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Slapoffski, Joseph Gustave (1862–1951)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Joseph Gustave Slapoffski (1862-1951), musician, was born on 20 August 1862 in London, son of Adolph Slapoffski, Russian-born musician, and his Sydney-born second wife Anne, daughter of Major William Hunter, military secretary to Sir Richard Bourke. Growing up at Oxford, England, Gustave attended Christ Church Cathedral School and took up the violin, soon gaining a reputation as a prodigy. Impressed by his playing, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, arranged in 1876 for him to enter the Royal Academy of Music where he studied violin with Prosper Sainton and composition with (Sir) Arthur Sullivan.

Completing his studies in 1879, Slapoffski toured as a soloist, played first violin with the Opéra Comique in London and then became musical director at the Princess Theatre, Manchester. He joined the (Royal) Carl Rosa Opera company, becoming leader and solo violin, assistant conductor and eventually chief conductor. On 4 October 1881 he married Charlotte Barrett (d.1896) at All Saints Anglican Church, Oxford.

In 1900, on the recommendation of Hans Richter, George Musgrove engaged Slapoffski as musical director to bring a season of opera to Australia. During seasons in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and New Zealand, performances included Australian premières of Wagner's Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman. Singing soprano with the company was Mme Slapoffski (d.1952), Gustave's second wife Elizabeth Frances, who as Lillian Williams had sung with the Carl Rosa company and whom he had apparently married in England. Critics praised Herr Slapoffski's 'grip' of his orchestra and his wife's 'artistic refinement', unforced acting and vocal purity in roles such as Elsa (Lohengrin) and Marguerite (Faust).

Short, heavily muscled, with 'the smile of a good-natured Mephistopheles', Slapoffski for nearly four decades was at the heart of Australasian theatrical musical life. On 9 May 1901 he conducted a concert at the Exhibition Building, Melbourne, to celebrate the opening of the first Federal parliament. Next year he conducted the orchestral concerts in (Dame) Nellie Melba's Australian tour. In 1903 he directed The Fortune Teller for Musgrove with Mme Slapoffski in a leading role. Following her to the United States of America where she was on tour, he rejoined Musgrove in 1906 to present Nellie Stewart to American audiences in her famous role as Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Musgrove and Slapoffski then travelled to Germany to engage singers for an Australian Wagner season which opened in 1907, introducing Die Walküre to a 'spellbound' audience; Slapoffski, as conductor, counted it 'the proudest night' of his life. In the subsequent years he fulfilled a host of conducting engagements with the Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society, the Sydney Symphony and Lady Northcote orchestras and others, and was musical director for several visiting artists. He was a foundation council-member for the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music where his wife taught singing in 1916-28. In 1919 he was made an associate of the Royal Academy of Music.

Closely associated with J. C. Williamson & Co., Slapoffski was musical director of its grand opera company in 1919-22 and for its brilliant Gilbert and Sullivan seasons of 1920, 1926-27 and 1931-32. In 1925-26 he was musical director of the Dunedin Exhibition, New Zealand, and on 22 March 1931 he conducted 3000 singers and 500 players in a Melba memorial concert at the Adelaide Oval. From the mid-1930s the dynamic, 'bald-headed old maestro' threw himself into support of the National Theatre Movement.

Paralysed in his right arm from his earlier years as a violinist, Slapoffski conducted with his left. A contemporary described him as 'a sound conductor without any cultural frills or social graces and in the habit of expressing himself tersely, forcibly and not altogether politely'. Affectionately known as 'Slap', he referred to his wife as 'the missus'. Aspiring singers and musicians regarded him as 'a holy terror' as an adjudicator: he reputedly told one lamentable singer that he owed ten points and advised another to return to her wash-tub. Trim and vigorous until old age, he had been an amateur boxing champion in his youth. He died at Windsor, Melbourne, on 3 August 1951 and was cremated. His wife and five of the eight children of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stewart, My Life's Story (Syd, 1923)
  • R. Foster, Come Listen to My Song (Syd, 1949)
  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • J. Glennon, Australian Music and Musicians (Adel, 1968)
  • L. Evans, Hello Mr Melody Man (Syd, 1983)
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 14 Feb 1901
  • Theatre Magazine (New York), 2 Dec 1912
  • New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, Prospectus, 1916-28
  • Life (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1940
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 20, 27 Oct, 3, 17, 24 Nov, 1 Dec 1900, 19 Jan, 23, 30 Mar, 6, 27 Apr, 4, 18 May 1901, 28 June, 8, 20 Nov 1902, 28, 30 Nov, 5, 12 Dec 1903
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1900, 29 Feb 1904, 17 Sept 1907, 1 Feb 1908, 11, 23 Nov 1911, 19 Apr 1912, 24 Oct 1925, 11, 16 Apr 1927, 9 Dec 1931, 29 Jan 1932
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 Nov 1903, 22 Aug, 17 Oct 1929, 30 Mar, 6, 13, 20, 27 Apr, 11, 18, 25 May, 1, 8, 15 June 1933
  • Punch (Melbourne), 20 Feb 1919
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18, 23 Mar 1931
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Aug 1951
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 1 Aug 1979.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Slapoffski, Joseph Gustave (1862–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/slapoffski-joseph-gustave-8452/text14861, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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