Marjorie Florence Lawrence CBE (17 February 1907 –13 January 1979) was an Australian soprano, particularly noted as an interpreter of Richard Wagner's operas. She was the first Metropolitan Opera soprano to perform the immolation scene in Götterdämmerung by riding her horse into the flames as Wagner had intended. She was afflicted by polio from 1941. Lawrence later served on the faculty of the School of Music at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Her life story was told in the 1955 film Interrupted Melody , in which she was portrayed by Eleanor Parker, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Lawrence.
Lawrence was born at Deans Marsh, 135 km (84 mi) south west of Melbourne. She was the fifth of six children of William Lawrence, the local butcher, and Elizabeth (née Smith) Lawrence, church organist. Her mother died when Lawrence was two and she was raised by her father's mother. Lawrence attended local schools, joined the choir at St Pauls Church of England and was a soloist by age ten. Her interest in opera was sparked by gramophone records of Nellie Melba and Clara Butt. She won a number of vocal competitions when aged in her teens, and at the age of 18 she travelled to Melbourne for work. She received voice lessons from Ivor Boustead but had to return home due to financial hardship. Lawrence failed to gain a place at the Royal South Street competitions in Ballarat but went on to win the Sun Aria at Geelong in 1928. Australian baritone John Brownlee advised her to study in Paris with Cécile Gilly. Lawrence boarded with a French family and, under Gilly's tuition, was able to extend her voice's upper range.
In January 1932, Lawrence made her operatic debut in Monte Carlo as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser .On 25 February 1933, she made her first appearance at the Opera Garnier in Paris, singing Ortrud in Lohengrin , and in the same year she sang in the world premiere of Joseph Canteloube's Vercingétorix.
On 18 December 1935, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City singing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre , and the following year performed the immolation scene in Götterdämmerung by riding her horse into the flames as Wagner had intended, the first Metropolitan Opera soprano to do so.She had been an athletic child and learned to ride in Australia. In this famous performance, Lauritz Melchior was her Siegfried. The performance was recorded and is the only complete Götterdämmerung with Melchior as Siegfried on record.
Lawrence's physicality and beauty made her popular with audiences – she performed the "Dance of the Seven Veils" in Richard Strauss's Salomemore convincingly than most other sopranos. Just as Lawrence's great compatriot Florence Austral had been able to alternate the role of Brünnhilde with Frida Leider, she herself was able to alternate the role with Kirsten Flagstad at the Metropolitan in 1937.
She turned down a small role in the premiere of George Enescu's opera Œdipe in 1938, which caused her fellow Australian (by adoption) Hephzibah Menuhin (a close friend of Enescu's) to consider the soprano "snobbish and petty".
Lawrence returned to Australia periodically from 1939, where English critic Neville Cardus wrote of the "'unselfconscious pathos' and 'intimate poetry' in her performances, of the 'superb range' of her powerful voice, 'rich in vocal splendour' throughout".
In 1939 it was announced she would play Dame Nellie Melba in the film The Life of Melba for Australia's Cinesound Productions. However the film never materialised due to the war.
On 29 March 1941, at New York City's City Hall, she married Dr. Thomas King, an osteopath and Christian Scientist.
During a performance in 1941 in Mexico, Lawrence found herself unable to stand—she had polio.She undertook the Sister Kenny treatment of muscle stimulation for paralysis in both legs. She returned to the stage 18 months later, performing in a chair, reclining or on a special platform; although hampered by her lack of mobility, she continued to perform until 1952. In 1944, during World War II, she performed in charity concerts to entertain troops in Australia, seated in a chair. A performance as Amneris in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida in Paris in 1946 was well received as were concert appearances of Richard Strauss's Elektra in December 1947 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Artur Rodzinski, but Lawrence left the stage, and instead began to work as a teacher. She retired to her ranch, Harmony Hills, in Hot Springs, Arkansas where she taught international students. She later accepted students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from the late 1970s until her death in 1979.
Although best known for her Wagnerian interpretations, Lawrence sang a range of other works, including Salome and Georges Bizet's Carmen . She made a number of excellent recordings, mainly of works by Wagner. She received many good reviews throughout her career. She had a solid career in France, Mexico, Australia and throughout South America, as well as the US. However, she was unable to build a substantial career in other parts of the world due to World War II, when her voice was prime. In 1946 she was awarded the cross of the Légion d'honneur for her work in France.
In 1949, Lawrence wrote her autobiography Interrupted Melody;by February 1950, Hollywood was interested in making a film and Lawrence indicated "If a film is made I will do the singing". In 1955, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the film version, Interrupted Melody , starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence; Parker loved opera and learned to sing all of the arias, although her singing was later dubbed in by soprano Eileen Farrell. Lawrence criticised the film as being untrue to her life.
