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John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900–1969)

by Morris S. Williams

This article was published:

John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900-1969), by unknown photographer

John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900-1969), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3700239

John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900-1969), musician, was born on 7 January 1900 at Geelong, Victoria, son of James Watson Brownlee, farmer, and his wife Isabella Finlayson, née Mackenzie. Educated at a state school until he was about 14, he then briefly attended Gordon Technical College. In 1915 he was employed as a clerk by the Geelong hardware firm of Hawkes Bros.

A member of a musical family, Brownlee played the cornet in the Geelong Municipal Band. By his late teens it was apparent that he had a potentially fine baritone voice, and he was encouraged by the Hawkes family to take professional training. In 1921, after winning the gold medal as champion vocalist at the South Street competitions in Ballarat, he abandoned accountancy studies and moved to Melbourne to study singing under Ivor Boustead of the Albert Street Conservatorium. In 1922 Melba heard him sing Handel's Messiah and was so impressed with the quality of his voice that she urged him to go overseas for further tuition; in 1923 he began intensive studies in Paris with Dinh Gilly, and two years later was singing operatic roles in the Trianon Lyrique. There he was again heard by Melba who insisted that he appear in her Covent Garden farewell in 1926. From then on his rise was rapid. He made a sensational début at the Paris Opera House in Massenet's Thaïs in 1927 and was a contract singer there until 1936. Between the Paris seasons he appeared in the leading opera-houses of Europe and South America, in international seasons at Covent Garden, and at the Glyndebourne festivals where he established a reputation as an interpreter of baritone roles in Mozart operas. He visited Australia for the Williamson-Melba Grand Opera Company in 1928 and for a concert tour in 1932-33. During the latter visit he joined the Williamson-Imperial Company as a guest star from 10-21 September 1932 and performed in five operas on six nights.

In 1937 Brownlee made his début at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Rigoletto, and until his retirement in 1958 performed there in most of the eighty operas of his repertoire. New York became his home, and he appeared in opera and recitals in many parts of North America as soloist with the leading symphony orchestras and in nation-wide broadcasts. In 1952 he made his final visit to Australia, where he sang two of his most famous roles: Don Giovanni, and Scarpia in Puccini's La Tosca.

Brownlee was active in the American Guild of Musical Artists and was president in 1952-66. He was on the Advisory Committee on the Arts and the committee for International Cultural Exchanges during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Appointed as head of the Voice and Opera Department of the Manhattan School of Music in 1953, he became director of the school in 1956 and after 1958 devoted most of his energies to his work there. While actively engaged in teaching, and in directing and staging many of the school's opera productions, he found time to plan a campaign which raised $9.5 million; this enabled the institution to increase substantially its enrolments and to honour an agreement for the purchase of the buildings of the Juilliard School. Brownlee died on 10 January 1969 and was buried in Ferncliff cemetery, Hartsdale. He was survived by his wife, the former Countess Donna Carla Oddone di Feletto, whom he had married in Paris on 29 November 1928, and by a daughter and two sons.

Australia saw little of the singer during his great career, but Melbourne honours his memory in a simple but practical way—by the John Brownlee Vocal Scholarship, first awarded in 1969.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Brownlee, The Brownlee Family (Melb, priv print)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • J. Wechsberg, Red Plush and Black Velvet (Lond, 1962)
  • J. Hetherington, Melba (Melb, 1967)
  • B. & F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • Geelong Advertiser, 12 Apr 1952
  • New York Times, 26 Nov 1956, 17 Oct 1957, 25 Oct 1962, 7 May 1963, 12 Jan, 3 Oct 1969
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1969.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Morris S. Williams, 'Brownlee, John Donald Mackenzie (1900–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900-1969), by unknown photographer

John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900-1969), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3700239