|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 29, 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've told us how your voice was like an instrument that you carried around with you, and that you had to look after, and that you'd learned a lot about how to look after it after the Australian tour and the problems you had then. Did that mean that you had no more problems with your voice after that whole retraining and relearning of your voice technique that occurred when you returned from Australia, or did you ever again have a difficulty with it?
It would be very silly of me, ha ha, to say I didn't have anything happen after that in such a long and full career, but of course ... I can recall one very unhappy incident at something that was quite beyond my control or even that I could have any knowledge about. For some unknown reason I was in Manchester singing away, and suddenly my voice went. And ... I had come to the end of a group, and I went backstage, and it was just croaky, completely croaky, so I had to go back and apologise for the rest of the program and say how sorry I was, that I had had a cold, and I had no cold, nothing at all, but I had to say something, so that's what I said, and suddenly it was back again. So I continued, I went on with the program and I had a day in-between, and nothing, it was quite normal, and the following night I had to sing again, and the same thing happened, not at first but during the program, and of course I really was getting concerned, more than concerned, and then it kept on coming and going, coming and going, the voice. And I think ... thought this is most peculiar, isn't it, I've got nothing wrong with me so I rang my specialist friend in London, and explained that, and he said, oh, he said, 'You must have some sort of cold or something.' I said, 'No I haven't, not a thing.’ He said, 'Well when you come back, come and see me. So, of course, when I got back to London I went straight to see him, and he looked at the chords, he said, 'No they're perfect, there's nothing wrong with them.’ I said, 'Well, what is happening? I can only tell you that it goes as though I have a cold, and completely croaky, and ...' I said, 'My speaking voice as well, naturally, same chords.’ So he said, 'Joan,' he said, 'could you be ... hmm ... becoming nervous?' and I said, 'No, not a chance. No.’ He said, 'You ... is anything worrying you?' I said, 'No, no. I know my work, I'm up to date with everything.’ And he said, ‘But it must be,' he said, ‘it must be sort of nerves.’ I said. 'It just cannot be. I'm always a little nervous before I go on, yes, always,' and I said that's because I hope and pray that I will remember my words and the music and that nothing like that will occur, that I could forget anything, and I'm just nervous ‘til I get on the stage and the voice comes and out — then I'm settled. Well, it was a puzzle for him and of course a big puzzle for me. I had to go off the following day to Amsterdam, sing Verdi Requiem. I got to Heathrow, feeling fine, everything alright, and then suddenly my voice went again. Thank God it was before I got on the plane, but I got on the phone immediately to Ivor and I said, 'It's happened now and I'm just about to catch a flight to Amsterdam,’ and he said suddenly, he said, 'Are you on any pills or anything?' and I said, 'Yes, I am, I damaged my knee up in the woods the other day, I lifted a big seat and I lifted it on my knee,' and I said it gave me a terrible jolt, and that upset it, because I was doing Madame Butterfly, I had three or four performances and I ... I've been through two and the third one I had this trouble come during a performance, and the doctor, the local doctor, said, 'Oh don't worry, I'll put that right, I'll give you some pills for it.’ And he said, 'What are the pills?' So I said, 'Just a moment,’ and I picked up the box and I read Cortisone, and I said ‘Cortisone'. He said, 'Oh my god.' He said, 'When was your last period?' I thought, what on earth does a woman's period have to do with all this? Well, I said, ' It was during this period yes.' And he said, 'Now don't sing, cancel everything until your next period, and come in and see me immediately.’ So I hung up and I rang my agent to tell them they'd have to get someone else to go over and sing the Verdi Requiem, and into town I went and saw Ivor, and he looked at the chords again, nothing wrong with them, nothing wrong. He said, 'You could sing six Aidas if you wanted,' and I said, 'No, I just want to sing at the moment' ... [laughs] ... It wasn't funny at all but he's a very wonderful chap.
But it really brought home to you that the instrument that you play is dependent on the whole of your body
And is part of you?
That must be a big responsibility?
Did you find that any kind of activity particularly had to be avoided to preserve your voice?
