Donald Smith (tenor)
Donald Sydney Smith OBE (27 July 1920 – 1 December 1998) was an Australian operatic tenor. His voice had a bright Italianate quality, which could match in size, carrying power and tonal allure the voices of most sopranos and mezzos. He attracted a fiercely loyal public following, and many Australians who had no prior experience of opera became opera lovers through Smith's work. His performances were regularly sold out with The Australian Opera at the Sydney Opera House.[not verified in body]
Early years and background
Donald Sydney Smith was born in Bundaberg, Queensland, on 27 July 1920. Smith's early schooling and education was spasmodic and at around 10 years old, while in 4th grade primary school, he was removed from school by his parents (Donald Sydney Smith and Elizabeth Maud Smith - née Clarque), to help work on his family's milk run and dairy property.
At around the age of 12 years Smith was sentenced to the Westbrook Farm Home for boys (outside Toowoomba). Here he spent some seven months for the alleged crime of stealing and joy riding in a friend's father's motor vehicle. Smith was incarcerated in this notorious place for a misdemeanor, that today would not rate even a reprimand,[weasel words] let alone a custodial sentence. He was subsequently released into the care of relatives (Leslie Robertson) of his mother, who lived at that time in Toowoomba. On his return to Bundaberg, and during this period in his early teenage years, Smith continued to educate himself whilst working as a sugar cane cutter on properties in and around the Bundaberg area.
When he was 18 years old, Smith met Thelma Joyce (Joy) Lovett, (who was 16 years old at that time), and who would remain together for the next 57 years, until Smith's death. They married in Bundaberg on 13 September 1941. Smith worked in the capacity as an apprentice sugar chemist for the Bundaberg Sugar Millaquin Mill. In 1942 their son Robin was born, and his two daughters Deanna Joy and Carol Beth were born in 1943 and 1945 respectively.
Smith enlisted in the WWll war effort on 20 December 1941, and was discharged from the 47th Australian Infantry Battalion of the Citizens Military Forces on 28 October 1943. During this period, he served in the Citizens Military Forces and the Australian Imperial Force, on continuous full-time war service, both in Australia and at Milne Bay, New Guinea. It was in New Guinea whilst serving as private and a machine gunner, that Donald was wounded in the right hand by friendly fire, after being mistaken for the enemy, whilst setting up range markers for the machine guns. He was first transported to an American-based hospital ship for treatment of his injuries. The Australian Army at that time were unaware of where he had been taken. Therefore, it was during this time that his wife Joy (who was on her way to hospital to deliver their first daughter Deanna), was advised by the Army that he was reported "missing in action, believed to be deceased". During recuperation for his injuries and after being repatriated to Australia, Joy was then advised that Smith was still alive.
Smith began his career singing on the local radio station 4BU Bundaberg, singing mainly country and western songs. His first singing teacher in Bundaberg was a lady named Kate Gratehead. It was she who helped him refine his musical ability and vocal technique for his natural tenor voice. After the birth of their third child, Smith and his wife Joy left Bundaberg and relocated firstly to Toowoomba and later to Brisbane. Here Smith became acquainted with the well known band leader J.J. Kelly. Under Kelly's direction, and also working with the conductor George English, he performed some of the tenor roles in his first forays into grand opera. This included the lead tenor role of Sir Walter Raleigh, in Sir Edward German's Merrie England in Brisbane in 1944. He also performed the lead tenor role of Thaddeus in Michael William Balfe's The Bohemian Girl and the role of Don Caesar de Brazen in William Vincent Wallace's opera Maritana.
In 1948, Smith joined the Brisbane Opera Society, and sang roles such as Don José (Carmen), the title role in Faust, the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Roméo (Roméo et Juliette) and Canio (Pagliacci). Canio was a role for which Donald Smith became renowned throughout his long career. In 1952 he began two years of study at London's National School of Opera, after winning the Mobil Quest singing competition in Australia. After a brief period overseas in Italy and England, he returned to Australia, and sang with an Italian touring company in 1955, alongside singers such as Gabriella Tucci and Ken Neate. In 1958 he appeared with the then Elizabeth Trust Opera Company, singing Count Almaviva (The Barber of Seville). In 1960 he sang the role of Pinkerton for the first time opposite Dame Joan Hammond's Madama Butterfly, performing in Brisbane at Her Majesty's Theatre.
He made his Sadler's Wells debut in England in 1962, where he performed many Verdi operas including Attila, Rigoletto and Un ballo in maschera. He also performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he made his debut as Calaf in Puccini's Turandot opposite the English soprano Amy Shuard. He established his career in the UK for six years, before returning to Australia in 1967 to sing with the Australian Opera in major roles including Canio, Manrico (Il trovatore), Bob Boles (Peter Grimes), the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Dick Johnson (The Girl of the Golden West), Cavaradossi (Tosca), Radames (Aida), and King Gustavus (Un ballo in maschera). He also sang the Germanic operatic repertoire, including Florestan in Fidelio and Eric in The Flying Dutchman.
During the 1970s, Smith and his son Robin Donald, also a tenor, made operatic history together, alternating singing the role of Eric in The Flying Dutchman, in performance with the Australian Opera Company (now Opera Australia). Robin also sang the role of The Steersman in performances on other occasions, when Donald was singing the role of Eric. These are the only known performances of any father and son tenors ever singing these roles together in this opera.
On 21 January 1973 Smith was the first voice to sing in the Sydney Opera House, when he appeared in the first test concert in the Opera Theatre, along with Elizabeth Fretwell and members of the ABC National Training Orchestra, conducted by Robert Miller.
While Italian opera (and particularly where sung in English) was his natural metier, he also performed many concerts and song recitals. Together with his son Robin Donald, they presented in 1974 a series of "Smith & Son" concerts throughout Australia singing in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
Smith's last performance for the Australian Opera was in Verdi's I masnadieri in 1980 with Joan Sutherland. While Smith and Sutherland did perform together in a number of concerts at the Sydney Opera House, I masnadieri was the only occasion when these two Australian icons performed a complete staged opera together. His health began to fail and in 1981 he retired from the professional operatic stage. He later became a singing teacher in Brisbane at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music.
Smith made many individual recordings both in England with the Sadler's Wells Opera Company and in Australia with EMI records and other recording companies. He also appears in compilation videos and CD's such as Celebration – 40 Years of Opera, and Australian Singers of Renown in Opera, Operetta & Song, compiled by John Cargher.
Smith died in the Pleasantville Nursing Home in Brisbane on 1 December 1998.
His eldest grandson, Jason Cundy, was an English Premier League player for Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Ipswich, and played for England U21.
- Maria F. Rich, ed. (1976). Who's Who in Opera. New York, New York: Arno Press. p. 506. ISBN 0-405-06652-X. Retrieved 6 June 2011. Note: [on-line] version only supplies a snippet view.
- "Smith Donald Sydney : Service Number - QX48655 : Date of birth - 27 Jul 1920 : Place of birth - Bundaberg Qld : Place of enlistment - Bundaberg Qld : Next of Kin - Smith Thelma". Record Search. National Archives of Australia. 15 November 2001. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
- Original Birth Certificate of Donald Robin Smith
- Certificate of Discharge No.18841
- Music Council of Australia Archived 23 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
- Opera-L Archives[unreliable source?]
- The Wolanski Foundation
- Celebration – 40 Years of Opera Archived 17 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- Australian Singers of Renown
- It's an Honour: OBE
- Sydney Morning Herald, obituary, 5 December 1998
- The Dictionary of Performing Arts in Australia