Margreta Elkins: Operatic mezzo noted for her work with Joan Sutherland both on stage and on record

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Australian operatic mezzo Margreta Elkins was tall and slender, with a beautiful warm-toned voice. She spent nearly 20 years in Britain during her long career, singing at Covent Garden and with other companies. A great friend of Joan Sutherland, whom she first met in 1949 at the Mobil Quest singing competition, Elkins appeared with the soprano many times, in London, America and Australia. They also made a number of fine opera recordings together. Their voices blended superbly, for instance in the two great duets for Norma and Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma, while Elkins's height (5ft 10in) was much appreciated by Sutherland when the mezzo played a man, as in Handel's Giulio Cesare, where Elkins took the title role to Sutherland's Cleopatra, or in his Alcina, where she sang Ruggiero to the soprano's Alcina.

Born Margaret Geater in Brisbane in 1930, she obtained a scholarship from Queensland Conservatory to study singing and drama. In 1949 she married Henry Elkins and Margreta Elkins became her professional name. After touring Queensland as Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore, in 1952 she joined the National Opera Company of Australia, making her debut in Brisbane as Carmen in Bizet's opera. The company toured the eastern side of Australia and New Zealand; Elkins also sang Suzuki in Madame Butterfly and Siebel in Faust.

In 1955 she came second in the Mobil Quest competition and the prize money enabled her to travel to Britain. Engaged by the Dublin Grand Opera Society, she sang Carmen again, and Dorabella in Così fan tutte. She then joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company, with whom she toured as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann and Ascanio, another trouser role, in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. This last opera was performed in London at Sadler's Wells Theatre and Elkins was highly praised.

Elkins made her Covent Garden debut in October 1958 as Waltraute in Die Walküre, during a cycle of Wagner's Ring, in which, incidentally, Sutherland sang a Rhine Maiden and the Woodbird. During her first season Elkins also sang Ulrica in Verdi's A Masked Ball and, on tour, Amneris in Aida, which was to become one of her finest interpretations.

She also sang the small role of Alisa, the heroine's companion in Lucia di Lammermoor, and this was perhaps her most important apearance of all; on 17 February 1959, the opening night of Franco Zeffirelli's new production of Donizetti's opera, Sutherland's staggering, magnificent performance as Lucia took the theatre by storm and anyone on stage was bathed in the glow of her success. Amid the torrents of praise lavished on the diva, Elkins received her due share.

Elkins spent three busy seasons at Covent Garden, where her roles included Ruggiero in Alcina, with Sutherland in the title role and, another of her favourite parts, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Sent specially to Vienna to study the role with the baritone Alfred Jerger, the original Mandryka in Arabella and a great Richard Strauss specialist, she sounded echt Viennese and looked magnificent in her white and silver uniform in the second act. She also took part in the premiere of Michael Tippett's King Priam, as Helen of Troy.

In 1965 Elkins returned to Australia with the Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company, which toured for several months. She had been re-studying to become a soprano, and one of the roles she sang successfully on the tour was Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Earlier that year she made her American debut as Ruggiero, to Sutherland's Alcina, in the American Opera Society's concert performance of Handel's opera at Carnegie Hall, New York, receiving excellent reviews.

Back in London, her next major role was Adalgisa in Norma. She gave one performance, with Sutherland as Norma, at Covent Garden in December 1967; then they both sang the opera in Philadelphia in March 1968 and finally Elkins sang Adalgisa in New Orleans in May. Australia would not hear Elkins and Sutherland in Norma until 1979.

Elkins sang a greatly admired performance of The Composer in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at the London Coliseum in 1969. As Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni the following year she was less successful. After Amneris for Welsh National Opera in 1971, Eduige in Rodelinda (with Sutherland) at the Holland Festival in 1973 and a superbly sung, but dramatically rather mild performance of the title role of Mayr's Medea in Corinto at the 1974 Wexford Festival, Elkins returned home.

She joined Australian Opera in 1976, and was Maffio Orsini in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia with Sutherland, in which both singers were on top form; Ruggiero in a new production of Alcina by Robert Helpmann and a voluptuous Dalila in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. In 1983 Elkins, perhaps unwisely, sang Sieglinde in Die Walküre; she herself adored the role. After a quick trip to London in June 1985 for an amazing Amneris for ENO, she sang the same role in Brisbane with equal success.

Some 40 years since her first Azucena in Brisbane, she sang the Gypsy there in 1990 for Queensland Lyric Opera and made a final appearance as Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana in 2002. Meanwhile she had been teaching at Queensland Lyric Opera in Brisbane for many years.

Elizabeth Forbes

Margaret Ann Enid Geater (Margreta Elkins), operatic singer: born Brisbane 15 October 1930; married 1949 Henry Elkins (one daughter); died Brisbane 1 April 2009.