No no, but I'll just finish this, because right to the day of my next period, I should say within an hour, my voice was even clearer than it had been in between these spells, when it was ... it was so remarkable. It was an unusual case, and it came out in the British medical magazine, it was such an unusual case of Cortisone reaction. In fact, there have been — since then one's heard of a lot of strange things [that] have happened when you're on Cortisone. Coming back to your former question ... your entire body ... that's why everything you eat, drink and the atmosphere you're in, you see, it all passes down between the larynx, in other words, so anything too hot can give you a slight form of ... goodness, what I call not being able to sing clearly, the voice is slightly muffled and unpleasant, and anything too cold ... an iced drink after singing, when everything's hot and your ... all your system is hot — when you come off stage and then you drink an icy drink, that can affect, it's like burning, a slight burn. You know when you drink soup, you take it to your tongue, the tip of the tongue gets burnt? The chords, that's just what happens, to the larynx, and it's an extraordinary thing because it just burns. After about 12 hours it's gone, it's alright, but if you don't know what's caused it, it can make the singer very unhappy and wondering what's wrong, and whether they've got laryngitis or what. It's almost that sort of effect that it has, of laryngitis. So you have to watch your food, your drink, and naturally you have to keep yourself in good condition, jolly good condition, because of the breathing — nerves affect the breath and the breath is our lifeline. There's so much with the ...
... when you're travelling and in a new country. I mean, in Spain, the butter's made from peanuts, you know, nut oil, peanut oil. That upset me, oh dear, and I had ... I had a performance of Onegin on Christmas night, 'cause they work in Europe on Christmas Day, Christmas. Oh, most of the performances, big performances, are on Christmas Night. And I remember I had .. I just ate bananas all that day to keep myself going because you burn up the energy and you've still got to put it back, no matter how you feel, and bananas became my really staple mood food, I mean in Spain, for a time. But all these things — wine can upset you. You've got to ... a good manager in each place you go to will always advise you, about the wine and the food and what to be careful of, and when you learn the hard way, which is going there first for ... when you're not known, then you know all these things, which is a great help, but if you don't, you've got to be very careful wherever you are travelling, about food and drink.
It's clearly a very physical activity that you're involved in and I suppose we've always thought, there you were, this very strong, sporty girl, very good at golf, very gifted physically, really, in the way you were born, and yet you actually did have quite a bit of ill health and problems associated with it during the course of your career. Do you think there was ... what was it that sort of undermined that robust young girl a bit, and gave ... made her get bouts of bronchitis and a few problems later on?
Well I was ... a hayfever sufferer, very much so, and asthmatic, which came on from time to time, but only in the night. I say only, it was bad enough, but fortunately I believed that one could sing through. Now with the hayfever I've had a friend blow a ... there was some hayfever cigarettes on the market in Europe for a long time, which helped to dry the nose, but what helped most of all with hayfever was singing, but of course I couldn't sing all day and all night to keep it dry, and I'd get to a performance down in the ... I can remember down at Brighton for instance from London, oh it was dreadful one day and it was a Sunday and I had a recital to give in the afternoon, and my nose was just streaming, and I thought, oh nose stop when I get on the ... on the platform, but of course it does the more I sing, and the drier it is — it's wonderful because all the little mucus membranes all dry up in the nose and, as I say, the moment I finish back it comes, and Chester was a very bad place for me, one of the worst of all, but there ... the hayfever, and I've been surprised to read from time to time of singers saying they couldn't sing because of hayfever. It didn't affect my larynx, it was an irritant yes, but it vocally was not affected, so therefore I knew that I could go through with an engagement, but I had to put up with the running nose that the outpouring had until I went on stage, and then I was right.
Now in relation to the musical side of your career, what have you enjoyed singing most? You've sung opera, you've sung concerts, you ... what aspect of the music has appealed to you most?
My simple answer to that is I sang what I loved, and I loved most ... mostly everything, so I enjoyed opera, I enjoyed concert work and orchestral concerts, I enjoyed them all. I say enjoy — on the day you wouldn't think it was an enjoyment until the ... the event was over, which was true, because there's always a certain amount of a concern until one goes on that platform. For me it was ... making sure of my music, and I always thought I mustn't let the composer down, and the last person I didn't want to let down or didn't know, never thought, never never thought about letting down was myself, but it was the memory, that I wouldn't forget anything, and that my voice was tonic, which meant that my voice was in ... into good form, and that I wasn't going to let the audience down. Those are the sort of things that you worry about all day, on the day of a performance.
Did you have a favourite opera role?
Not, really no. All the roles I sang are ... I loved.
