sometimes witty book reviews
Born into an Australian family in 1907, Marjorie Lawrence became one of the country’s most widely known opera singers. The author, Richard Davis, has attempted to condense long and eventful life and legacy of Lawrence into his biographical work, Wotan’s Daughter. Known to many during her career at ‘Australia’s Second Melba‘ and cited as one of Joan Sutherland‘s role models, this versatile Wagnerian soprano rocketed to fame in Europe soon after arriving in Paris in 1928. It was her 1935 debut with the Metropolitan Opera, New York that made her a household name across the world.
Lawrence noticed that Wagner, in his score for the opera Götterdämmerung, instructs the lead female Brünnhilde* to ride her horse into the flames of her dead love’s funeral pyre. Lawrence told the Met management that would be the first soprano in recorded history to attempt the feat. They promptly vetoed the idea citing safety concerns. Disgruntled, Lawrence accepted their much more sombre staging of the final scene (Brünnhilde was to lead her horse demurely but the halter) and bided her time. In her own words, Lawrence describes the closing bars of the opera:
The brief pause came in Briinnhilde’s singing. On surged the orchestra. Cyril [her brother and horse handler] led Grane to me and I vaulted astride. I took up the music right on the beat, noting with relief that [the conductor] had not faltered. I sang the final soaring phrases, kicked my heels into the horse’s flanks and, with right arm extended towards the heavens, galloped into the flames. The house by this time was in pandemonium. I jumped from the horse, gave him the pat on the rump he deserved and went in front of the curtain to take call after call.**
Newspapers and radio stations across the globe ran the story, even those usually unconcerned with the goings-on of the opera world. By 1941 she was at the height of her stage career, employed as a principal artist at both the Met, New York and the Paris Opera. It was this year, however, during rehearsals for Wagner’s Die Walküre in Mexico City that Lawrence’s career came to a crashing halt. She collapsed mid-stage and found herself unable to move. Within a week specialist had diagnosed her with poliomyelitis, she would never walk again.
Yet by late 1942 the diva was singing for concerts all over America, by 1943 she was even back on the Met stage. She was one of the first wheelchair bound performers that most had ever seen. Her battle with polio lead her to singing for and meeting another polio-afflicted celebrity, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on several occasions. Her cheery and exuberant personality lead the US, Australian and British military forces to invite her on troop-tours close to combat zones in northern Australia and liberated Europe. In 1945 she sang for the Queen of England and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In her lifetime she was award the Legion d’honneur by the government of France, made a Commander of the British Empire and had her life story turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Eleanor Parker.
Davis’s work follows the narrative of Lawrence’s 1949 autobiography, Interrupted Melody, fairly closely. Overall, the text is an excellent introduction to the soprano’s life but does have some research drawbacks. Primary sources are often not listed and there are sometimes errors with regards to dates etc. The photographic material that Davis has sourced, however, is spectacular and really captures the vivacious personality of Marjorie Lawrence and the admiration she inspired in her audiences. An easy read for those who would usually find reference-laden biographical texts difficult. This woman is bad-ass.