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Donald Sydney (Don) Smith (1920–1998)

by Peter Roennfeldt

This article was published online in 2024

Donald Sydney Smith (1920–1998), opera singer, was born on 27 July 1920 at Bundaberg, Queensland, fifth of nine children of Queensland-born parents Donald Sydney Smith, labourer, and his wife Elizabeth Maud, née Clarque. Don’s formal education, beginning at Bundaberg East State School, was limited, and interrupted by work on the family dairy farm and milk run. Convicted of the minor offense of joyriding in a motor car without the owner’s consent, he spent nine months from November 1933 at the Farm Home for Boys, Westbrook, near Toowoomba. As a young man, he worked as a canecutter. On 13 September 1941 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Bundaberg, he married Thelma Joyce Lovett, also a musician.

Although Smith pursued singing in various contexts, including country and western music on local radio, his operatic talent soon became evident. His first important stage role was at Bundaberg in October 1941 in the operetta Merrie England, conducted by J. J. Kelly. On 20 December, mobilised for service in World War II, Smith began full-time duty with the 47th Battalion, Citizen Military Forces. He arrived with the battalion at Milne Bay, Papua, in January 1943, and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 16 February. Four days later he suffered bullet wounds in the right hand when another soldier accidentally discharged a machine gun, causing his hospitalisation, return to Australia in August, and discharge from the AIF on 28 October.

Moving to Brisbane, Smith found work as a clerk in the local branch of the Repatriation Commission. In 1948 he was cast in Brisbane Opera Society productions, including Maritana and The Bohemian Girl, conducted by George English senior. The following year he was awarded a tuition scholarship under the Queensland government’s State Opera Scheme, which English also oversaw. Smith sang tenor roles in Gounod’s Faust and Romeo and Juliet, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The company of scholarship holders toured throughout the State, providing him with widespread exposure, but he became significantly better known on winning the 1952 Mobil Quest, then Australia’s most valuable vocal prize. A national tour followed, as well as overseas study, from late 1954, at London’s National School of Opera.

In 1955 Smith returned to Australia. He performed in Puccini’s La Bohème for J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd’s Italian Opera Company of that year, and sang with the newly formed Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (Australian Opera, from 1970). With the latter, he appeared during 1958 in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Britten’s Peter Grimes (as Boles), and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Smith also performed Belmonte in Mozart’s Seraglio, excerpts of which were filmed for television. Increasingly, however, he became known for his Verdi, Puccini, and other Italian roles.

With the encouragement of the soprano (Dame) Joan Hammond, Smith successfully auditioned for the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, London, commencing there in 1962 in Bizet’s Carmen. Over the next five years, his repertoire expanded to include Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Puccini’s Il Tabarro, and Verdi’s Attila, Ernani, A Masked Ball, and The Force of Destiny. All were performed in English according to that company’s tradition. Smith also took the role of Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot, alongside the renowned Amy Shuard, for the Covent Garden Opera Company. Canio in Pagliacci became his trademark role on returning permanently to Australia and settling in Sydney in 1967 as principal artist with the national company. Highly acclaimed with a large audience following, he was most often seen in heroic Italian roles, now including Radames in Verdi’s Aïda. Notably, he performed as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the 1968 Adelaide Festival, together with the international stars Marie Collier and Tito Gobbi. From the German canon, Smith appeared as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and in the less prominent roles of the Italian singer in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Erik in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

Numerous accolades accrued to Smith, including joining the soprano Elizabeth Fretwell in the first concert performances, for acoustic testing purposes, in both major venues of the newly completed Sydney Opera House in 1973. The same year he was appointed OBE and was invited to perform at the Prime Minister’s Lodge in Canberra. Overseas appearances included seasons for Mexico City Opera in 1969 and at Expo ’74 in Spokane, United States of America. In the 1970s he produced a series of long-playing vinyl record albums with State symphony orchestras, some of which were later re-released on compact disc: Donald Smith Serenades, consisting of popular songs and operetta; Donald Smith Sings, featuring opera arias; and Donald Smith Sings Sacred Songs, comprising oratorio excerpts and hymns. He performed in many concerts, including an appearance in Verdi’s Requiem for the Australian Opera, and at large outdoor events at the Sydney Domain and Melbourne Botanic Gardens. During the 1970s and 1980s, he also presented programs of mixed repertoire in collaboration with his son, who used the stage name Robin Donald, also a tenor.