... I hope I’ve ... I'll just say one little thing there, Madame Butterfly perhaps was slightly ahead of the others. Could have been, yes.
O My Beloved Father was this great success and an aria that has been associated with you all through your life. Was it something you sang from the heart because of your own relationship with your father? Were you particularly close to your father in ... a family of boys?
No, no. Not at all. In fact, I never thought of my father, and it really ... in the opera, yes, she's pleading with her father, because she wants to marry this young fellow, they've been very close ever since their youth, and she was pleading could she, and if he said no, that she would throw herself off the Ponte Vecchio. Well of course I knew the Ponte Vecchio so well, having studied in Florence, lived there, and I think that had a closer ... because I could see all the places that ... and where it all occurred, and in that most other operas I couldn't. But that I could. And that brought another side of it to me. But I didn't think of my father at all, not when I was recording it.
You grew up in a family of boys, and yet you never married. You never ...
What [would] four little boys have to do [with marriage] ... ?
Well I suppose ...
... they might have put me off ...
That's what I was asking ... perhaps ...
... marrying ... [laughs] ...
... [laughs] ... I was wondering about your relationships with men. Did you ever think of marrying? Did you ever have a romance?
Oh, I had romances, yes of course, but I never, no, I was married to my work. I can put it that way, and anything that might have come in between myself and my, the voice, that was out. My voice was really what I was married to if I can put it that way. I had a dedication, and I think the fact that I was sent away with ... on the generosity of other people, with their money, that had something to do with my conscience, always, that I was sent for a purpose, and that I had to make a success in order to repay them, in the only way that I could repay them, and I think all these things, it was complete dedication.
You'd started ... you'd had that period of being short of money and you said that had taught you things about taking care of money and so on, later on, when you became famous and you got a lot of bookings and you had a lot of money to spend. How did you feel about that? Was that something that, you know, gave you a great deal of pleasure, that suddenly you didn't have to pinch pennies anymore?
Yes ... [laughs] ... I was inclined to have it come in one hand and go out the other, ha, I enjoyed spending it, yes. But I always had a what I called a careful side to me, and thought of putting a little away. It was really ... I can say not through my parents because they were ... we were ... and I was struggling too at the same time; my elder brother and I kept my parents for many, many, many years. And ... I had the wonderful support of my great friend Lolita Mariott and her father, and Mr Mariott was the first one that kept saying to me, 'Joan, you have to put money aside for the time when you may not be earning it.’ And he was the first person to get me some shares, after I came out here on tour and I was with them here in Melbourne, and it was Mr M always on at me about when I perhaps could not earn, or something went wrong, that I had to have some money put aside, and he was the first person to buy me some shares, and he looked after my affairs for quite some time, it was wonderful, and of course, his daughter has the same way of going about things, she's very good financially.
Yes, you've described how other opera stars had great entourages of management and so on, all travelling around the world with them. You had Lolita. Could you tell us how ...
... I'm sorry but when I was referring to ... that was Melba's time, because I don't think it happens with singers as much today. In fact, I know it doesn't, but that period of the big entourage was really in Dame Nellie Melba's period and the singers of that time ... Tetrazzini ... but I cannot, I don't even think Callas did, or the big big money spinners. I don't know about Pavarotti and co, they probably do but it's certainly not a general thing that happens with singers today. In fact, you're in so many places, different places, it's not as though you go to a city and you've got a tournament, and you're there, you know you're going to be there for so long. We don't, we go from place to place all the time.
Could you tell me what role Lolita has played in your life and career?
