Wotan’s Daughter. The Life of Marjorie Lawrence

Richard Davis
Biography, Books
Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press. 331pp.
ISBN 9781743051221 (pbk)
Reviewed by , March 2nd, 2014

The story of soprano Marjorie Lawrence has all the threads common to Australian musicians who get themselves to the other side of the world and establish international reputations.

Outstanding talent and unshakable belief in their worth, willingness to pursue the dream despite all vicissitudes, and courage.

Surely none of them has shown the courage that she did.

The early part of her life is told succinctly by Richard Davis, who counts biographies of Geoffrey Parsons, Eileen Joyce and Anna Bishop among the works that won him the 2011 Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Award for the Arts.

Davis has been rigorous in his selection of material, drawing mainly on reliable primary sources. He justifies his decision to write the book. There is, after all, her own (ghost written) account, Interrupted Melody, and he draws freely on it when situations demand the impact of her own words, but is careful, as she apparently was not, with the facts.

When written documentation is not to hand, he relies on his own judgment in assessing the quality of her recordings.

Marjorie’s voice made itself heard as a child in country Victoria. Born to musical parents, she had piano and organ lessons, ensuring that she was musically literate from a young age. Not the lot of all singers.

She sang all the time (it’s called the Silsbury Theory of the Unstoppability of Talent) even when riding on horseback (NB!) around the paddocks, or into Winchelsea to do the shopping. She believed in herself and her ability, telling a cousin she was going to become a famous singer. She was about 16.

Opposition from her father ¬– pianist, organist, fine, but singer! On the stage?

Once she turned 18, and was legally an adult, one morning she and brother Percy snuck out of the house at 5am, before Mr Lawrence woke up, and caught the 7am express to Melbourne.

There she sang (a top D) for Ivor Boustead. Get a job in Melbourne and he would teach her.

The ensuing pages in Chapter Two reveal interesting items of Melbourne’s musical politics in the 1920s.

Competitions were won and lost, she sang for the ABC with WG James at the piano, had her first concert with a small orchestra conducted by Percy Code and saw her first operas in the Melba-Williamson season.

Inevitably enough money was raised and Marjorie was off to Paris.

By the end of 1931, through rigorous singing lessons with Cécile Gilly, and language coaching for German, French and Italian, she had a repertoire of 21 principal roles.

Hard yards at concerts eventually paid off.

On 21 January 1932 Marjorie Lawrence, aged 24, made her stage début as Elisabeth in Tannhaüser in Monte Carlo.

Many major roles, many contracts at major houses in Europe and United States, sharing Sieglinde and Brünnhilde with Kirsten Flagstad, riding a real horse into the flames in Götterdämmerung (only once) at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, dancing her own seven veils as Salome. Partnered by the greatest soloists and conductors of the time.

Rapturous acclaim; the ‘finest and most dramatic soprano today’ according to Sir Thomas Beecham after he had conducted her Isolde in Montreal. Also many lovers, not all of them after her love as much as her wealth, several promises of marriage (one with a Russian prince).

On 29 March 1941 she married Dr Thomas King. Just before that, some pitch problems had crept into her legendary accuracy.

Then severe headaches, feeling sick. Rehearsing Brünnhilde for Die Walküre in Mexico City, her legs became so weak she could not arise from kneeling without help. The weakness spread, the pain intensified. These passages in Davis’s book need to be read for their full impact to be felt.
Poliomyelitis. Marjorie Lawrence was paralysed from the neck down.

Regaining some movement, but still paraplegic, she became pregnant, to the delight of both wife and husband. Weep more. After some radical surgery on her legs, the baby died at about seven months. No more babies.

Wotan’s Daughter is worth reading for the story so far alone. Even more remarkable is the remainder. Nothing could stop Marjorie Lawrence from singing.
Let readers judge for themselves how she gradually resumed her professional life on stage, and wonder at her achievements. Hers is an inspiring, heroic story.

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