Donald Smith (tenor)

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Donald Smith

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 ]

Tenor is a male voice type in classical music whose vocal range lies between the countertenor and baritone. The tenor's vocal range extends up to C5. The low extreme for tenors is roughly A2 (two As below middle C). At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to the second F above middle C (F5). The tenor voice type is generally divided into the leggero tenor, lyric tenor, spinto tenor, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor.


Early years and background

Donald Sydney Smith was born in Bundaberg, Queensland, [1] on 27 July 1920. [2] 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.

Bundaberg City in Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg is a city in south-east Queensland, Australia, about 385 kilometres (239 mi) north of the state capital, Brisbane. It is 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) inland from the coast and situated on the Burnett River. It is a major centre within the broader Wide Bay–Burnett geographical region.

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.[ citation needed ] 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.

Toowoomba City in Queensland, Australia

Toowoomba is a regional city in the Darling Downs region in the Australian state of Queensland. It is 125 km (78 mi) west of Queensland's capital city Brisbane by road. The estimated urban population of Toowoomba as of June 2017 was 135,631. A university and cathedral city, it hosts the Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers each September and national championship events for the sports of mountain biking and motocross. There are more than 150 public parks and gardens in Toowoomba. It has developed into a regional centre for business and government services. It is also referred to as the capital of the Darling Downs. Toowoomba is served by Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport and the smaller Toowoomba City Aerodrome.

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. [3] 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.

Donald Robin Smith is an Australian operatic tenor who is known professionally as Robin Donald. He is the son of the Australian operatic tenor Donald Smith.

Military career

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. [4] 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.[ citation needed ]

Milne Bay bay of the Solomon Sea on the coast of New Guinea

Milne Bay is a large bay in Milne Bay Province, south-eastern Papua New Guinea. More than 35 kilometres long and over 15 kilometres wide, Milne Bay is a sheltered deep-water harbor accessible via Ward Hunt Strait. It is surrounded by the heavily wooded Stirling Range to the north and south, and on the northern shore, a narrow coastal strip, soggy with sago and mangrove swamps. The bay is named after Sir Alexander Milne.

New Guinea Island in the Pacific Ocean

New Guinea is a large island separated by a shallow sea from the rest of the Australian continent. It is the world's second-largest, after Greenland, covering a land area of 785,753 km2 (303,381 sq mi), and the largest wholly or partly within the Southern Hemisphere and Oceania.

Friendly fire attack on friendly forces misidentified as hostile ones

Friendly fire is an attack by a military force on their own forces, or allied or neutral forces, while attempting to attack the enemy. Examples include misidentifying the target as hostile, cross-fire while engaging an enemy, long range ranging errors or inaccuracy. Accidental fire not intended to attack the enemy, and deliberate firing on one's own troops for disciplinary reasons, is not called friendly fire; nor is unintentional harm to non-combatants or structures, which is sometimes referred to as collateral damage. Training accidents and bloodless incidents also do not qualify as friendly fire in terms of casualty reporting.

Operatic career

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 .

Country music, also known as country and western, and hillbilly music, is a genre of popular music that originated in the southern United States in the early 1920s. It takes its roots from genres such as folk music and blues.

Brisbane capital city of Queensland, Australia

Brisbane is the capital of and the most populated city in the Australian state of Queensland, and the third most populous city in Australia. Brisbane's metropolitan area has a population of 2.5 million, and the South East Queensland region, centred on Brisbane, encompasses a population of more than 3.5 million. The Brisbane central business district stands on the historic European settlement and is situated inside a peninsula of the Brisbane River, about 15 kilometres from its mouth at Moreton Bay. The metropolitan area extends in all directions along the floodplain of the Brisbane River Valley between Moreton Bay and the Great Dividing Range, sprawling across several of Australia's most populous local government areas (LGAs)—most centrally the City of Brisbane, which is by far the most populous LGA in the nation. The demonym of Brisbane is "Brisbanite".

Edward German English musician and composer

Sir Edward German was an English musician and composer of Welsh descent, best remembered for his extensive output of incidental music for the stage and as a successor to Arthur Sullivan in the field of English comic opera. Some of his light operas, especially Merrie England, are still performed.

In 1948, Smith joined the Brisbane Opera Society, and sang roles such as Don José ( Carmen ), the title role in Faust , [1] 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. [5] 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.

In 1968, the first opera telecast in Australia, Tosca, featured Marie Collier in the title role, Smith as Cavaradossi, and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. [6]

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. [7]

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. [6] 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, [8] and Australian Singers of Renown in Opera, Operetta & Song, compiled by John Cargher. [9]

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.


In 1973 Donald Smith was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. [10] He was the first resident member of the Australian Opera to be awarded this honour.

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  1. 1 2 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.
  2. "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.
  3. Original Birth Certificate of Donald Robin Smith
  4. Certificate of Discharge No.18841
  5. Music Council of Australia Archived 23 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine .
  6. 1 2 Opera-L Archives [ unreliable source? ]
  7. The Wolanski Foundation
  8. Celebration – 40 Years of Opera Archived 17 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine .
  9. Australian Singers of Renown
  10. It's an Honour: OBE