Obituary: Morag Beaton

Edinburgh-born soprano who won fame singing Turandot with Australian Opera

Born: 2 July, 1926, in Edinburgh.

Died: 1 April, 2010, in Sydney, aged 83.

MORAG Beaton found fame in Australia during an all-too-brief operatic career. She became renowned for singing one of the most exacting roles of the soprano repertory – Puccini's evil princess Turandot. The demands – on her first entry the soprano has to cope with the taxing aria In questa reggia – are considerable and many singers limit their performances to preserve their voice. Beaton, however, scored repeated successes as the "ice princess" in Australia, where she established herself in the mid-Sixties. It is a shame she never returned to Scotland to demonstrate her considerable talents in her native land.

Sadly, by the end of the decade Beaton's career had come to an abrupt end. She had a powerful and versatile voice with an exceptional range which allowed her to sing both mezzo and soprano roles and essay many of the most challenging roles in the Italian repertory.

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Morag Beaton's first music teacher was her Edinburgh mother. While still a teenager she felt the need to contribute to the war effort. She joined the army and, for three years, served in various camps but continued singing whenever possible. Back in Edinburgh in the Forties, Beaton studied with Joyce Fleming and Dr Hans Gl who ran the Collegium Musicum in the capital. Gl, especially, became an important influence in Beaton's development as a singer and nurtured her talent with considerable finesse. Gl, a well-known musician, composer, pianist and scholar of much distinction, like other Jewish refugees, in 1938 left Austria and fled to England. With his wife and their sons the family came to live in Edinburgh where he became a lecturer at Edinburgh University and remained helping and tutoring musicians and singers until his death in 1987. His work and coaching for artists such as Beaton is remembered in the Hans Gl Society, based in Edinburgh.

Beaton's life was much changed when her mother died in 1948 and although she won, in the late 1950s, a series of scholarships and prizes that enabled her to continue her studies her career was somewhat stalled. However, after making her debut in 1962 in Berlin the conductor Richard Bonynge offered her a job with the company he and his wife, Dame Joan Sutherland, were setting up to tour Australia in 1965.

Bonynge cast Beaton in five supporting mezzo-soprano roles, but then suggested she sang the soprano lead, Tatiana, in Eugene Onegin. He was at once thrilled with the range, and possibilities, of her voice. Bonynge (who had been instrumental in tutoring and carefully selecting roles for his wife in the early days of her career) gave Beaton a variety of roles (both mezzo and soprano) in 1967.

But it was Turandot which Beaton wanted to sing and Bonynge conducted her that year in Melbourne. She was to sing the role throughout Australia, on 75 occasions, until 1971. Critics wrote enthusiastically of Beaton's Turandot, "She was vocally spectacular and visually resplendent in the heavily jewelled, padded costume and headdress with the enormous peacock train 28ft in length."

When the conductor Edward Downes took over Australian Opera in 1973, Beaton continued to sing with the company but the two had a falling out and Beaton returned to Britain for surgery. She did not return to Australia in 1976 and, although she gave recitals, Beaton was never to appear again on the opera stage. Her Australian fans were unhappy at her treatment by the opera and they sponsored a sold-out recital at the Sydney Opera House in 1983. Typically she sang testing arias such as Suicidio from Ponchielli's La Giaconda and O mio babbino caro from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. It proved a sensation with the audience cheering for 20 minutes.

Beaton continued to give recitals around Australia but was never asked back to Australian Opera or to sing in Europe. Latterly she found work in a ladies' dress shop in Sydney. However, Australian Opera welcomed her back as an honoured guest for its 50th anniversary celebration in 1996. At her 80th birthday gala she sang three Scottish songs accompanied by Geoffrey Tozer.

The only real example of Beaton's art on disc is her 1966 studio recording of Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights, for which the composer chose her to sing the leading role of Cathy. Beaton provides a cameo contribution in the disc Sutherland cut with Noel Coward singing his songs. Beaton can be heard in a trio from Conversation Piece.

Beaton never married.