Mary Bertha Rawlinson’s rich contralto voice and splendid acting skills made her a familiar name in New Zealand music and theatre for nearly 40 years. She was born in Geraldine, South Canterbury, on 1 June 1910, the daughter of Joseph Albert Rawlinson, a printer, and his wife, Agnes Russell Gorrie Christie. Brought up in Dunedin, Bertha (as she was known) was educated at Otago Girls’ High School and the University of Otago, where she graduated bachelor of music in 1934. She also gained LRSM and FTCL diplomas in piano and singing, and an LTCL in speech and drama, but any plans for overseas study were thwarted by the depression. On 18 April 1935, in Dunedin, she married Edward Charles Stuart Falconer, a local businessman who shared her love of the arts; they were to have a daughter.
Her qualities as a singer were demonstrated when she won the coveted Melba memorial trophy at the 1936 City of Sydney Eisteddfod. On her return home Rawlinson (who continued to perform under her unmarried name) found herself in professional demand for concerts, oratorios and radio recitals. She also gained considerable acting experience with the Dunedin Repertory Society and other amateur groups, as well as producing plays for local British Drama League festivals. During the 1940 centennial celebrations she successfully undertook the role of Martha in the Dunedin performances of Charles Gounod’s Faust .
Although she had become well known throughout the country as an oratorio soloist, Rawlinson’s operatic talents were unknown outside Dunedin until 1955, when she made an electrifying début for the New Zealand Opera Company as Madam Flora in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The medium. She later treasured a letter from the conductor, James Robertson, testifying that her performance was of international standard. She appeared widely in the role over the next two seasons and subsequently sang the mother in the company’s productions of Menotti’s Amahl and the night visitors in 1956 and 1960, and Mrs Herring in the New Zealand première of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring (1966). She also sang in opera broadcasts with the National Orchestra.
In addition to performing, Rawlinson occasionally wrote songs, some of which were heard at competitions and festivals in New Zealand. While holidaying in England in 1962 she took six of these songs to the London firm Chappell and Company, who promptly published them for sale in Britain and New Zealand. Her talents in classical music were balanced by an equal flair for the lighter side of music-making. With soprano Vincente Major she formed a popular comedy singing duo, the Aspidistras, and in 1963 she appeared in a series of television music-hall programmes. She also acted in and produced shows for a wide variety of amateur musical and dramatic societies in Dunedin and further afield.
During the 1960s and 1970s she turned her attention increasingly to teaching singing. She was also asked to judge many speech, drama and vocal competitions, including the 1960 Auckland Aria and 1968 Sun Aria in Sydney. In 1973 she was on the international judging panel for the City of Sydney Eisteddfod, and in 1976 she was made an MBE for her services to the arts. Although she gave up performing and directing that year, she continued teaching until her husband’s death in 1983. Stuart Falconer had become a successful racehorse owner and breeder, winning the Melbourne Cup in 1970 with Baghdad Note.
In her later years Bertha Rawlinson’s enthusiasm for the arts and her efforts to encourage young performers remained undiminished. A small, gracious woman, she always stressed the importance of stage presence, advising aspiring singers to ‘Lead with your bosom!’ Those who knew her appreciated her capacity for friendship, her warmth and her humility about her own achievements. She died at her Mosgiel home on 25 January 1994, survived by her daughter. She is remembered as one of the finest New Zealand singers and theatrical performers of her generation.