Monday 22 January 2007
Phyllis Rosina Raisbeck, opera and concert singer: born Ballarat, Victoria 28 July 1916; MBE 1976; married 1943 James Laurie (one son; marriage dissolved); died Sydney, New South Wales 23 December 2006.
Rosina Raisbeck was an Australian mezzo-soprano who put heart and soul into her performances. Whether she was singing Ortrud in Lohengrin at Covent Garden, the Abbess in The Sound of Music in Sydney or a pop song at some club did not matter: she gave it everything she had.
She spent 15 of the 40 years her career lasted in London, and during that time she sang a number of soprano roles - Ortrud for instance, Senta in The Flying Dutchman and Elizabeth in Tannhäuser - but her fine voice was basically a dramatic mezzo, with a warm middle register supporting strong top notes.
Raisbeck was born in 1916 in Ballarat, Victoria, but grew up in Maitland, New South Wales. In 1942 she began her vocal studies at the New South Wales State Conservatory in Sydney, where she worked for five years. During that period she sang with the opera school in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and in 1944 she took part in the first performance of The Pearl Tree by Edgar Bainton, the English composer who was director of the conservatory. The Pearl Tree, though written many years previously, was given a glowing review by Neville Cardus in the Sydney Morning Herald.
She ended her studies in 1946 by winning the Australian Broadcasting Commission Concerto and Vocal Competition and the Sun Aria Competition.
After a concert tour of New Zealand Raisbeck sailed for London with her husband John Laurie, whom she had married in 1943. A letter of recommendation from Sir Eugene Goossens, newly appointed Director of the Conservatory, obtained her an audition at the recently formed Covent Garden Opera Company and she made her début as Maddalena in Rigoletto, later singing such roles as Flora in La traviata, Second Lady in The Magic Flute, Mercedes in Carmen, Wellgunde in Das Rheingold and Rossweisse in Die Walküre.
Advised by the eminent conductor Sir Thomas Beecham to become a soprano, Raisbeck studied with the tenor Dino Borgioli and from 1950 onwards she added Ortrud in Lohengrin, Senta in The Flying Dutchman, First Lady in The Magic Flute and Third Norn in Götterdämmerung to her repertory. I remember her performance as Ortrud with particular pleasure. Raisbeck was a tall, imposing woman and managed to appear the very embodiment of evil in that role.
After leaving Covent Garden in 1953, she sang frequently in concert, and was one of the huge choir at Westminster Abbey that sang during the Coronation Service.
Raisbeck planned to tour Australia the following year with Benjamin Fuller's Italian Opera, but, finding that she was pregnant, cancelled the tour. After her son was born, she did not sing until 1958, when she gave guest performances of Ortrud and the title role of Fidelio with the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company in Sydney. Returning to London she sang with Sadler's Wells Opera (now English National Opera) in 1959, as Senta, and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, as well as the Mother in the British premiere of Dallapiccola's The Prisoner, given by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells.
In 1961 she gave a terrifying performance of Kabanisha in Janácek's Katya Kabanova. Then, having divorced her husband, she returned to Australia with her son.
For the next 10 years Raisbeck sang wherever and whatever she could: a tremendously successful production of The Sound of Music, in which she sang the Abbess, with June Bronhill as Maria, was followed by Carousel.
She gave concerts, she sang in clubs and cabaret, she did everything, as she always did, to the very best of her ability. Then in 1969 the Elizabethan Trust evolved into Australian Opera; Raisbeck sang with the company from 1971 for the rest of her career.
Her first role was Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, followed by Akhrosimova in Prokofiev's War and Peace (1973); she scored triumphs as Mrs Begbick in Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1975) and as Herodias in Salome (1976).
Raisbeck had sung in all three of the operas making up Puccini's Tritico - as La Frugola in Il tabarro, as the Princess in Suor Angelica and as Zita in Gianni Schicchi - soon after joining Australian Opera. In 1977 she sang the Princess again, opposite Joan Sutherland as Suor Angelica. During their great confrontation scene, the two tall, imposing ladies "struck sparks off each other", as one reviewer put it.
The Duchess of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers and the Countess in The Queen of Spades were both successful; so was Kabanicha (1980).
Raisbeck's career ended officially in 1985 with a much-admired performance of the First Prioress in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. She sang on for another three years, finally retiring in 1988, aged 72.
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