Following difficulties with Opera Australia’s management and recurring health problems which forced several cancellations, Smith was removed as a permanent principal in 1976, but returned for several seasons as a guest artist. In response to public demand, a production of Verdi’s I Masnadieri was mounted in 1980 in order to feature Smith alongside the legendary Dame Joan Sutherland, but, unwell, he only completed a single performance. Thereafter, his career was mostly limited to his home State, Queensland, where he relocated in the early 1980s. Apart from the title role in Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delila for the Queensland Light Opera Company, Smith’s final decade of performing was mostly in concerts, including several presented by the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, where he was appointed as singing lecturer in 1982. The last concert was a 1989 gala performance, in which he sang a Verdi duet with the mezzo-soprano Margreta Elkins; they had first appeared on stage together in Brisbane over forty years previously. In recognition of his services to the arts and vocal training, Griffith University conferred on him the honorary title of doctor of the university in 1992.

Generally considered to be the finest operatic tenor Australia had yet produced, a judgement frequently confirmed by long-standing colleagues, Smith possessed a strong radiant voice that belied his relatively short stature of five feet five inches (165 cm). His affable personality endeared him to many, and likewise his easy-going manner enabled him to communicate easily with his large audience base, many of whom were introduced to opera through his performances and recordings. But the person whose opinion mattered most to him was his wife. Backstage, he anxiously sought her assessment of every performance, relating to a journalist: ‘Once I know what she thinks, I can have a beer and relax’ (Kemp 1973, 30). He died on 1 December 1998 at Wynnum West, Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife, their son, and their two daughters, Deanna and Carol, survived him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Bray, David. ‘Donald Smith: The “Good Bloke” in the Uppish World of Opera.’ Age (Melbourne), 21 February 1981, 29
  • Hall, Stephen. ‘Self-Taught Tenor Could Fill a Theatre.’ Australian, 8 December 1998, 17
  • Hoffmann, W. L. ‘Donald Smith: Heroic Tenor Voice Stilled.’ Canberra Times, 10 December 1998, 10
  • Jeffrey, Antony. Many Faces of Inspiration: Conversations in Australian Creativity. Adelaide: Port Wakefield Press, 2011
  • Kelly, Kathleeen Ralston. Memories of a Master Musician. Sydney: PTR Management Services, 1996
  • Kelly, Patricia. ‘Farewell to Larrikin of the Opera.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 9 January 1999, 15
  • Kemp, Kevon. ‘Just an Easy Going Queenslander, Except for That Magical Big Note.’ National Times, 19–24 March 1973, 30
  • Mackenzie, Barbara and Findlay Mackenzie. Singers of Australia: From Melba to Sutherland. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1967
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX48655
  • News Mail (Bundaberg). ‘Musical Society’s Triumph: Large Crowd Enjoys “Merrie England.”’ 21 October 1941, 2
  • Oxenbould, Moffat. Timing Is Everything: A Life Backstage at the Opera. Sydney: ABC Books, 2005
  • Ruskin, Pamela. ‘Wagnerian Struggle for Ocker Star.’ Age (Melbourne), 18 March 1978, 23
  • Stacey, Helene. ‘Father and Son Hold the Tenor.’ Sunday Mail Magazine (Brisbane), 1 October 1989, 14
  • Vallis, Val. ‘All Power to the “Con.”’ Australian, 11 September 1989, 12
  • Vallis, Val. ‘Donald Smith—a Tenor “For Always.”’ Australian, 3 October 1989, 10

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Roennfeldt, 'Smith, Donald Sydney (Don) (1920–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-donald-sydney-don-29002/text36274, published online 2024, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Donald Smith, 1970

Donald Smith, 1970

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L92428

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

27 July, 1920
Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Death

1 December, 1998 (aged 78)
Wynnum West, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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