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Clapham, Eric Spencer (1914–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Eric Clapham was first exposed to opera at the age of 21, in 1935 when he heard the British National Opera perform such works as as Wagner's Walkure and Tristan and Isolde. He went on to become a prominent figure in ballet and opera in postwar Australia.

Clapham was a conductor when the National Theatre Movement in Melbourne presented Australia's first postwar opera season, opening with an all-Australian production of Verdi's Aida. Everything was fresh: Betna Pontin, playing Aida, and Justine Rettick, playing Amneris, turned 21 during the run of performances. But it was a start, and Clapham was there at the beginning.

A National Ballet was formed in 1950, with the co-operation of the ABC orchestras in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. When it performed John Antill's Corroboree, Clapham was seconded to the company. The National Ballet went on to stage the first full-length production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake presented in Australia and New Zealand.

When the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was formed in 1954, Clapham was engaged with special responsibility for Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, otherwise as relieving conductor. These great cultural institutions were to survive, and it was mainly because of the dedication of Eric Clapham and those like him.

Eric Spencer Clapham was born in Hastings, New Zealand, on January 31, 1914, the son of a schoolteacher, George Clapham, and wife Beatrice (nee Greenfield). He was rendered fatherless when George died of Spanish flu in 1918.

As a boy, Clapham was encouraged to learn the piano and organ. Following his discovery of opera, he decided Australia was the place to settle. He was accepted as an organ scholar at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1938, where the great choral traditions were maintained by Dr A. E. Floyd. Dr Floyd made the young Clapham his protege. In 1939, Clapham joined Gertrude Johnson's National Theatre Movement. The same year, he conducted his first opera, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. It was the first time Mozart's original orchestrations had ever been heard in Australia.

That year, Clapham worked as rehearsal pianist for the visiting Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes. When that tour ended, he joined the Borovansky Ballet and conducted its first public performance in 1940.

Clapham enlisted in the army and joined the engineering corps, where he served for five years. But his music scarcely left him. He organised concerts at the Puckapunyal army camp, did fund-raising concerts for the Red Cross, played organs in churches and at special wartime services in Canberra Cathedral. He also met Marion Ullin, who had left Europe with her family in 1939 because they were disturbed by the rise of Nazism in Germany. Marion attended a performance of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera which Clapham was conducting. ''It was love at first sight,'' Clapham said later. ''We became engaged on her 21st birthday and we married on September 22, 1945.''

By the early 1950s Clapham had studied and conducted no less than 30 operas and a considerable number of ballets. The National Theatre's opera seasons continued in Melbourne and once or twice they came to Sydney, first with Menotti's The Consul, followed by Puccini's Madam Butterfly. Clapham worked in these years in collaboration with Joseph Post and Sir Bernard Heinze. But the Sydney and Melbourne opera companies were in trouble, with audiences insufficient to keep them viable. That was in spite of a splendid production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann in 1954, attended by the Queen and Prince Philip.

To commemorate the first visit by a reigning monarch to Australia, a body was established on the initiative of Dr H. C. Coombs, the governor of the Reserve Bank, and Sir Charles Moses, the managing director of the ABC, to be called the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The aim was to establish an opera company incorporating the best available talent into a national company capable of serving the entire country. Joseph Post was the chief conductor and Clapham the resident conductor (later becoming chief conductor).

Because Melbourne was host to the Olympic Games in 1956, it was decided to launch the trust by presenting Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Cosi fan Tutte. Clapham was later to write ''that whole year with Mozart was one of the happiest of my life''.

Now, engaged by the trust, he went on to conduct Puccini's Tosca and Verdi's Otello. He only had two weeks to study Otello before conducting it and made it a magnificent success. In 1958, he conducted Rossini's The Barber of Seville, the first opera filmed and broadcast by the ABC.

Clapham was to move on to musical comedy, and musicals. In the 1960s he moved into executive management of the ABC's six symphony orchestras and was for many years a classical records producer for the ABC. In 1996 he was awarded the OAM for his services to music.

Clapham enjoyed his family life, which now included three daughters, Julie, Madeleine and Georgie. Marion died in 2004. Clapham continued to coach opera singers till he was 94.

Eric Clapham, who died on February 17, is survived by his daughters, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March 2010

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Clapham, Eric Spencer (1914–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/clapham-eric-spencer-16743/text28639, accessed 21 May 2018.

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