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Grandi, Margherita (Maggie) (1892–1972)

by Jill Waters

This article was published:

Margherita Grandi, by E.S. Mariva, 1930s

Margherita Grandi, by E.S. Mariva, 1930s


Margherita (Maggie) Grandi (1892-1972), opera singer, was born on 10 October 1892 at Harwood Island, New South Wales, and registered as Margaret, second daughter of Bernard Gard, engine driver, and his wife Catherine, née Ryan, both native-born. Maggie attended Harwood and Yamba public schools; after the family moved to Tasmania in 1903, she was educated by the Presentation Sisters at St Mary's School, Hobart. It was when she sang in the St Mary's Cathedral choir that her voice first attracted attention. By the age of 17 she possessed 'a contralto voice of unusual depth and quality'. Recognizing her great potential, a number of influential Hobart citizens—among them a former premier (Sir) John Evans and Monsignor Gilleran of St Mary's Cathedral—formed the Maggie Gard Committee to finance her musical studies in Europe.

Aided by a successful farewell concert organized by the committee, Gard left for Paris in January 1911 to study with Mathilde Marchesi, a former teacher of (Dame) Nellie Melba. Gard's initial studies were curtailed by a bout of typhoid fever, contracted on her arrival, but Marchesi pronounced favourably on her voice and Maggie began lessons with Jean de Reszke. In Hobart, the Maggie Gard Committee continued fund-raising and a syndicate of eighty shares at £5 each was subscribed to meet her expenses. Sponsored by Sir John McCall, the Tasmanian agent-general in London, she entered the Royal College of Music in September 1912. In February 1914 she was awarded an open scholarship (worth £100 a year); she became a pupil of Plunket Greene and remained at the college until June 1917. In the following year she enjoyed a successful London début. Having returned to Paris to study for a year with Emma Calvé, she made her Continental début in 1921 as a mezzo-soprano at the Opera-Comique in Massenet's Werther. Her stage name, Djemma Vécla, was an anagram of her teacher's surname. She was subsequently engaged to sing Carmen, and in 1922 created the title role in the première of Massenet's Amadis at Monte Carlo, Monaco. After this season of opera she went to Milan, Italy, where her principal vocal teacher was Giannina Russ. About this time, Margaret married Giovanni Grandi, scenery designer at La Scala opera house.

After an absence of ten years, during which her daughter Patricia was born, she resumed her career as Margherita Grandi. In 1932 she sang Aida at the Teatro Carcano, Milan. The role firmly established her as a dramatic soprano (the repertoire into which she had moved) and led to performances in opera houses throughout Italy. She appeared in seasons of opera in Cairo, The Netherlands and Budapest. In 1934 she sang the role of Elena in Boito's Mefistofele at La Scala, Milan. Following one of her most famous performances as Verdi's Lady Macbeth at the Glyndebourne Festival, Sussex, England, in 1939, critics agreed that she was 'magnificently voiced' and hailed her as 'not only an exceptionally fine singer, but also a notable tragic actress'. At the outbreak of World War II Grandi returned to Italy where she reputedly helped the partisans. The war curtailed her burgeoning career. Her major performances during this time were at Venice in 1940 as Maria in the Italian première of Strauss's Friedenstag, and in Rome three years later as Octavia in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

She returned to Britain in 1947 to recreate the role of Lady Macbeth at the Edinburgh Festival, and to sing Puccini's Tosca and Donna Anna (in Mozart's Don Giovanni) at the Cambridge Theatre, London, when her voice was described as 'rich, flexible and perfectly modulated'. Over the next two years Grandi appeared regularly with the New London Opera Company where she worked with her husband who was director and designer. In 1949 she shone as Diana in (Sir) Arthur Bliss's The Olympians at Covent Garden, then returned to Edinburgh as Amelia in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Her stage farewell was made in 1951 as Tosca—a fitting finale for her grand dramatic flair and rich voice.

Survived by her daughter, Grandi died on 29 January 1972 at Milan, never having returned to her native Australia. She left few recordings as she was in her fifties by the time she entered the studio: they include excerpts from Verdi's Macbeth, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos, and from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

Select Bibliography

  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • S. Sadie (ed), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol 7 (Lond, 1980)
  • S. Sadie (ed), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, vol 2 (Lond, 1992)
  • Record Collector, 1978
  • Australasian Sound Archive, no 8, Sept 1989
  • Mercury (Hobart), 23 Jan 1911, 10 June 1939, 8 Sept 1947, 16 May 1972
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 26 Jan, 6 Apr 1911, 11 July 1912, 5 Mar 1914, 7 Nov 1918, 14 Jan, 14 Apr 1921
  • Tasmanian Mail, 25 Jan 1912
  • private information.

Citation details

Jill Waters, 'Grandi, Margherita (Maggie) (1892–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 8 July 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2022

Margherita Grandi, by E.S. Mariva, 1930s

Margherita Grandi, by E.S. Mariva, 1930s