My oldest sister Beverley (Bev) was a singer – a classically trained singer unlike anyone else in the family. As she was 18 years older than me, I didn’t know much about her singing career until it was mostly over. She died in April 2012 and sometime later her daughter loaned me a scrapbook that Bev had kept with various newspaper clippings, photos, brochures and other memorabilia about her singing. Obviously she had other interests and did other things as well, but I’ve chosen to focus on her singing here.
This photo is of my four oldest siblings in the 1950s – Bev, Brian, Ngaire, Kelvin:
From age 17 to 21 she passed various grades in the Trinity School of Music in solo singing and theory of music, gaining a diploma in music at the Licentiate (LTCL) level in 1961. In 1960 she was ‘most outstanding performer’ in the Wellington singing competitions. Although she hasn’t said what newspaper these clippings came from, it seems obvious they were from the local Masterton paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, given their “Masterton girl makes good” headlines.
In 1962 she won the Wellington £25 aria competition, the major event of the singing competitions – this was the year she moved from Masterton to Wellington. She was in the chorus of two productions by the company ‘Opera Technique’: A Night in Venice by Johann Strauss (1962) and La Vie Parisienne by Jacques Offenbach (1963).
This was performed at Wellington’s Opera House, which opened in 1914.
She entered the Mobil Song Quest (New Zealand’s premier classical singing event) in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The competition began in 1956 as a radio contest of lighter ballads. I haven’t yet found out which year she entered – it was earlier than 1963 when (Dame) Malvina Major won and 1965 when (Dame) Kiri Te Kanawa won. She may have got into the finals, but I haven’t confirmed that. I’m still waiting for the National Library to digitise New Zealand newspapers post-1945 to make life easier for us researchers!
She also took part in a TV talent show – I have no memory of this, but one of my brothers said: “Bev took part in a TV talent show in the early 1960s called ‘Have a Shot‘, a then similar show to our current ‘NZ’s got talent’. I recall being bundled up on a cold Masterton night and going downtown to watch Bev perform on the TV – the TV of course being in a shop window. We didn’t have TV then so that was the only way we could see her perform. Anyway the programme centred around ‘having a shot’ and if you weren’t up to it then you figuratively got shot… Bev was up to it and got to sing her number right through. That was one of the occasions when I thought singing was pretty cool and even cooler if it meant seeing someone you knew on TV – even black and white TV.”
Whenever we attended weddings or funerals Bev’s voice could be heard soaring above everyone else’s – while as a child I was sometimes embarrassed by this, you also knew if you sat near her you wouldn’t need to sing because no one would hear you anyway!
She was also in the chorus of New Zealand Opera performances of ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘Marriage of Figaro’, at some time. Marriage and a family brought an end to this phase of her singing career – but in the mid-1970s she took part in a few productions with the local Upper Hutt Operatic Society (including leading lady in The Desert Song), and was their music director in the early 1980s.
In my 20s I became interested in classical music and opera, and finally could appreciate Bev’s singing and be proud of it rather than embarrassed. I asked her to sing at my wedding, which she did, although a bit reluctantly. By then she hadn’t sung much in public for some years. She sang J S Bach/Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria beautifully.
She made two records: one was a recording of the Upper Hutt Operatic Society’s production of the Desert Song; the other dates from about 1960 and includes two songs – Danny Boy, and The Shepherd’s Lament. Danny Boy was movingly played at her funeral, where many people didn’t know she was once a singer.
I donated copies of these records to the National Library of New Zealand last year (the entry for this second record in the catalogue isn’t very accurate – it had nothing to do with the Upper Hutt Operatic Society.)