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Dora Labette in 1935

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Dora LABBETTE (1898-1984)

March 2023

(b.Purley, London, 4 March 1898; d.Selsey, Sussex, 3 September 1984)

In 1935 a completely unknown ‘Italian’ soprano called Lisa Perli burst upon the London opera scene in 14 performances of La Bohème. It was not long before she was identified as Britain’s own home-grown Dora Labette: a member of the orchestra cried out, “Blimey, it’s our Dora.” The sensation caused has tended to mask Dora’s earlier career on the concert platform as well as not having the same news value as her success in later operatic roles in Romeo and JulietFaustOtelloPelleas and MelisandeMignonManon and Messager’s operetta Monsieur Beaucaire.

Dora had given birth to me two years earlier in a London nursing home, where she was profiting from her enforced leisure by learning her future operatic roles. She kept a low public profile for some while to conceal the fact that she had borne a son by her long-term partner, Thomas Beecham. In those days public advertisement of the fact might have brought disgrace or even worse on them both.

Dora had already had a career as one of the pillars of the English oratorio and song-recital tradition. Born in 1898, daughter of an invalid railway porter who died soon after her birth, she was brought up in Hastings by her impoverished mother. At the age of six she was already singing in local choirs where she was soon spotted by local worthies who eventually piloted her towards Liza Lehmann, at that time teaching at the Guildhall School. Her precocious talent, which displayed both a girlish charm and a mature feminine passion, soon won her work in London’s West End where she was spotted singing ballads by a handsome army officer, David Strang, who, when out of his uniform, was the son of the famous painter William Strang. David was also a fine etcher and artist in his own right. They were married in April 1918 and went to live in Saint John’s Wood, not far from his parents’ home.

Dora had already won considerable success in her profession, winning the gold Medal at the Guildhall in 1916, where Sir Landon Ronald, unable to mint an actual medal because of wartime restrictions, inscribed a set of Grove’s dictionary with the words “to Dora Labbette awarded to her by me as being the student most likely to distinguish herself in the musical profession”. Despite the astonishing amount of work she was able to attain at such an early age (including a £500 retainer to sing for William Boosey at his ballad concerts), her husband tried to pressure her into giving up her singing career. She refused and moved out of the family home with her mother and infant daughter Joan.

With that most sterling of English tenors, Hubert Eisdell, Dora also began a series of wonderful duet recordings in 1922 for Columbia. With Muriel Brunskill and Harold Williams in September 1928, they recorded Liza Lehmann’s 1896 cantata, ‘In a Persian Garden’. Liza had died in 1919 but her husband, Herbert Bedford, oversaw the recording.

She performed regularly at Henry Wood’s promenade concerts. At Queen’s Hall and later at the Royal Albert Hall, she made a number of appearances, beginning on Thursday 30 August 1917 in which she sang Louis Spohr’s ‘Rose, softly blooming’ from Zémire et Amor with Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall orchestra, and Liza Lehmann’s ‘ Fly away, pretty moth’.

Her last concert above includes ‘With verdure clad’ from Haydn’s Creation. In 1932 she made a recording of this for Columbia Records with an orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould. Click here to hear it on YouTube.

Dora became very much in demand from the record companies. Her achievements in this field included several recordings of duet ballads with the bass Norman Allin, accompanied on some by Albert Ketelbey; a hugely admired set of Holst’s songs for soprano and violin; Elgar’s Apostles; an epoch-making recording of Handel’s Messiah for which she had been head-hunted by Beecham – he had seen her picture on the wall of a recording studio (or some say on the walls of Dora’s agent); and a series of songs by Delius with Beecham at the piano.

From the Messiah recording onwards, and the many live performances of that masterpiece in which she sang for Beecham, the following years of her career were dominated by him. There were her Delius performances at that composer’s festival in 1929, the revelation of Handel’s Solomon at Queen’s Hall in 1930, her visits to Delius’ home at Grez-sur-Loing where she sang to the composer with Beecham at the piano. Beecham must have known of her ambition to sing in opera, because he did nothing to prevent her experimenting with an appearance at Oxford in Castor et Pollux, nor with dipping her toes in the water out of town as Juliet under Barbirolli: both of these in preparation for her launch as Mimi in 1935.

