The next group of New Zealand singers to have an international impact were baritones and basses.
Baritone Denis Dowling (1910–96) was born in Ranfurly, Otago. His career path set the pattern for many who followed: first prize in a major Australasian competition (the 1934 Melbourne Sun Aria competition); study at one of the London academies (the Royal College of Music); roles with significant English companies and then international stardom. A brilliant singer, Dowling was also hugely admired for his acting ability. He retired in 1984 with a memorable final performance in Prokofiev’s War and peace at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Dowling was one of the original members of the English Opera Group, founded by Benjamin Britten in 1945. He became known for his performances of Junius in The rape of Lucretia and Sid in Albert Herring.
Another New Zealander, Bryan Drake (1925–2002), was also closely associated with the English Opera Group. Son of a Dunedin singing teacher, Drake made his professional operatic debut in the 1948 Otago Centenary production of Bizet’s Carmen. The following year he departed for England to further his career. English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was so impressed with his singing that he created a role especially for him in his 1951 opera The pilgrim’s progress. In the same year Drake sang in the premiere of Britten’s Billy Budd at London’s Covent Garden. He performed many of the major baritone roles from the operatic canon, both for Covent Garden and, from 1956 on, for the Welsh National Opera. From 1964 he became increasingly identified with Britten’s operas – and especially the three works collectively known as the Church Parables.
Īnia Te Wīata
Īnia Te Wīata’s rise from employment at the Horotiu freezing works near Ngāruawāhia to international fame is a remarkable story. Te Wīata (1915–71) made his debut at Covent Garden in 1951, singing alongside Bryan Drake in The pilgrim’s progress. Twenty years later he was to have sung the title role in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov on that same stage with a young Kiri Te Kanawa. On the first day of rehearsals, however, he became seriously ill and died a fortnight later. In the intervening years he had enjoyed a career of the utmost distinction. His various trips back to New Zealand included starring in the New Zealand Opera Company’s 1965 production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with an all-Māori cast.
The right place at the right time
Oscar Natzke was ‘discovered’ while still a music student by Vladimir Rosing, an eminent Russian tenor and opera director. Rosing was walking along London’s Wigmore Street when he heard Natzke practising in a nearby building. Stunned by the quality of the singing, Rosing invited Natzke to audition at the Royal Opera House the next morning, and promptly offered him a leading role.
The career trajectory of Oscar Natzke (1912–51) was similar to Te Wīata’s. Born near Te Awamutu, Natzke began full-time work as a blacksmith’s striker in Auckland at the age of 15. Just 11 years later he had become the youngest bass ever to sing a principal’s role at Covent Garden. A distinguished career was cut short in 1951 when he collapsed on stage in New York while singing in Wagner’s Die meistersinger von Nürnberg. He died two weeks later.