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Hammond, Dame Joan Hilda (1912–1996)

by Richard Divall

from Age (Melbourne)

Joan Hammond, by Rennie Ellis, 1980s

Joan Hammond, by Rennie Ellis, 1980s

State Library of Victoria, 49300386

I first met Joan Hammond in May 1971 in Brisbane, where I was music director of the Opera. She came to a then operatically barbaric northern capital to teach the natives the finer points of opera.

From the moment I met her, I realised she was a remarkable person. Several mutual loves in our lives strengthened this immediate attraction: love of the human voice, cats and garlic.

Joan Hammond had been enticed out of retirement by her other close young friend, Peter Burch, now of Musica Viva but then general manager of an embryonic Victoria State Opera. On Joan's recommendation he, and the first chairman, Alfred Ruskin, appointed me as music director of the company. It then consisted of half a desk in Laurel Martyns's office.

Throughout her career, Joan had seen the inside and the stages of the world's greatest opera houses. Like the great golfer that she was, she wasn't frightened to get her hands, or her feet, dirty in a lesser and often quite seedy operatic environment.

Joan was an inspiration in those embryonic years of the VSO and she, Alfred Ruskin and Peter Burch, although often not seeing eye to eye, forged an artistic identity that lasted rather successfully, for a quarter of a century, in fact, until the forthcoming merger of the AO and VSO.

When a young girl, as both violinist and soprano, she was given so much support by many people — artists and arts lovers. After her career peaked in England and elsewhere, she continued to give back that same love and care to her colleagues. Her generosity on stage to her audiences was equalled by her private and often anonymous generosity to young Australian singers whom she supported financially in England at a crucial stage of their developing careers. Many of these singers, who will remain unnamed, now enjoy substantial careers and privately acknowledge their great debt to Joan.

On her appointment, around 1975, as head of vocal studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, she was able to display that other great talent: giving to young singers as a teacher. The sopranos Cheryl Barker and Christine Douglas, Steven Davis-Lim, a young tenor now singing at the Salzburg Festival and the Zurich Opera, and the internationally acclaimed baritone Peter Coleman-Wright were the products of her expertise.

Both Peter Burch and myself came to be regarded as surrogate stepsons and were privileged to enjoy the company of, and see the wonderful person that Joan Hammond was in private.

Christmases at Airey's Inlet before it was destroyed in the Ash Wednesday fires are an indelible memory highlighted by Joan's and my efforts at operatic duets, accompanied by a chorus of Australian birds, ankle-biting dogs and the frenzied choreography of kangaroos on the lawns.

While the scene was halcyon, the wildlife had to endure the danger of flying golf balls on a daily basis, because her love of golf remained with her for as long as she was on her feet.

Joan's directness and incisive approach to people gained her many friends.

Every Victorian Premier from Sir Henry Bolte was an admirer, and a touching tribute arrived yesterday from the New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr.

Throughout her life her health was unpredictable. A damaged arm, heart problems, a leg that tended to give out and diabetes often interrupted what should have been a sublime retirement.

On many occasions I visited her at St Vincent's Private Hospital, where she gained special friends and support beyond that normally given.

The great yachtswoman that she was, and as a woman of faith, she would have found her entry into the heavenly harbor rewarding at the end of her faithful journey of life. Few people have given more to the community and their colleagues.

The opera industry has benefited greatly from her championship, and Peter and I have an orphan-like feeling at this time.

But the memories of her laugh, her wonderful voice and her love of others erase all grief and leave only gratitude for the privilege of having known her.

* Richard Divall was music director of the VSO from 1972 to 1995 and is now a principal conductor for Opera Australia. Dame Joan was a better singer than he was.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 28 November 1996, p 1

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Citation details

Richard Divall, 'Hammond, Dame Joan Hilda (1912–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hammond-dame-joan-hilda-29800/text37411, accessed 9 July 2020.

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