Lawrence died, aged 71, of heart failure on 13 January 1979 at St Vincent's Hospital, Little Rock, Arkansas, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs, where she had made her home for many years.
In 1946 she was awarded the cross of the Légion d'honneur for her work in France. In 1976 she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire on the recommendation of the Government of Australia.
Interrupted Melody is a 1955 biographical musical film, filmed in CinemaScope and Eastman Color, directed by Curtis Bernhardt and starring Glenn Ford, Eleanor Parker, Roger Moore, and Cecil Kellaway. The film was produced for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Jack Cummings from a screenplay by Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence, Sonya Levien, and William Ludwig. It tells the story of Lawrence's rise to fame as an opera singer and her subsequent triumph over polio, with her husband's help. The operatic sequences were staged by Vladimir Rosing, and Eileen Farrell provided the singing voice for Parker.
Dame Nellie Melba GBE was an Australian operatic soprano. She became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th century, and was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. She took the pseudonym "Melba" from Melbourne, her home town.
Helen Francesca Traubel was an American opera and concert singer. A dramatic soprano, she was best known for her Wagnerian roles, especially those of Brünnhilde and Isolde.
Kirsten Malfrid Flagstad was a Norwegian opera singer and a highly regarded Wagnerian soprano. She ranks among the greatest singers of the 20th century, and many opera critics called hers "the voice of the century." Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote of her in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera: "No one within living memory surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and tone."
Jane Eaglen is an English dramatic soprano particularly known for her interpretations of the works of Richard Wagner and the title roles in Bellini's Norma and Puccini's Turandot.
Ibolyka Astrid Maria Varnay was a Swedish-born American dramatic soprano of Hungarian descent. She spent most of her career in the United States and Germany. She was one of the leading Wagnerian heroic sopranos of her generation.
Dame Gwyneth Jones is a Welsh operatic dramatic soprano, widely regarded as one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos in the second half of the 20th century.
Rita Hunter was a British operatic dramatic soprano.
Lisa Kinkead Gasteen AO, is an Australian operatic soprano, known for her performances of the works of Wagner. She won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1991. She did not perform between 2008 and 2011, due to neuro-muscular spasms in her neck.
Frida Leider was a German operatic soprano.
Florence Easton was a popular English dramatic soprano in the early 20th century. She was one of the most versatile singers of all time. She sang more than 100 parts, covering a wide range of styles and periods, from Mozart, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, Schreker and Krenek. In Wagner she sang virtually every soprano part, large and small from Senta onwards, including the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde.
Florence Austral was an Australian operatic soprano renowned for her interpretation of the most demanding Wagnerian female roles, although she never gained the opportunity to appear at the Bayreuth Festival or New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Deborah Polaski is an American opera and concert singer (soprano). She has specialized in dramatic soprano roles and also sings mezzo-soprano roles occasionally.
Christine Goerke is an American dramatic soprano.
Jennifer Wilson is an American soprano known especially for her Wagnerian opera roles. She is the daughter of Newton Wilson and Katherine Still. The daughter, granddaughter and niece of professional singers, instrumentalists and music educators, Wilson grew up steeped in music from opera and oratorio to rock 'n' roll and bluegrass. She began tap dance lessons at age 3, ballet at 8, piano at 10, and solo classical singing at 12. Wilson attended Cornell University for several years, eventually departing on a leave of absence which she filled with advanced training in acting, languages, and vocal studies with former Metropolitan Opera coloratura soprano Marilyn Cotlow. During this time, Wilson supported herself as a news bureau assistant and wire editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The consolidation of US international broadcast services in 1995 caused Wilson to lose her position with RFE/RL, forcing her to find other employment. At this point she took up singing full-time, though her breakthrough to the elusive ranks of international soloist was still several years away.
Janis Martin was an American opera singer who sang leading roles first as a mezzo-soprano and later as a soprano in opera houses throughout Europe and the United States. She was particularly known for her performances in the operas of Richard Wagner and sang at the Bayreuth Festival from 1968 to 1997.
Lise Lindstrom is an American operatic soprano. She is best known for the title role of Puccini's Turandot and also highly recognized in the dramatic repertory of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner.
Ute Vinzing is a German operatic soprano who received the title Kammersängerin. She is known for dramatic roles by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, including Brünnhilde, Isolde, Ortrud, Kundry, Elektra and the Dyer's Wife, which she performed internationally.
Dorothee Manski was a German-born American operatic soprano and voice teacher. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 335 performances, and took leading roles internationally, such as Wagner's Isolde at the Salzburg Festival.
Marita Napier was a South African operatic soprano, known internationally as a performer of music by Strauss and Wagner. She performed in 19 productions of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. In 1989, a recording of Wagner's Die Walküre with her in a Metropolitan Opera production was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. Napier was considered one of the best Turandot, having performed the role for over 70 times including 1989 production by Franco Zeffirelli at the Met.