Marjorie Lawrence’s father was a butcher and violinist and her mother, who died when she was two, a church organist. Taken into the care of her grandmother, she was educated locally and by the age of ten, encouraged by an Anglican clergyman and the gramophone records of Clara Butt and Nellie Melba, was regularly singing solos in church. At eighteen Lawrence left for Melbourne with her brother Cyril and took singing lessons from Ivor Boustead, who also coached John Brownlee. Compelled to return home through lack of money, she was unsuccessful in the Ballarat South Street competitions, but won the 1928 Sun Aria contest. Brownlee advised Lawrence to study in France, and she settled in Paris as a student of Cécile Gilly, who helped her develop the upper range of her voice.
In 1932 in Monte Carlo Lawrence made her operatic stage debut as Elisabeth / Tannhäuser, to critical acclaim. She continued with a season at Lille, before appearing at the Paris Opera in 1933 as Ortrud / Lohengrin (opposite Germaine Lubin). She sang regularly with this company until 1938 as one of its leading dramatic sopranos: her roles included Brünnhilde / Die Walküre and Göttterdämmerung, Rachel / La Juive, Salomé / Hérodiade, Donna Anna / Don Giovanni, Valentine / Les Huguenots, Brangäne / Tristan und Isolde, the title roles in Aida and Salome, Brunehild in Reyer’s Sigurd and Keltis in the 1933 first performances of Canteloube’s Vercingétorix.
Edward Johnson, then the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York heard Lawrence on a visit to Europe during 1935 and engaged her immediately. Her Met debut, to welcoming reviews, came in December 1935 as Brünnhilde / Die Walküre; she continued with Ortrud and the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes, in the last of which she surprised audiences by riding a real horse into the ‘flames’ of the immolation scene. Other roles included Sieglinde / Die Walküre, Rachel and the title parts in Salome, Thaïs, Tosca and Alceste; also Venus / Tannhäuser during 1943 and 1944 and Isolde / Tristan und Isolde for a a single performance in 1944, the year of her final Met appearance.
At Buenos Aires in 1936 Lawrence sang Kundry / Parsifal, Senta / Der fliegende Holländer and Ortrud. The following year she made her debut at Lyons as Isolde and also appeared in England. She sang Brünnhilde at the 1938 Zoppot Wagner Festival and the title role in Carmen with the San Francisco Opera in 1940; but in 1941 she suffered an attack of poliomyelitis in Mexico City. This resulted in loss of use in both her legs, but with the support of her husband, a doctor, she nonetheless continued her career, often singing from a wheelchair or specially-designed supports.
During World War II, in 1944 and 1945 Lawrence gave numerous concerts for the armed forces. She returned to the Paris Opera as Amneris / Aida in 1946 and sang the title role in a concert performance of Elektra with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1947. She returned to Australia frequently, in 1939, 1944, 1951, 1966 and 1976; and during her visit of 1951 sang to great acclaim in concert performances of both Salome and Elektra with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sir Eugene Goossens.
Lawrence retired from singing professionally in 1952. She had published her memoirs, Interrupted Melody, in 1949 (produced as a film by MGM in 1955) and continued to remain active as a teacher at the universities of Tulane, Southern Illinois and Arkansas. In 1946 she was made a member of the Légion d’honneur and was appointed CBE in 1976.
From the very beginning of her career Lawrence possessed a voice of extraordinary power and brilliance, and photographs indicate a striking and handsome stage presence. On the occasion of her wartime return to the Met, Beecham called her ‘the greatest living dramatic soprano’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist