Monday, September 14, 2009

Flickr, Australian sopranos, and disability history


Young Marjorie Lawrence, probably as Elsa at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, late 1930's / unknown photographer
Originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection

The State Library of New South Wales recently posted some photos to their "opera" set on Flickr that have relevance to disability history. Above, a portrait of Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979), taken sometime in the 1930s. She was a noted Australian performer of Wagner heroines (as you can probably imagine from the long blonde tresses and studded headgear here). In 1941, Lawrence contracted polio. Eighteen months later, after treatment with Sister Elizabeth Kenny, she returned to the stage. Lawrence generally performed in a seated or reclining position thereafter, with creative staging that incorporated her stance into the visuals. The photo below (from the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra) is from a performance by Marjorie Lawrence after polio, a year before her retirement in 1952. She taught after that date, until her death in 1979.

[Visual description: Marjorie Larence in Egyptian costume, being carried on a throne by eight young men also in costume]



Florence Austral's photo (right; she's shown making marmalade in 1953, for some reason) has also recently appeared in the same flickrstream. Austral (1892-1968) was another Australian soprano who specialized in Wagnerian roles. She was very well known and had toured much of the world with her work when she began to experience the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1930. She continued to perform, moving gradually away from operas and into concerts and recitals, before her retirement in 1940. She, too, taught singing after she stopped performing, in Austral's case at the Newcastle Conservatorium from 1954-1959. Austral died in 1968.

Did Austral and Lawrence known one another? Did they compare notes on their efforts to maintain a performing career through the realities of a diagnosis that's both public and significant? I don't know enough about opera history or Australian women's history to know the answer. But maybe there's an article in this, for someone who can follow up.

10 comments:

Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

To the best of my knowledge, Sister Kenny was a fraud, and Ms. Lawrence would have returned to the stage(or not) regardless of any interventions by Kenny. What amazes me is that she had the lung power post polio to sing Wagner!

Equally amazing is that the opera company made such radical accomodations for her disability in that day and age. Good for them!

Penny L. Richards said...

I was wondering about that, Virginia S. Wood. (The lung power and the Sister Kenny part. Both.) But yeah for the accommodations! And I couldn't resist the Amneris photo (middle one).

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OpAus said...

Unfortunately the State Library of New South Wales had to remove the portrait of the young Marjorie Lwrence. There is a lovely portrait of her after a concert in Sydney Town Hall at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/3863514080/

Despite her polio, one critic said it was Wagnerian singing of the highest order.

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