The cane fields of the Clarence River valley on the NSW north coast seem an unlikely place to cultivate opera singers, but the small island of Harwood has produced two divas.
Michelle Ryan is a rising opera talent who has recently discovered she is related to celebrated Italian opera singer Margherita Grandi.
“She’s my grandfather’s first cousin and we know her as Maggie Gard. But I didn’t know much more than that,” Ms Ryan said.
In her fourth year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Ms Ryan fell in love with opera and decided to google her mysterious cousin.
She found an audio recording of Grandi singing a famous duet for a movie called The Tales of Hoffman.
“She actually had a phenomenal voice … and I thought ‘She actually did really well’,” Ms Ryan said.
Opera career did not match talent
Most of what Ms Ryan has learnt about the little known Australian diva comes from another distant cousin.
Hilda Hardy, from nearby Maclean, has been gathering evidence of Grandi’s opera career for decades.
She has discovered that Grandi’s story is one of a career that never lived up to the opera singer’s talent.
Maggie Gard was born on Harwood Island in 1892.
In 1911 at the age of 19, she left for Paris to study with Mathilde Marchesi, who was also Dame Nellie Melba’s teacher.
By the early 1920s she was singing lead roles on the opera stages of Europe.
Her career was put on hold for 10 years after she moved to Milan and married Italian stage designer Giovanni Grandi, and raised their daughter.
An essay on Grandi was written in 2006 by Roger Neill, a London-based arts historian.
“It was after her marriage that she made a decisive vocal change, from lyric mezzo soprano to dramatic soprano, making her well-received debut in Italy at the age of 40,” Mr Neill said.
Acclaimed by critics
Grandi’s most acclaimed role was as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, which she performed at Glyndebourne in 1939.
“It was this role that established Grandi’s reputation internationally,” Mr Neill wrote.
“These 10 performances were a revelation and a triumph for Grandi.”
Ms Hardy’s scrapbooks feature newspaper reviews of the performance.
“The critic of The Sunday Times wrote ‘She is magnificently voiced … it was thrilling to hear those notes rolling out with such power and freedom’,” Ms Hardy said.
Mr Neill wrote in his essay, “The distinguished connoisseur Desmond Shawe-Taylor said Margherita Grandi’s Glyndebourne performances were sublime, and Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians said she was incomparable.”
A review in The Observer said Grandi was “the prima donna that appears only in the dreams of a conductor and producer”.
Prisoner of war in Italy
Mr Neill speculated that in “more normal times she would have gone on to be an international star, but the Second World War loomed”.
Grandi is reported to have been sent to a prisoner of war camp near Naples.
Her husband rescued her and they took refuge in the alps, where it is said she worked with partisans to smuggle airmen into Switzerland.
Grandi never returned to Australia
At the end of World War II, Grandi was 53 and, according to Mr Neill, past her prime as a dramatic soprano.
Her opera legacy is remembered in only a few recordings she did in her 50s.
Her Australian second cousin Ms Hardy regrets never seeing Grandi perform in her home country.
“When I found out what a great opera singer she was, I just felt sad that she never came back to perform in Australia to show what a great opera singer she had become,” Ms Hardy said.
For new opera singer Ms Ryan, getting to know of her connection to Grandi has been particularly special.
“We were both born in Harwood and had that country small town upbringing, and yet she goes on to have this big classy operatic career in Europe, and that has become a dream of mine,” she said.