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Helmrich, Dorothy Jane Adele (1889–1984)

by Jane E. Hunt and Jill Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Dorothy Jane Adele Helmrich (1889-1984), singer and arts administrator, was born on 25 July 1889 at Woollahra, Sydney, youngest of six surviving children of John Hellmrich, civil servant, and his wife Esther Isabel, née Pepper, both born in New South Wales. Dorothy enjoyed a carefree childhood; her education at Mosman Academy and Mosman Public School was followed by a year’s commercial training. She dropped the second `l’ in the family name.

Raised in a musical family, to whom she was known as Jane, she began piano lessons at 7, saw her first musical at 8, and started singing with Mosman Musical Society. She decided to have voice instruction with its lead singer, William Beattie. At society musicales her voice attracted attention, and Alice, Lady Cooper, an Australian expatriate revisiting Sydney from London, became her patron, arranging for singing lessons at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music with Stefan Mavrogordato, and then at the Royal College of Music, London (1919-22) and the London School of Opera. Dorothy thought of Cooper as `a real fairy godmother’.

Impressed by her talent, her teacher Sir George Henschel arranged Helmrich’s début at the Wigmore Hall, London. Provincial engagements followed. Her career coincided with the beginnings of broadcasting and the renaissance of English music; she was a regular soloist at Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts. She toured widely in Britain and Europe, as well as America, and performed at the Salzburg Festival. A mezzo-soprano who made her name as a German lieder singer, Helmrich built her international reputation on sincerity, professionalism and an extensive repertoire. A Polish reviewer wrote: `The voice is clear and voluminous, the quality is velvet and the colour very warm’.

In 1936 Helmrich toured Australia for the Australian Broadcasting Commission; she also performed in New Zealand. Stranded in Sydney in 1941 after another tour which included Java, Singapore and New Zealand, Helmrich accepted a post at the conservatorium. In 1944 she sang in its production of The Pearl Tree, an opera composed by its director, Edgar Bainton. Helmrich remained on the staff, a respected vocal coach specialising in lieder, until 1974.

In 1943, on the basis of earlier war work in England, Helmrich founded the Australian Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts `to bring art, in all its forms, to the people’. She made a study tour of Britain in 1946. The CEMA was next year renamed the Arts Council of Australia; Helmrich was president (1943-63) of the New South Wales division. With negligible resources, she built a broad-based organisation sponsoring art, drama, music and arts education nationwide, particularly in schools and rural areas. The première in 1950 of the ballet Corroboree, by the Australian composer John Antill, and a royal gala performance in 1954 were great successes. Other early movements aided by the Arts Council with Helmrich’s personal attention included the Bodenwieser Ballet, and (Dame) Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre.

In 1947 Helmrich secured a grant of £600 for the Arts Council from the Advisory Board of Adult Education, of which she was a member. In 1950 she persuaded the Joint Coal Board to give a pantechnicon to transport the first mobile theatre unit; by 1965 there were four. While the State divisions attracted funds from their respective governments, Commonwealth funding did not appear until later. She published The First Twenty-Five Years: A Study of the Arts Council of Australia in 1968.

In the wider cultural community Helmrich served on the Australian United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s committee for music, the ABC’s State broadcasting advisory committee and the Sydney Opera House’s advisory committee for music and drama. Awarded the Society of Artists’ medal in 1955, she was appointed OBE in 1959. Helmrich’s associates described her as persuasive, determined, charismatic and charming, and commented on her vision and pioneering achievement in making the arts widely available. She elicited support for Arts Council projects, according to her colleague Colin Ballantyne, by handling people in power `with a mixture of quiet authority and twinkling good humour’. Twice engaged, she never married. Although raised an Anglican, from the age of 19 she had espoused theosophy, which, she said, provided her with `a philosophical basis for living’. In London she had joined the United Lodge of Theosophists, and her theosophical contacts in Australia were invaluable throughout her career. She died on 1 September 1984 at Strathfield and was cremated. At her request excerpts from The Light of Asia and the Bhagavad Gita were read at the funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • Arts Council of Aust (New South Wales), A Five Years’ Record, 1943-1947 (1947)
  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (1967)
  • V. Carell and B. Dean, On Wings of Song (1982)
  • H. de Berg, interview with D. Helmrich (transcript, 1975, National Library of Australia)
  • Helmrich papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sydney Conservatorium of Music Archives.

Citation details

Jane E. Hunt and Jill Roe, 'Helmrich, Dorothy Jane Adele (1889–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/helmrich-dorothy-jane-adele-12619/text22733, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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