a result of my audition with Sir Thomas, he had sent me, through an agent in London, a contract for the Messiah, to sing the soprano solo in the Messiah. There was that and the BBC booked me for I Pagliacci and I'd sung I PagliaccIn Vienna — in German of course, everything I had to learn in German — but they offered me the contract if I would sing it in English when I came over, and I of course I did; that was my first opera in English you might say. But ... when the time came in '39 for the Promenade [Concert] — that's the opening of the promenade season in London — Sir Henry Wood, he booked me on hearing me. It was rather ... I often thought, I don't know how but, I ... I was, yes, a good musician, I did know my work, and I had the voice, and I think these things combined must have been really the reason that I was booked ... I didn't think at the time, I just thought oh lovely, I'm booked, wonderful.
But it was a bit extraordinary, this girl who hadn't really had any very good training up to this point, was never-the-less being booked for the very best engagements?
And so you went across for the Proms in ...
... for the Proms ...
I had no ... now, this is the other funny thing, well funny, it's actually very serious, because ... I had not thought of war or the imminence of war because I was reading the Austrian papers, and naturally if ... perhaps I got the Manchester Guardian or something that I used to be able to read on occasions, I could never afford to buy it, but if I saw a copy somewhere in a coffee house I'd look at it. But if I had been reading my own country's papers I would have known that things ... [interruption] ... were very serious.
The British ... The British Embassy didn't do anything to suggest that you might get out?
Oh no, no. No no no.
Right. So you were back in London for the Proms, so why didn't you go back to Vienna then if you had no sense of danger?
I couldn't ... I'll tell you why. When I had arrived in London, I went to the rehearsal and I heard all the chat going on, of course, about war and what was happening, and my ears were ... antennae were really on the TV ... because I had no idea of the situation. None whatsoever, and I was so sort of brought up ... like pulling a horse up at a gate or a water jump. I suddenly realised what was happening, and my things, my few things that I possessed in those days, were in Vienna, and here was I in London.
I hope you had your fur coat with you.
... [laughs] ... I can't remember ... [laughs] ... And this extraordinary thing about to burst. Then I had a cable from Lady Gowrie who again said don't go back to Vienna
So, in retrospect, given how naive you were, it was just as well you had a fairy godmother?
Oh, in so many ways and right throughout my career, she was always behind me. Wonderful.
So back there in Australia, she was able to work out better than you could on the spot?
Oh yes. Oh well, so were the ... I mean people ... I had not, well, I didn't know that many people of course in London then, and everybody there, that I mean ... the whole ... everybody's conversation was about what was going to happen, the inevitability of war. In the ... that became so and I realised that I would have to think seriously. I would have been interned of course if I'd been in Vienna. So ...
So in London ...
... there's ... there's another extraordinary thing. My career would have gone in quite another way if I had remained in Vienna. I would have been a, more or less a Viennese singer, and not coming through the sort of British avenues at all.
How would ...
I would never have made O My Beloved Father if I'd been stuck in Vienna. There was so many things, so many ifs that ... I just think, no, therefore, that's the pattern. That's what's going to happen, so ... I really never struggled or to go against what took me this way or that way. Though I seemed to realise that there were forces working that I had nothing to do with and I just had to go that way or that way, according to what was put down.
So what then happened? During the war you spent the whole of the war years in England?
And what happened then? What ... did you participate in the war? What was your contribution to the war effort?
My contribution? I began ... I tried to join the WRANS [Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service] first. That ... that's the Women's Royal Navy because of my love of the sea and yachting but, believe it or not, I had what was called ... not a defect ... my arm.
Disability. And they never took on anybody that had a disability. Mind you, towards the end of the war, they would have taken any or all of us on who had disabilities or no disabilities, but at that stage that was the ruling and I remember a very very sweet person that I was interviewed by saying, well, perhaps it's just as well, you can get on with your singing. Like that. Well of course with the singing everything stopped. The theatres were closed, no ... nothing, nothing in the world of entertainment was going on at all, once the war was declared that ... all my ... I had contracts for the — which I was very thrilled about — Three Choirs Festival, and I had quite a lot of small engagements, but good ones, and that was one of the plums, they were all cancelled.
What about entertaining the troops?
That came later ... after about ... I suppose ... in what we call that first year where everything was sort of, nothing happened, it was ... they had a special term for that year of the war when the Canadians, the Australians, they were all arriving in England, the troops, and there was no war going on for them you know, so ...
Everything was on hold?
So the first big thing that started up was ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association] ... and ENSA — that was the organisation for entertaining the troops — after ENSA there was another one that I ... worked for ... this, well it'll come later, anyhow they started doing concerts ... in the most incredible places, in ... I can see this big block of flats down by the Thames, and there was the cellars and the underground ... the basement, right, I mean if a bomb had hit it, it would have been like a pack of cards coming in on us, these shelters, air-raid shelters they were called with sacks of sand, you know, piled up and it was all so rushed and nothing really would have saved us, of course, but there we entertained some troops and we were ... went out to gun sites, all very ... [laughs] .. .I won't say ...