Well, a tremendous role. I can trust her, and this is where I consider that I have been more than lucky, more than blessed, because some unfortunate artists can go through their lives without having an .. the trust of anybody. So if you have one or two people you can trust, it's an absolute godsend, a blessing, and I had someone that I could trust. That I knew that I could, and I mean many husbands and wives cannot trust each other, it's a extraordinary thing, but it happens, and especially in our world, where you learn not to trust people, because you're let down so so often. And I had it happen to me long before I ... you see, I knew Lolita before I left here in 1936, oh, our relationship now is near 60 years, and our friends say, 'What on earth do you find to laugh and talk about?' Well, ha ha, we do well, still laugh and talk. I would say that was one of the greatest blessings that I've been given, was someone that I could trust, that I knew that I could relate to, that I could tell and discuss everything that I had to discuss, and my clothes, my, my ... well, after a performance, I naturally would turn to her and say, 'How was the voice tonight?' ... this you can do with few people because there are hundreds that come around and say 'Oh darling, you were wonderful' all ... and you knew behind that something was not quite wonderful, ha, well mostly you can't trust them because it is a surface and a ... I don't know. I've heard it so often, with others not just with myself, and then I've heard them straightaway, behind my back, they, well ... ‘what a ghastly performance it was’ and it makes you think, you know, if this is the human being and it is, they just react that way, and of course a lot of the basic thing about it is jealousy. If it's another singer, you know jolly well that the tongue would be in the cheek, and therefore, oh, with innumerable things, that word trust, you are lucky in life to have someone you can trust. I think that's one of the greatest assets that you can have.
Lolita actually joined you and started travelling and living with you in 1946, so that was something that came out of that Australian tour, wasn't it?
That's correct, yes, yes.
And has she been as ... has she played a role in actually assisting you with your career as well as with your personal ... has she been someone who's helped you with managing things and also ...
Oh yes, oh yes indeed. She was my personal representative and she would go ahead of me, she went to America first and she did lots of things like that. Oh yes, the whole thing was so intertwined that ... interlaced ... very very closely, I can only just repeat how blessed I have been in that regard.
There's been a pattern in your life, that you've described yourself as a fatalist, where at times things that look bad came out of the ... something good came out of a situation that looked bad and you said that you felt that things were meant, and that you had to accept what fate dished out. On the other hand you've been a very determined person, and you've gone after your goals. How do you reconcile these two attitudes that you have, of being both a fatalist and somebody who is very determined?
But don't you think a fatalist can be a somebody very determined? Must. Otherwise I couldn't exist could I ... because to be fatalistic, it doesn't mean that you're not a determined person. I always think, well, if you've got a strong chin you are not obstinate. I suppose I could be, ha ha, but characteristically speaking, I should say, determination could well go hand in hand with the other, with fatalism.
There've been some crises in your life, there was the one we heard about, that time you lost your voice, which must have felt like a crisis at the time?
Oh, it was indeed.
And then later towards the end of your career, you started having some health problems — could you tell us what happened at that stage?
I think ... it's a stage that I have tried to forget about because I wanted to forget about it, I wanted to feel that it hadn't happened. You might call that part of my determination as well. It ... there was again something that came on slowly. I just got these pains and they kept coming back and when I lifted my arms or wanted to lift something I got them and it got so that, in the end, it was ... it was there, there was something wrong with the heart, and I was rather ... surprised when they said it was a coronary, not that I knew anything about a coronary, but I know about it now, and ... it was another term, angina, you know, I had to carry around which ... I still do a little white tablet, you put one under the tongue and it immediately gives relief, but ... I was told what to do and what not to do, I was booked to sing ... in York Cathedral, to record with the boys’ choir [who] were doing a lot of Handel, different, a program quite unlike any I had recorded before, with organ. The whole ... it would've to my way of thinking been a lovely, lovely experience, that ... broke me up completely when I found I couldn't do it. I was rehearsing and bang, got this blessed pain, which had stopped ... I had to stop singing. Then I tried again and the same thing occurred and the doctor said, ‘Oh look, if you want to go on living for a while, just give it away. It's obviously too emotional, too much for you.’So that was really the end of the story for me, and I came out here on a long sea voyage and took time, took my time, and slowly slowly ... for a year I think I can honestly say that I thought I would never, never, get well again. I felt complete lassitude and none ... didn't want to do anything, and then slowly I began to pick up, and oh indeed, I picked up alright. I mean that the teaching career has, ha ha, is like another career anyhow, and that's very demanding, very ... tiring but I've got ... I'm well into that, but it's not so emotional. It was the emotion of singing, expressing myself through my voice, obviously that I just couldn't cope with again, and facing the public. Or not having to cancel. Really, having to cancel took a tremendous amount out of me. I hated that I always thought of the people that had paid to come to hear me and I was letting them down ... couldn't help it, but it had that effect. So ...
You got your energy back together and started, really, another career as a teacher and someone who's been a great supporter of the arts and of other artists, and at 79 now ...
Oh, not again. Haven't you told me this before? I don't believe it.
... you are still working?
