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Collier, Marie Elizabeth (1927–1971)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Marie Elizabeth Collier (1927-1971), dramatic soprano, was born on 16 April 1927 at Ballarat, Victoria, daughter of Thomas Robinson Collier (1894-1962), railway employee, and his wife Annie Marie, née Bechaz, both Victorian born. Thomas enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 14 July 1915, was commissioned in January 1917 and was attached to the 8th Brigade as signal officer. For maintaining communications under fire near Ypres, Belgium, in October, he was awarded the Military Cross. At Corbie, France, on 23 April 1918, though shelled and almost blinded by gas, he kept his lines open, winning a Bar to his M.C. Twice mentioned in dispatches, he returned to Australia where his appointment terminated on 19 November 1919. He resumed work with the Victorian Railways and was in turn a porter, station master, train controller, staff superintendent (from 1946) and chief traffic manager (from 1956). During World War II he had served at Land Headquarters, Melbourne, becoming director of transportation and rising to honorary colonel. He died on 3 April 1962.

Marie was educated at Camberwell High School. A choir-member at St John's Anglican Church, Camberwell, she was involved in the Youth Operatic Society's Gilbert and Sullivan productions. On leaving school she worked as a pharmacist's assistant. When a broken arm prevented her from playing the piano, she began to train as a singer. In 1948 she won a scholarship to the University Conservatorium of Music and completed the first year of a diploma. Short of money, and discouraged by the formality of the conservatorium's teaching methods, she joined the chorus of a J. C. Williamson Ltd production of Oklahoma. She turned for tuition to Katherine Wielaert who, after eighteen months of private lessons, sent her to classes with Gertrude Johnson, director of the National Theatre Movement's opera school.

On 18 March 1952 Collier made her operatic début as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana with the National Theatre Opera Company. She was an instant success. So many offers were received that Wielaert advised her to make singing her career. On 10 December that year she married a civil engineer Victor Benjamin Vorwerg in the chapel of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.

Her first dramatic success came in 1953 as Magda Sorel in Menotti's The Consul at the Melbourne Arts Festival organized by Johnson's N.T.M. On 1 March 1954 Collier appeared as Giulietta in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann at the Princess Theatre in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II; late that year she also appeared as Helen of Troy in a disastrously miscast production of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène.

Assisted by a grant from the Hawthorn City Council, in early 1955 Collier left for Milan, Italy, where she studied with Ugo Benevenuto-Giusti. The 7th Earl of Harewood, artistic director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, heard her sing at Milan and recommended her to Rafael Kubelik, the local musical director. In 1956 she entered into a contract with the Royal Opera Company and won a three-year scholarship for advanced study offered by the Worshipful Company of Musicians. Her early roles at Covent Garden included Giulietta in Tales of Hoffmann, the First Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute, Polyxena in Berlioz's The Trojans and Musetta in Puccini's La Bohème. In May 1960 Evan Senior described her Musetta as 'the most astonishing and effective playing and full-voiced singing of the role I have ever heard or seen'.

On loan to Sadler's Wells for the 1959-60 season, Collier performed with the regular company and the New Opera Group. In 1960 she sang three title roles for the first time: Madam Butterfly, Katya Kabanova and Tosca. She also appeared in lighter parts for the group, notably Concepcion in Ravel's L'Heure Espagnol in 1961.

Back at Covent Garden, Collier sang Santuzza in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Cavalleria Rusticana, Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, Marie in Wozzeck and Elizabeth in Don Carlos. In 1962 she toured South America with the Royal Opera Company, appearing in the first performance of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires. Later that year she created the role of Hecuba in Tippett's King Priam, singing it at Covent Garden and at Coventry Cathedral. In January 1963 Collier sang her first Tosca at Covent Garden, with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. Harold Rosenthal wrote: 'she was vocally in thrilling form . . . There is no denying that this Australian soprano possesses one of the most vibrantly exciting and ''Italianate" voices now to be heard'.

Collier's international reputation was established when she sang both the title role in the first Western performance of Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova at Covent Garden on 2 December 1963 (in the presence of the composer) and the role of Emilia Marty in Janacek's The Makropulos Case at Sadler's Wells in February 1964. At the end of that month she returned to Australia to appear—at the composer's request—in Walton's Troilus and Cressida at the Adelaide Festival of Arts.

From that time Collier was in demand not only for modern roles, but for the regular, lyric-dramatic parts. She appeared in Vienna, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and at San Francisco, with considerable success. In May 1964 she again sang Tosca at Covent Garden: her performance was compared with that of Maria Callas who had sung the role there only a few months before, and Arthur Jacobs declared that Collier's was the better. When Callas cancelled three performances as Tosca scheduled for 1965, Collier replaced her. After a representative of La Scala had heard only one rehearsal, a contract was offered for Collier to sing at Milan. Reviewers everywhere sounded her praises. In 1966 she was awarded the Harriet Cohen international musical medal. The pace, however, increased season by season, with international tours and the filming of Tosca and of Il Tabarro with Gobbi. During 1967, while singing in twenty major opera houses, she was under doctor's orders to rest, but the pressure to consolidate her career was too tempting.

International stardom was not, for Collier, a synonym for success. She made no secret of her loneliness and was once reported as saying: 'When rehearsals are over and you leave the theatre, there's nothing'. It was this public statement that led to rumours of suicide when her sudden death was announced on 8 December 1971. She had died of intercranial haemorrhage and a fractured skull in Charing Cross Hospital, London, after falling from a window of her London flat. Her blood-alcohol level was .28. The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death. Survived by her husband, daughter and three sons, Marie Collier was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • J. Cargher, Opera and Ballet in Australia (Syd, 1977)
  • D. Arundell, The Story of Sadler's Wells 1683-1977 (Lond, 1978)
  • A. Saint et al, A History of the Royal Opera House Convent Garden 1732-1982 (Lond, 1982)
  • People (Sydney), 15 July 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1960, 5 Apr 1962, 26 Nov 1964, 9, 16 Dec 1971
  • Times (London), 29 Jan 1963, 22 Feb, 9 Dec 1971
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1965, 9 Dec, 14 Dec 1971
  • Canberra Times, 13 Jan 1967, 9, 17 Dec 1971
  • Herald (Melbourne), 19 Jan, 20 Mar 1967, 8 Dec 1971.

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Collier, Marie Elizabeth (1927–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/collier-marie-elizabeth-9791/text17305, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Vorweg, Marie
Birth

16 April 1927
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Death

8 December 1971
London, Middlesex, England

Religious Influence
Occupation