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Fisher, Sylvia Gwendoline (1910–1996)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published online in 2020

Sylvia Gwendoline Victoria Fisher (1910–1996), dramatic soprano, was born on 18 April 1910 in South Melbourne, younger child of English-born John Fisher, licensed victualler, and his Victorian-born wife Margaret Maria, née Frawley. After John died in 1911, Margaret took over his licence for the Australia Felix Hotel in the city. Sylvia contracted tuberculosis as a child, leaving her in frail health. Educated at St Joseph’s Ladies’ College, Kilmore, she qualified for a licentiate diploma in singing from the London College of Music in 1924. She subsequently enrolled for a diploma course at the Albert Street Conservatorium, where she was taught by Mary Campbell. While still a student she made her operatic debut on 5 March 1932 as Hermione in an excerpt from Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, her only stage performance before she moved to London in 1947.

From 1936 Fisher studied privately with Adolf Spivakowsky, to whom she credited her success. She won the Melbourne Sun Aria competition in October that year, with a performance of ‘Elisabeth's Greeting’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and was heard frequently on Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) radio broadcasts of lieder recitals, and opera and oratorio performances. Meanwhile, she was a joint licensee with her mother of the Town Hall Hotel, South Melbourne. World War II prevented her seeking opportunities in Europe, a delay exacerbated by her taking over the care of her four-year-old niece in 1942. After farewell concerts in Melbourne and Sydney, she left for London in November 1947.

While singing lieder for the British Broadcasting Commission (BBC), Fisher auditioned five times before the Covent Garden Opera Company accepted her for the role of Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Following her debut on 9 December 1948, a critic described her as ‘an outstanding singer with a true Covent Garden voice, sustained and thrilling in its resonance’ (Mackenzie and Mackenzie 1967, 175). The performance earned her membership of the permanent company, but it was her Wagnerian repertoire that brought her critical acclaim: Elsa in Lohengrin, Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and Senta in The Flying Dutchman. She also appeared as Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes, Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz, Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa, in the title role in Puccini’s Turandot, and as Mère Marie in Poulenc’s The Carmelites.

Fisher’s most famous role was her much repeated Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss. After her first performance in 1949, a critic in The Times remarked that ‘by sheer beauty of singing she makes the dramatic point of youth and age in pure lyrical terms’ (Mackenzie and Mackenzie 1967, 176). She performed Wagnerian roles in Italy and appeared as the Marschallin at the Frankfurt Opera House in 1957, but her career was mainly in Britain. Appearing as a concert soloist under the batons of Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir John Barbirolli, and Sir Malcolm Sargent, she performed the works of Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, Delius, Rossini, Schönberg, and Hindemith. She featured often in BBC Proms broadcasts and toured Australia in 1955 as a recitalist for the ABC.

On 20 March 1954 at the Kensington Chapel, London, Fisher had married Ubaldo Gardini, an Italian-born violinist and later the Italian language coach at Covent Garden. The marriage would end in divorce. After a falling out with the director Raphael Kubelik, she left Covent Garden in 1958. That year she visited Australia for guest appearances in the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company’s productions of Peter Grimes and Fidelio. She made her debut in the United States of America in November 1959 in Jenůfa with the Chicago Lyric Opera Company.

From 1962 Fisher performed frequently with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, notably in operas by Britten. She appeared as Lady Billows in Albert Herring, the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia, and Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw. When Gloriana was revived in 1966, she was commanding and dignified as Elizabeth I. Britten also created for Fisher the role of Miss Wingrave in Owen Wingrave, which premiered on BBC television in 1971. Her final appearance with Sadler’s Wells was in 1973 as Marfa Kabanicha in Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová.

Fisher had ‘a shy, almost recessive, personality, but one that … switched on like electricity when she began to perform’ (Divall 1996, 28). She was particularly suited to positive and decisive characters, especially later in her career: an obituarist observed that her ‘stern, almost matriarchal features made her a natural for some of Britten's formidable operatic ladies’ (The Times 1996, 21). Her recorded legacy is limited, most of it dating from late in her career. Returning to live in Melbourne in 1987, she was appointed AM in 1994. She died on 25 August 1996 at Toorak and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. Her estate was sworn for probate at $2,358,454, part of which was bequeathed to the Sylvia Fisher Fund, to support emerging opera singers in her home state.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Divall, Richard. ‘Opera’s Outstanding Soprano.’ Age (Melbourne), 18 September 1996, 28
  • Gustavson, Royston. ‘Fisher, Sylvia Gwendoline Victoria.’ In The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, edited by Warren Bebbington, 217. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Mackenzie, Barbara, and Findlay Mackenzie. Singers of Australia: From Melba to Sutherland. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1967
  • Rosenthal, Harold, and Roger Covell. ‘Fisher, Sylvia (Gwendoline Victoria).’ In The Grove Book of Opera Singers, edited by Laura Macy, 162. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Times (London). ‘Sylvia Fisher—Obituary.’ 30 August 1996, 21.

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Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Fisher, Sylvia Gwendoline (1910–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fisher-sylvia-gwendoline-29981/text37164, published online 2020, accessed online 16 October 2021.

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