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Hammond, Dame Joan Hilda (1912–1996)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published online in 2020

Joan Hilda Hood Hammond (1912–1996), dramatic soprano, was born on 24 May 1912 at Christchurch, New Zealand, third of four children and only daughter of Samuel Hood, electrician, and Hilda May Blandford. Her English-born parents styled themselves ‘Mr and Mrs Samuel H. Hammond,’ but they were not married until 1927. Samuel had previously married in London but claimed in 1927 to be a widower. Having moved to Sydney with her family when she was six months old, Joan was educated as a boarder at the theosophical Morven Garden School, Gore Hill (1919–23), and at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Pymble (1924–28). Both schools encouraged her lifelong interest in sport and music: she swam, sailed, and played golf, and studied violin, singing, and piano.

As a student (1929–31) at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Hammond aspired to a career as a violinist, but the long-term effects of a childhood bicycle accident, in which she injured her left arm, caused her to abandon the violin in favour of singing. She made her operatic debut in Sydney in 1932 with J. C. Williamson’s Imperial Grand Opera Company in the minor role of Giovanna in Rigoletto. In 1935, at short notice, she sang Venus in Tannhäuser and Helmwige in Die Walküre in the Sydney season of Sir Benjamin Fuller’s Royal Grand Opera Company. Meanwhile, she excelled at golf, winning the New South Wales open championship in 1932, 1934, and 1935. She also worked as a golf reporter for the Daily Telegraph.

Using funds raised through the patronage of Lady Gowrie (Zara Hore-Ruthven), wife of the governor of New South Wales, Hammond left Australia in 1936 for further studies in Vienna. She commuted to London for lessons with the Italian tenor Dino Borgioli and secured a contract at the Vienna Volksoper in 1938, appearing first as Nedda in Pagliacci in the shadow of the Anschluss. In November she made her London concert debut at the Aeolian Hall, followed by a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Queen’s Hall under Sir Thomas Beecham. The next year in August she performed at the opening of the British Broadcasting Corporation Proms series with Sir Henry Wood conducting.

With the outbreak of World War II, Hammond’s contracts to appear at both the Vienna Staatsoper and at La Scala, Milan, were cancelled. She took up residence in London, where her career progressed through recordings and radio, concerts for the troops, oratorio performances, and work with the Carl Rosa Opera Company (1942–45). During the Blitz, she drove an ambulance for the Women’s Voluntary Service. In 1946 she returned to Australia for a three-month concert tour with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).

The next year at the Vienna Staatsoper Hammond sang the title role in Tosca, Violetta in La Traviata, and Mimi in La Boheme. She toured South Africa later that year and in 1948 she made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as Leonora in Il Trovatore. At the New York City Center in 1949 she sang the title roles in Madame Butterfly, Aida, and Tosca, repeating them at Covent Garden in the early 1950s. In London she also performed at Sadler’s Wells: in 1951 as Elizabeth in Don Carlos and in 1959 for the first British production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. During the 1950s she appeared at leading opera houses in Moscow, Leningrad, Amsterdam, and Barcelona, and toured Scandinavia, East and Central Africa, India, the Far East, and Canada.

Hammond was a regular visitor to Australia. In 1949 she gave concerts in Sydney and Melbourne to help raise funds to send an Australian women’s team of golfers to compete in the British senior championships. She undertook a forty-concert tour for the ABC in 1953, with Walter Susskind as her conductor. In 1957 she performed in Tosca and Otello for the fledgling Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (ETOC), returning for Salome and Butterfly in 1960.

Frank Van Straten described Hammond as ‘a highly disciplined but warm and generous artist who effortlessly transcended the barriers normally raised between popular and classical music, and between art and sport’ (2007). Her repertoire included forty roles in opera and twenty-seven in oratorio. She had an extensive and successful recording career that was most notable for her 1941 recording of ‘Oh! Mio Babbino Caro!’ (‘O My Beloved Father’) from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which had sold more than a million copies by 1969. Peter Burch, a friend and colleague, later recalled that she had ‘flawless diction and this, combined with the strength, beauty and a quality of warmth within her voice, gave her an extraordinary ability to touch audiences’ (1996, 17).

Hammond was appointed OBE in 1953 and raised to CBE in 1963. In 1965, at the height of her success, the first of several heart attacks ended her career as a performer. Her last public appearance was at the funeral of Lady Gowrie at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in July. The next year she retired to Australia, where she and her long-term partner, Lolita Marriott, built a home at Aireys Inlet, Victoria. Hammond had first met Marriott through golf in Melbourne in 1932, and Marriott had been her constant companion and personal secretary since 1946.

In 1970 Hammond published her autobiography, A Voice, A Life, and was awarded the Sir Charles Santley memorial gift by the Worshipful Company of Musicians, London. A second career as a mentor and advisor began with master classes in Australia and Britain, some of them televised. She served in the advisory role of artistic director (1971–76) of the Victorian Opera Company, also devoting her time to the Victorian Council of the Arts, the opera panel of the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Australian Opera Company (formerly ETOC). In 1972 she was appointed CMG for services to young opera singers and in 1974 she was elevated to DBE. She was the head of vocal studies (1975–89) at the Victorian College of the Arts.

In 1983 Dame Joan’s home with its valuable memorabilia and all her possessions was destroyed by the Ash Wednesday bushfires. With Marriott she moved to a flat at Toorak, Melbourne, with a weekender at Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula. She received an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Western Australia in 1979, a lifetime achievement award from the Green Room Awards Association in 1988, and an award for excellence from the Australasian Sound Recordings Association in 1994. After Marriott died in 1993, Hammond struggled to manage the diabetes she had developed many years earlier. She moved to Bowral, New South Wales, where she died on 26 November 1996 in a nursing home and was buried in the local cemetery. Memorial services were held at Bowral, the renamed Pymble Ladies’ College, and the Melbourne Concert Hall. In an obituary, Burch recalled her ‘single-mindedness and strength of purpose,’ adding that while she could appear ‘a stern and somewhat formidable person … for those who enjoyed her trust, she was open and loving’ (1996, 17). A wing of the PLC boarding house was named after her.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Burch, Peter. ‘Soprano Touched Global Audience.’ Australian, 27 November 1996, 17
  • Hammond, Joan. A Voice, A Life. London: Victor Gollancz, 1970
  • Hardy, Sara. Dame Joan Hammond: Love and Music. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2009
  • Mackenzie, Barbara, and Findlay Mackenzie. Singers of Australia from Melba to Sutherland. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1967
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8648, MS Acc97.111, Papers of Dame Joan Hammond, 1928—1994
  • The Times (London). ‘Obituaries: Dame Joan Hammond.’ 28 November 1996, 25
  • Van Straten, Frank. ‘Joan Hammond 1912—1996.’ Live Performance Australia Hall of Fame. 2007. Accessed 18 December 2019. https://liveperformance.com.au/hof-profile/joan-hammond-1912-1996/. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Hammond, Dame Joan Hilda (1912–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hammond-dame-joan-hilda-29800/text36887, published online 2020, accessed online 24 June 2021.

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