Towards the end of that decade, money started becoming unusually tight for Beecham. Most of his activities at Covent Garden had been financed by Lady Cunard, a former lover who had become fixated on him for the rest of her life, but not him by her. Dora’s gradual assumption of her role prompted her and Beecham to limit their working together into order not to rock the financial boat. To continue her operatic career, she looked to the European houses. In Berlin she sang Mimi in Italian (the rest of the cast sticking to their native German), and later Mignon in Munich, Mimi again at Vichy with Martinelli her Rodolfo, Mélisande in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, and at Bordeaux and Vichy. For this she received very generous teaching and support from Maggie Teyte, and the production was brought to London under Albert Wolff for the Coronation Season in 1937. Beecham was careful not to be involved. I believe he had already sensed that the musical scene in London was not destined to continue in its rocky way for much longer. Money was drying up and the omens threatened a second world war. Nevertheless Dora continued, singing several performances of Bohème at the Garden opposite Gigli and Faust with Harold Williams.

In the spring of 1940 Dora and Beecham set off for a tour of Australia, where they were joined by Heddle Nash, Harold Williams and others. Between them they gave many performances, much applauded and admired by their hosts, though Beecham himself drew a deal of adverse criticism for his acid comments on Australian life. At the end of the tour they took a boat back to Vancouver and crossed Canada by train to Montreal. Beecham had concert engagements to fulfil in Canada, but Dora was anxious to return to London where her family were in grave danger of being bombed by the Luftwaffe. She told me in later years that she had a premonition on the way at Montreal that she and Beecham would never see each other again. She was right. Beecham was offered a contract in New York which he accepted and he remained in the States for the rest of the war.

Back in England, Dora soon found that there was no longer any operatic life. She devoted herself to war work, as an ambulance driver, an ARP warden and a water-tester for the Metropolitan Water Board. She was still able to continue her concert and oratorio work up and down the country, but she missed the glamour of the opera stage. Beecham had continued a loving correspondence with her which gave no hint that, after a couple of years he was going to marry the pianist, Betty Humby. Dora was given the news by Beecham’s lawyer and her heart was broken. She lost her musical appetite altogether and decided to retire to the country and pursue a traditional middle-class semi-rural existence, breeding dogs, chickens and ducks and growing vegetables for the local markets.

She maintained contact with a few of her musical friends; both Gerald Moore and Ivor Newton, Harold Williams who had a cottage in Selsey where Dora was living, Eric Coates, his tenant and a few colleagues from the old days at Covent Garden. At one point in the mid-1950’s she contemplated a return to London to see if she could establish a career in teaching, but none of the colleges was interested, so she returned to the country, spending the rest of her days relishing the excitements of her past and leading a rather dull social life amongst people with whom she found no artistic rapport. With me alone she felt able to share her musical life and passions.

Over the years I had come to learn that she was a very serious artist indeed with the highest of standards. Vocally her technique was superb, her intonation perfect and the quality of the voice well managed throughout its range. Although it was not large, she believed that projection was more important than volume. She aimed for the back row of the gallery which she was able to reach through her conviction as a musician and her real talents as an actress. As her son I might be thought prejudiced, but this is what the late hyper-critical Walter Legge had to say of her performance as Mimi:

“She was beyond question the most natural and convincing Mimi I have ever seen. Nature or a dietician has given her the figure for the part, and she hardly made one conventional operatic gesture during the whole evening. She conveys as no other artist within memory Mimi’s shyness in the presence of her noisy Bohemian friends. Never for one moment was she an opera singer singing Mimi or showed that she was aware of the existence of an audience. She played to her colleagues as if the proscenium had been a brick wall. So real and human was her performance that when at the end of each act she came before the curtain to make her curtsy with her all too operatic colleagues one felt a shock of pained surprise that the Mimi whose love and suffering one had watched through the act should have the courage to walk before the curtain of an opera house. Vocally she more than held her own with the singers around her. She has power enough, an exquisite mezzo voce and an extraordinary instinct for expressive musical phrasing.”

From Walter Legge: Words and Music (Duckworth, London, 1998).

Paul Strang

© Museum of Music History 2023