Friday, April 30, 2010

MORAG BEATON 1926-2010

It was 1967. My cousin and I had risked taking a student subscription to THE OPERA and there we were in the second back row of the gods of the (new) Tivoli Theatre, Sydney. The only person we knew was our pyschology tutor, Miss A B, sitting way way below us, and even further beyond was a small black square - the stage. The Tivoli had yet to meet the demolition ball, but it did, shamefully, and the scar is still there, cnr Castlereagh and Campbell streets.

It was Turandot, and I remember, never forgot, couldn't forget, the incredible huge turquoise blue peacock-train, the voice that came out of it and the name of its owner - MORAG BEATON.

Miss A B was exploding with enthusiasm at interval, her excitement barely contained, like her ample breasts in their knit sweater. As we climbed back up to our nose bleed seats, I was struck by how overwhelmed she was, while all I could think about was how anyone could open their mouth so wide, such that even from our dizzy heights you feared for the first few rows that they might disappear with the next breath. But something had happened and just what would only become clear in retrospect. I had been exposed to the immediacy, the thrill, and the risk of the human voice live, and a template had been set - for soprano, and for big. And the fetish is still alive and well.

Morag Beaton was born in Edinburgh in 1926 and died in Sydney on the first of April. I'm very sad she's gone, and sad I didn't hear about it earlier. I think I would have liked to have gone to her funeral, and have never before had that thought for a public figure.

Her mother was her first teacher, and a slow moving career took an abrupt change in 1964 when Richard Bonynge offered her a job, as a mezzo, in the upcoming 1965 Sutherland-Williamson, as it was called, Grand Opera Tour of Australia. She came, and she stayed. Moffat Oxenbould describes her as a warm and generous spirit, a great character, and the confidante of the lovelorn and looney, reading fortunes with a soft lilting accent and talking of myths and mysteries. There is a cheeky photo of her on the beach in 1965 with Richard Bonynge, Elizabeth Harwood, Margreta Elkins, Spiro Malas and others. Morag Beaton's eyes peer through the camera and there's a winning confident smile on her pretty face. She is the only one with a hat and covered shoulders.

She sang over a wide range, and an especially acclaimed Tatyana, before Bonynge saw in her what she had secretly dreamed of - the brilliance of tone, enormous range, and heft for Turandot. It was to be her defining role, and as it turns out, a life changing one for me. Thank you Morag Beaton.

She returned to London in 1966, chosen by Bernard Herrmann to record Cathy for the studio recording of his "Wuthering Heights", another landmark for her. Back in Australia, she now sang with The Australian Opera. One of Moffat Oxenbould's stories opens a window into her wonderful character. In Cavalleria one night, she had just sung the impassioned duet with Alfio, and instead of rushing offstage as usual, she dropped to her knees and started beating the stage with clenched fists, completely at odds with the music, before realising how incongrous things were, getting up, looking around, and slowly walking off. When he asked later why, and what she was doing, she replied in irresistable Scots accent: " Well, wee pet! Last night I was watching the late-night movie on television and Katina Paxinou was in it. At one point she got down on her knees and beat the ground, and I thought it was verryy effective."

A disagreement with Edward Downes, then Music Director, in 1973, over the role of Giorgetta, saw her fling an old celtic curse onto him, and his manhood, and she was off the barge and on the way to England. She was back in Australia by 1976, but never sang on the opera stage again. There was a recital in 1983, one of the rare events you would rewind your life to be at, and some songs with the late Geoffrey Tozer for her 80th.

The Australian obituary is here, and that from the Scotsman here.

Here is that wonderful voice, as Cathy, in three excerpts from Wuthering Heights : 'I have been wandering", "Look, the moon", "It's now Christmas".

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