Sunday, February 19, 2012

Struth! It's Stralia - forgotten Down Under diva


There was once a fashion for ballerinas to adopt Russian or French stage names and, so too, opera singers felt they needed something out of the ordinary so that people would remember them. In particular those from Australia chose names connected with their homeland. In eras when being an independent woman was still slightly frowned upon, they often confused the issue by also being known by their maiden names or various husbands' surnames as well.
The most famous was Dame Nellie Melba, born Helen Porter Mitchell, then Nellie Armstrong by marriage, and she took her stage name from her home-town of Melbourne.
Others were Florence Austral (Mary Wilson, Florence Amadio, Florence Fawaz) and Marie Narelle (Catherine Mary Ryan, Molly Callaghan, Catherine Mary Currie) who acquired her surname from that of an Aboriginal queen who lived in the Moruya area of New South Wales, and Narelle was been a popular girl's name in Australia ever since.
Interestingly, Marie's cousin born at Tuross Heads near Moruya was also an opera singer but she didn't bother to change her name. She was Eva Mylott (Eva Gibson) and the grandmother of actor Mel Gibson.
June Bronhill (June Gough) manufactured her name as a contraction of Broken Hill, New South Wales. Fortunately, she was born in a later era and didn't confuse the issue by using either of her two husbands' names.
But the strangest concoction must be Madame Elsa Stralia (Elsie Fischer, Elsie Mary Moses, Elsie Mary Christensen). It's difficult to say the name out loud these days without it sounding like a joke or a striptease act, but in a newspaper report of 1934, Elsa says it was Nellie Melba of all people who suggested it. What was she thinking?!
This star-studded 1919 patriotic photograph of "Elsa Stralia as Australia" (State Library of NSW) is a pretty bizarre costume too!



But she must have been a great singer. A 1925 newspaper report gives this gushing report:
'A well-known musical critic, in writing of a recent concert given by Elsa Stralia, said:- "Last night Sydney heard a voice ! Not a voice with merely an Italian veneer, or a French polish, but an honest, fortnight voice of the timbre, power, and quality such as is given to few of us to hear more than once or twice in a lifetime. That voice was Elsa Stralia's - the voice of a genuine Australian woman and great artiste. It is good to see so big a house at the Town Hall last night to welcome home erstwhile Elsie Fischer, now the world celebrity, Stralia, of whose voice no less an authority than Albert Coates has said that it was " the greatest voice in England.'' The great dramatic soprano was in splendid form, and her voice rang out strong and sonorous. She hits every note right in the middle, and holds it truly. There is never a question of doubtful pitch here, no exaggerated portamento, but a splendid, forceful, and, at times, a tender tone shading that is altogether delightful and always completely satisfying. While there may be those who find in her electrifying upper registers and power their principal delight and astonishment, there are many others who recognise in all her work a careful and intelligent artistry and a sincere appreciation for the nuance and a just sense of the possibilities of the mezzo voice. But all found Madame Stralia finely equipped as a singer with gift for apt character portrayal, and she made a deep impression by the beauty and dramatic force of her singing. While in some numbers her voice rings out with stupendous clarion force, there is flame-Iike brilliance in its pure soprano tone. Despite its weight it remains an organ of lovely quality, and is sufficiently elastic to meet the demands of florid music. As the singer of so many famous Wagnerian roles, it is not surprising to find that she is the possessor of the voice of a heroic Brunhilde - rich, full, and vibrant, but it is unusual to discover in so heavy a voice a capacity for tender things." '
Elsa died at Belgrave, Victoria in 1945. Her obituary lists her as Mrs A. Christensen.

Finding recordings of all these women isn't easy. A few have found their way onto Youtube.

June Bronhill's amazing version of The Holy City (Jerusalem) ... wait a few seconds for this one to start, it's worth it.

Florence Austral is well-represented. Here is her Last Rose of Summer.

Ditto Melba. This is particularly associated with her many "farewells".  Home Sweet Home.

A quavery few by Marie Narelle, including this rather ponderous Auld Lang Syne.

But I can find NOTHING on the magnificent Elsa Stralia!

Australia's National Film and Sound Archive have a collection on her but nothing is available to listen to online. I'll have to make do with a program and sheet music cover from the National Library of Australia archives:





Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Dark Underside

An article  this week by American journalist Joseph B. Atkins about Ella May Wiggins has caught my eye.

I was surprised I hadn't heard of her before (my partial excuse not being an American) but when I researched further and read her story that exposes what Atkins calls "the dark underside of class in America", I was almost moved to tears.

What a woman! She truly deserves to be world famous for her guts in standing up for the rights of female and black workers in the 1920s. But the combined forces of American big business, politics, anti-communism and racism have all been determined to leave her holding the bucket since her murder at the age of only 29. It appears that even today controversy still surrounds her.

I won't reproduce here what is available online elsewhere, but please follow the links below to read or hear more about this remarkable woman and the violent history in the Carolina textile mills.
The strike at Loray Mill,  Gastonia, resulted in violence, including the shooting death of leader Ella May Wiggins, depicted in this drawing from Labor Age, October 1929


Two Youtube presentations telling Ella May's story by Sherry Lovett. One. Two.

Article on Ella May's music.


Ella May's grave.


The Mill Mother's Song

by Ella May Wiggins

(This song was sung at the funeral of Ella May by one of the women strikers)

We leave our home in the morning,
We kiss our children good bye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.

And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening,
Our little son will say,
"I need some shoes, dear mother
And so does sister May."

How it grieves the heart of a mother,
You every one must know,
But we can't buy for our children,
Our wages are too low.