It was rough and ready?
Not a good environment to sing in?
No, not at all.
And everybody was so happy because there was no fighting and nobody really thought of bombing then. That hadn't begun, but we were just ... it seemed a sort of farcical situation really and I was asked to sing Roll Out the Barrel and of course I wouldn't, and I said I haven't been trained for that, ha ha.
... [Chuckles] ...
Oh dear, as though it mattered. But ...
You need a lot of training to sing Roll Out the Barrel.
... [laughs] ... I said I can sing it — but I won't. The ...
But later of course you did get a full ... great opportunity to use your craft?
Oh heavens, yes.
Once the war began in seriousness, and I mean we were being bombed and everything, sudden ... everything changed. The theatres began to open, opera was one of the few things that didn't get going until about 194 ... not a ... not just Covent Garden, that became the mecca, the big mecca coffee place, and it was used for everything but singing and opera. It didn't return really until about '46, '47, ‘til it was used again for opera. But the Carl Rosa [Opera Company] started up, and that's how I first got back into singing what I would normally be doing, opera. And they were the ... it was the only company and it went on tour, it was wonderful really what they did.
And you also began recording, didn't you?
Well, that happened in 1942, I think, '41 ... I auditioned for that again ... there was a New Zealand bass called Oscar Natzka, he had a lovely voice, and Oscar though ... you know the New Zealanders and the Australians, we used to meet in Australia House sometimes and in odd places, and Oscar said, 'Joan, you must go and audition for EMI' and I didn't know what even EMI stood for then. He said, 'You know, Parlophone,' he'd just auditioned for Parlophone, and His Master's Voice, and Columbia. I said, 'Oh yes,’ and so I applied and I went and auditioned, and I was turned down. When I was turned down by the man to do with classical, a man called Oscar Preuss on the EMI was also present, and ... he afterwards said, 'I was very glad when Walter Legge turned you down,' he said, 'because I've got a contract for you with Columbia' and ... I was ... there you are, one of those things. And this came off and so ... Legge was then instructed later on, once I'd come out on Columbia, having a big success, and he had to have me under the classical, and it was a very interesting period. So ...
What did you record for Columbia? Was that where you did ... O My Beloved Daddy?
No no. No, that came later. I think my first one was ... Green Hills I think was one ....
... The Green Hills o’ Somerset.
And then you ...
... And I've ... oh ... if my mathematical brain's not working neither is my other side ... [laughs] ...
That's alright, it doesn't matter, so when ... so later you did O My Beloved Daddy?
That was the first aria, yes.
... when I had an operatic side come out, and again my ... Walter Legge was the one I had to deal with for that.
And he didn't want this little O My Beloved Father; the selling side was going to be Love and Music from Tosca, that had been settled, that was the record, and that was what was going to sell the record was Love and Music, but we had to find another short one. I'd already got the three shortest, the last act [of] La Boheme, and there was one other but it all the Puccini arias and they were never very long, but we wanted the shortest to go on the other side of this. And I kept on saying this Gianni Schicchi, and what did he have against it, but he thought it was no ... it was even too small a thing, and not known enough to even go on the flip side as they called it then ... Anyhow, it got nearer the time of the recording session, and the conductor was quite happy to have the O My Belovedand we still couldn't get Mr Legge's approval, and so it went on, and then in the end he had to because ... time beat him anyhow, and so it was ... it was just more or less put on against the will of one of the directors.
Why do you think it was such a phenomenal success? It really was an amazing success, wasn't it?
Yes, it was, yes. I ... you see, it was given to fathers ... and the daughters and the sons would make presents of this to their father ... became a sort of family thing, and I can only think of the words because I had to sing it in English. Everything, by the way, during the war years had to be sung in English. Everything. And remember for me that wasn't that easy because I'd had to learn everything in German, all the ... my repertoire there, everything: Tosca, Butterfly, Boheme, whatever I sang all was in German, so I was now in the period of getting them in English and I was always very keen on diction, clear diction. I think this had a bearing also ... that the words, they could follow the words, and the words sank in, perhaps my interpretation, all had ... anyhow, poor Tosca was not the happy side ... you might be interested to hear that during a performance of mine at Covent Garden of Tosca, that after the Love and Music, the aria, a voice came after the applause was dying down, shouted from the ... one of the galleries, 'And now let's have the other side of the record!' — ha!, meaning O my beloved.
How did you handle that?
Oh it was ... everybody laughed of course, the audience burst out laughing it was so funny. Yes. In the middle of the opera.
Did you have a great sense at this time of being very much loved by the audience?
I was getting it. In the concerts that I was doing around the place, I knew then that I was gathering a following. You can ...
What does ... [interruption] ...
