Donald Smith (1920-98) was the finest tenor Australia has yet to produce. Born in Queensland he served 7 months in a juvenile detention center for driving a car (not his) with some friends; he was 12 at the time. He worked as a sugar cane cutter for several years. In 1941 he enlisted in the Australian Army. He served until wounded by friendly fire.
After discharge, he began singing country and western music in his hometown Bundaberg. He then moved to Brisbane where he began to study opera. He became a member of the Brisbane Opera. In 1952 he won a singing contest and travelled to Italy and then England where he studied at London’s National School of Opera. Returning to his native country he toured widely singing a variety of Italian and French roles. In 1962 he joined the Saddlers Wells Opera Company in London (now the English National Opera) singing the standard Verdi and Puccini roles – all in English. He appeared at the Royal Opera House as Calaf in Turandot with Amy Shuard in the title role. After 6 years in the UK he again returned to Australia where he enjoyed immense popularity.
Smith’s voice was a bight spinto tenor capable of handling lyric roles as well as the heavier parts such as Canio in Pagliacci. This recording of A la paterna mano from Verdi’s Macbeth was made during the acoustical tests prior to the formal opening of the Sydney Opera House. It was before a full audience as is necessary for such testing. Smith’s voice was the first ever heard in performance in the famed building. Admittedly, a structure more known for its exterior than for its auditorium.
Smith’s recording of the Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat Mater – the masterpiece of the composer’s post-operatic career – shows the tenor at the peak of his vocal powers. It’s one of the finest recording of this difficult aria ever made.
Two French arias next, both by Massenet – but neither in the original French. Pourquoi me reveiller from Werther is in Italian. O Souverain! O Juge! O Pere! from Le Cid is sung in English. The first recording with piano accompaniment was made late in the tenor’s career when he toured Australia with his son Ronald also a tenor. The second Massenet piece was made in his vocal prime.
Verdi was at the core of Smith’s repertoire. Quando le sere al placido from Luisa Miller is the quintessential Italian aria. It too has piano accompaniment. The tenor’s fluid and smooth singing shows why one cogent observer called him the Australian Richard Tucker. Everyone, including the opera house plumber sings Di quella pira. The sound, from a live performance, is marginal, perhaps not even at that level, but the stretta is sung as written, or rather rewritten. The high notes are Cs.
Finally, a song that is sung in English because that’s the language in which it was written. Softly, as in a morning sunrise is from Sigmund Romberg’s 1928 operetta The New Moon. It is for tenor and is a song of yearning for a lost love. It has a tango rhythm. Smith sings Oscar Hammerstein’s words with passion and more voice than a choir of silver trumpets. Well, that’s a little over the top, but he sounds great – he blows the piece away..
That Smith didn’t have more of an international career is due to his late start in the opera business and to his preference to stay in his native country where he was a major celebrity and where he remains a cultural icon. He was the first resident member of the Australian Opera to be made a member of the Order of the British Empire – 1973.
If a voice like the great Australian tenor’s appeared today, the opera world would beat a path to his agent’s office. But in the middle of the last century, there were more than a dozen world class Italian style tenors active. For starters, Mario Lanza, Franco Corelli, and Giuseppe Di Stefano were born the year following Smith’s birth. Richard Tucker and Mario Del Monaco were born a few year earlier while Carlo Bergonzi, Jon Vickers and Nicolai Gedda a few years later. Smith could have stood tall among them. Unfortunately, he is not well known outside of his homeland.