Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Foster, Roland (1879–1966)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Roland Foster (1879-1966), singer and teacher, was born on 12 July 1879 at Dundalk, Louth, Ireland, son of William Edward Foster, described variously as merchant and commercial traveller, and his wife Margaret, née Gilholy. His English father came of a military family, that of his Irish mother contained much music, including a minor composer. Educated mainly in northern England, Foster entered a wholesaler merchant's office when his father died in 1894 and became a senior clerk; but he longed to sing. He began to take lessons as a bass from Eugene Goossens senior, and later from Frederick Austin. In 1902 he won a scholarship to the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music and went on to the Guildhall School of Music in 1904-07. After miscellaneous professional work round England, he turned to concert promotion and teaching because of ill health.

In 1912 Foster was invited to become secretary-manager to (Dame) Clara Butt and Kennerley Rumford on a world concert tour. The party arrived in Sydney on 10 May 1913. The principals left after seventy-eight Australian concerts on 2 January 1914, but Foster stayed behind at Clara Butt's sugestion and began teaching in Sydney. When Henri Verbrugghen arrived as the director of the new State Conservatorium of Music, he invited Foster, whom he had met in England, to become the first teacher of singing. He commenced work on 6 March 1916 with fifty-five students.

During the next forty-six years, Foster trained hundreds of singers including Rosa Alba, Essie Ackland, Raymond Beatty and Geoffrey Chard. In 1925 he began a regular annual stint as adjudicator for the Queensland Eisteddfod: he occasionally officiated also at South Street, Ballarat, and at Wellington and Invercargill in New Zealand. His busy life also included direction of the conservatorium's opera school from 1934 and the production of broadcast operas. In 1929 he launched the Music Advancement Guild in Sydney to counter the incursions of mechanical music; it developed into the Music Week Movement of which Foster was president in 1932-35. In 1933-36, he was director also of the City of Sydney Eisteddfod and in 1950-63 president of the Sydney Royal Philharmonic Society. He wrote two popular books Vocal Success (1934) and Competitive Singing (1941). On return trips to Europe he was appointed an honorary member of the Society of English Singers (1919), an honorary fellow of the Guildhall School of Music (1927) and in 1954 O.B.E.

Foster married his assistant teacher Jessica Cummins at St Philip's Church of England on 30 December 1918; they had no children and were divorced in September 1937. On 14 December 1939 he married another assistant, Thelma Irene Houston, with Methodist forms at a private house in Croydon. She died before him without issue. His autobiography Come Listen to My Song was published in 1949.

Foster retired from the conservatorium in December 1962. A lifelong sporting enthusiast, prone to gambling and high living, he fared badly in retirement. Rescued from penury by friends, he spent his last years in a nursing home at Hunters Hill where he died on 1 November 1966; he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Musical News and Musical Digest, 1 Aug 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 1932, 4 Nov 1966.

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Foster, Roland (1879–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-roland-6220/text10701, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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