You have a feel, a rapport, somehow with an audience, and I always knew when it was going to be tough for they ... were not taking to me in foreign places when I was about to sing, I could sense it, you sense it when you go on stage and you first bow to them, and then on the other occasions, in fact everywhere in the British Isles, I always knew I had this wonderful warm applause, and I knew that I had that love then, but in a lot of other places I had to make it, I had to earn it, before they acknowledged that I could sing.
What did you ...
Where they ... where I was not known, you know, or perhaps known through my recordings but ...
What does it feel like to have the whole audience rise up in a standing ovation? What are the feelings of the singer when that happens? What were your feelings?
I can ... the ... yes, I was just ... about to say I can only speak for myself here. It may sound strange but I hardly ever realised then the ... the great noise of the audience clapping. I really, I stood there and acknowledged it, but I didn't realise the depth and the sound of that applause. Just as on one occasion in Liverpool when with Sir Malcolm Sargent I'd finished singing the Elgar, oh it was on the 11th of November, a special concert for that date, and the armistice, the memory of it all, the For the Fallen was the Elgar piece that I did before we did the Verdi Requiem — that was just for soprano and orchestra — and when I'd finished and Sargent's baton was still, there wasn't a sound, it's the only time that I've had that feeling where there was no applause, absolutely nothing, still ... so still. No-one moved, and then suddenly they all jumped up. That was the ... one of the most amazing things that happened to me in my career, because it was quite amazing, the ... as a rule when the conductor finishes and that's the end of whatever it is we're doing, applause comes immediately, but on this occasion there was that ... to us it seemed like minutes but of course it wasn't.
What sort of emotions did you feel ... is it feel? Is it very emotional when you stand on stage?
That was very emotional, yes. And so it is when the audience stand up and come right down to the stage. Right down to you. Hmm. And I think I ... underneath my bravado I was always saying thank you anyhow as I bowed, but I think I was very thankful about so many things.
Did it ever go to your head?
No, I think I could quite honestly say no. I went through a period when I wasn't very happy with myself and I thought I was better than I was, but I knew that I was going down the wrong route, and I ... pulled myself up in time.
When was that?
That was soon after the war, I think, when ... everything was a bit ...
Things really took off for you?
Hmmm. And don't forget the rationing was still going on, went on for many years after the war, in England. I think it was readjusting, and I think I got a ... a bit swollen in the head, but thank God that I realised it, and knew that I must ... it was so foreign to me anyhow, my behaviour, and I just took stock and thought no, you're not ... this is not you.
Well, of course a lot of people assume that's how prima donnas are going to be. Don't they?
Do you know I put it down to the fact that I was insecure, and I think that was the entire secret behind my behaviour. I was insecure because I wasn't very happy with my voice. I wasn't happy with the way I was singing, and ... I realised that the war years, and what I ... the strain, the emotional strain, and the nights of the bombing when ... I must admit I was pretty frightened on many occasions, I think it all ... it was taking its toll and .. I was trying to get myself back and my voice was not ... because I wasn't eating as I used to eat, we didn't get the butter, and you know in Germany and Russia, singers were on the hard ... the labourers’ rations, they got the full rations, but of course we didn't. But they were as ... a hard ... a worker was on full, what they called full, rations — only the army and the services and people doing hard, hard work were on full ration in Britain, but we were just the same as you or anybody else who were not singing. Nobody took into account what singing does and how much energy ... energy it takes. And I think all that because I did ... for you ... I ... soon after, I think putting it all together, that's what happened.
The strain started to tell.
Yes, and that was the insecurity of my work. My voice ...
... And so your behaviour became more assertive and got a touch arrogant, but it was really because inside you felt the opposite?
In trying to cover up.
During the war you didn't just sing, did you? You made other contributions to the war effort, you were an ambulance driver at one stage?
How did that come about?
Oh, I'd joined the ambulance when there was nothing happening straight away and ... I didn't do anything either. I was first in Clerkenwell, near Saddler’s Wells there, then I was stationed down at ... in the East End, and then I saw another side of life that I didn't think existed. I learnt a lot in that time with the ambulance.
What kind of things?
Well, I saw a side of life that I had never known existed, for instance, I ... had to go to one call where there was only one tap in a building of seven floors, and one tap right down in the basement that everybody in that building had to go to get water. Well, I didn't think that existed ... in perhaps Charles Dickens' time ... [laughs] ... I'd ... it must have been sort of a throwback from there, the same building, because really I had no idea, and to get the stretcher down was a nightmare, and well, two girls, only two of us, and I had this trouble. I ... I was the driver, but I had to help out on occasions with the stretchers, and that's when it really upset me because of my arm, and I wasn't meant to do that but all [the ] many things that you are not meant to do, you have to do on occasions.
So, all of this was a strain, and you used to go to and from on your bike, didn't you?
Yes, ha, from Chelsea, ‘round that area there, and I had my poodle at that stage, I'd been given a poodle, and I thought now how ... I'm not going ... I'm not leaving — Pippo his name was — I'm not leaving him anywhere, where I go he ... he came to concerts in Wales and he sat under the piano while ...
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