So could you ...
I'd be unhappy if I were not.
Could you describe what your working life is like at the moment?
Oh, getting up early, going for a walk first thing, and ... going to the college, taking my little packet of lunch with me, just as when I went to school many many years ago with my lunch down under my arm, and I started long hours, I worked five days a week, and I was Head of Vocal Studies for a long time, many years. Now I've cut it down to three so you see I'm really cutting things down a bit now, and just going in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday but it's quite enough. As I'm also writing and wanting to get another book finished, my days are long and I ... in fact the days are not long enough for me. I find at night, each night, I think oh dear, I seem to have wasted time and I haven't done all that I wanted to do today ... There a very ... important reason which I may discuss later during our talk today, but again I love teaching. Once I knew that I could — I taught for a time during the war in London when my ... the only really ... the only teacher I can say that I had I learnt from, learnt certain things from, was Dino Borgioli. I forgot to tell you this earlier on today but ... then I had a big argument about the breath ... [laughs] ... I couldn't have been easy, you know, and I often think of it — no wonder I only ever had three teachers, that I could really say that I had where ...
You always thought you knew best really.
Yes. I suppose so, yes. Well, I certainly did about the breath because I was critical of his breathing ... [laughs] ... and so I knew jolly well that my breath ... breathing had to be much better, and I also knew where the voice, the placement had to be. I'm a strong believer in nature, and nature cannot be argued with, and especially about the voice. Nature tells us so much, and we're just the fools if we don't follow.
So when your own pupils say that their nature is telling them to do something different from what you're telling them, do you respect it as much in them as you did in yourself?
I haven't come across it yet but I'm ... [laughs] .. .I haven't come across ... I mean it's wonderful the ... I always tell them that they must ask me whatever they want to, any question at all, because I've gone so thoroughly into my subject, and I know that I can help them, and I know where their weaknesses are because I've been through it with myself. I can tell them if they're heading for danger vocally, that dreaded word the nodule, I can tell them all these things because I've been through it, and this is if you can inculcate that, I think also that you ... anyone just can't teach ... teaching is a gift as well, I've realised that. You either have that ... and you've got to have enormous patience, which probably would surprise people that I've got enormous patience, but I have with teaching. Very much so.
What is it that you really love about teaching? What is it about it that makes you really get pleasure?
Hearing a voice and especially a sick voice; if I can mend a sick voice. If I hear that voice and I know exactly, I can almost see the chords and where the trouble is by hearing. They only have to come through the door and speak to me and I know what to expect when I hear them sing, because their speaking voice already has told me whether it's tonic or sick, whatever, forward or back.
You were saying earlier that you ... that singers sometimes express views that are reflective of their jealousy. Have you yourself ever felt jealous of anybody else's voice?
Not of their voice, no. No. I could have felt a ... oh oh, I think ... I don't know ... that's a difficult question to answer because I think I would be lying if I said I was never jealous, of course I've been jealous, but I'm not sure what about. Not with other careers, no. I might have thought, oh I wish I could have looked like that, and that’s what I call that sort of secret jealousy, I wouldn't ... yes I'm finding it difficult to answer as you are well aware now because I'd lie if I said I had not been jealous, but if you wanted to know specific cases, no, I couldn't tell you, or ... perhaps I've been jealous of ... my students even, like that could well be. Yes. And although I'm the first to say you must change if you're not happy, few have, but that would be so, because you might even say that I'm over-confident. That I know that I can teach, that I know that I can improve them. That could well be. Mind you, I haven't looked into this subject but I will, ha. And perhaps later on I might come back to it.
You've always, whatever the circumstances, kept a really good face on things, even when things were going badly for you. You always fronted up and always put on a good performance, and you were telling us earlier that during a period of a crisis of confidence, if anything, it made you more assertive and a bit more pushy and you had to pull yourself back from that. Did you learn at an early stage a strong view that the way to get through life was to always make sure that, whatever the circumstances, you put a good brave face on things? Was that something that you started to develop as a way of going through things at an early stage, and do you think that's necessary for a performer to have that attitude?
To be ... to be able to ...
... No, what I ...
... perform even when things weren't good inside, you know, to ...
... Oh yes. That you have to do. Oh heavens, yes. I mean a contract is a contract and if you have to perform that night then you have to perform. That would be to follow, as we say, night and day.
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