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Warren-Smith, Neil (1929–1981)

by Moffatt Oxenbould

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Neil Warren-Smith (1929-1981), bass baritone, was born on 11 September 1929 in Melbourne, fifth of six children of Victorian-born parents Francis James Smith, butcher, and his wife Elsie, née Conway, and was named Neil Warren. Encouraged by his mother, Neil began vocal studies with Henry Thomas and Ethel Manders. While working in his father’s butchery, he won prizes—several in the Melbourne Eisteddfod—and sang in the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. He married Roma O’Connor in 1949 at Richmond (they later divorced). From about that time he used Warren-Smith as his surname. The conductor Hector Crawford engaged him for Music for the People concerts and prepared him for major competitions. After Thomas’s death Warren-Smith began a long association with the teachers Henry Portnoj and his wife Annie, who encouraged him to relax and centre his natural bass voice, developing a technique that served him well.

In 1955 Warren-Smith sang Leporello in Don Giovanni with the National Theatre Movement in Victoria; though the amateur production was rudimentary, he realised that he wanted to spend the rest of his life working in opera. That year he won the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s vocal competition. This success led to appearances with ABC symphony orchestras, conducted by Joseph Post, who was the musical director of a new opera company being formed by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Post recommended Warren-Smith’s engagement as a junior principal who would also sing in the chorus. In the 1956 season he sang four small roles and thereafter appeared with the company (later the Australian Opera) as its principal bass every year until his death.

Warren-Smith’s love of history made the roles of historical figures—Boris Godunov, King Philip II in Don Carlos and Kutuzov in War and Peace—particularly appealing. He was also a superb comic actor, an ideal exponent of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kecal in The Bartered Bride and the title role of Gianni Schicchi. His versatility was astounding and he was enormously stimulated by working with the directors Stefan Haag, John Young and John Copley—among others. He loved the rehearsal process, developing credible characters organically, with impeccable timing and an instinct to evolve from the score the physical language and manner of the role he was playing.

On 3 June 1966 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Warren-Smith married Beverley Anne Dean, a ballet dancer. He appeared often in New Zealand and in 1966 sang with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in Britain. After his huge success as Ochs in Rosenkavalier in Australia in 1972, he was engaged to sing the role in London in 1974-75 in a new English National Opera production. This led to further overseas offers, but he preferred to pursue his career at home with the Australian Opera and State companies.

Highly regarded by his peers, Warren-Smith was a source of advice and encouragement to younger singers. He exemplified the pioneer spirit of the early years of the national company; in response to telling somebody he was an opera singer, he was asked ‘But what do you do for a living?’  Times changed and regular employment in opera became a reality, and yet he always yearned for the hurly-burly of the late 1950s. Though at the forefront of the company’s artistic development, he did not always welcome new directions—particularly the decision to perform many operas in the original language rather than in English translation. In 1973 he was highly praised for his Kutuzov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace in the Australian Opera’s first performance in the new Sydney Opera House.

Warren-Smith’s large repertoire benefited from his ability to make singing, rather than speaking, appear as the most natural means of communication. He sang the principal bass parts in operas by Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Britten and others, as well as successfully performing comic works by Gilbert and Sullivan and Johann Strauss II. In 1976 he was appointed OBE.

Although Warren-Smith had retired from the Australian Opera in April 1981, a new production of The Bartered Bride was planned as a vehicle for him, during the celebrations of the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary and his association with it through those years. However, he died of myocardial infarction on 28 July 1981 at Preston, Melbourne, and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their son, and the daughter and son of his first marriage. The production of The Bartered Bride went ahead—dedicated to his memory. His autobiography, 25 Years of Australian Opera (1983), produced with Frank Salter, was published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Bebbington (ed), The Oxford Companion to Australian Music (1997)
  • M. Oxenbould, Timing is Everything (2005)
  • A. Gyger, Australia’s Operatic Phoenix from World War II to War and Peace (2005).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Moffatt Oxenbould, 'Warren-Smith, Neil (1929–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/warren-smith-neil-15851/text27050, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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