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With recollections of her father, the conductor EUGENE GOOSSENS

by Renée Goossens


This is my selection of favourite music.

My father gave me an incredible gift: that of music. All music. He introduced me, from my cradle, to sounds emanating from the rich repertoire he knew from working with some of France’s greatest contemporary musicians. He worked closely with English and Russian composers too and was one of the champions of their works abroad. He had a dedicated knowledge of each note and nuance, and in many cases, had discussed with composers their wishes as to performance detail. This brought an extra dimension of richness to his conducting, and gave his orchestra a connection with a world they would otherwise never have known.

Particularly in his work with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (prior to my birth and in my earliest five years of life) he gave Americans who had not travelled (it was wartime) an insight into the world of Europe, and a taste of the present skills and beauty being created by Debussy, Ravel and Satie, amongst others. His interpretation of Stravinsky was motivated not only by knowing Igor as a personal friend, but by his genuine love and appreciation of his work. Such understanding was brought to his work then when he came to Sydney as Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He toured country areas extensively, as well as visiting South Africa and conducting many orchestras, giving them his unique insight into works classical, ‘old’ and new.

There was a time in the Sixties when London’s opera goers were treated to a feast of Australian singers, Joan Sutherland, Ronald Dowd, Donald Smith, Clifford Grant, Margreta Elkins, Robert Allman, John Shaw, Geoffrey Chard, Elizabeth Fretwell, Marie Collier, Neil Warren-Smith, Gregory Dempsey, and so many others that I fear omitting some who should be on the list. It was said that if the Australians became too disenchanted with the weather (most of them eventually did come ‘home’) there would be no Covent Garden and no Sadler’s Wells (as it was then called).

My family has been involved in opera for the past three generations. My father, his father and great grandfather (all called ‘Eugene’ of which Daddy was Eugene III) were operatic conductors. The gamut of opera in English versus opera in the original had always been a huge discussion point within the family. Eugene I and Eugene II, with their pronounced Belgian ancestry, although favouring opera in the original, gave the public what it sought, opera in a language they could understand, so opera in English was the rule at the Carl Rosa Company.

When my father introduced opera through the students at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music he wisely chose professional singers in most of the principal roles, giving young students an opportunity to learn closely by observation or a type of "osmosis", as well as good, hard work. The project was successful and during the period 1946-56, amongst which were large productions such as The Mastersingers, The Walkyrie, his own opera Judith (in which Joan Sutherland made her debut), Gianni Schicchi, Boris Godounov, Pelléas and Mélisande, The Bartered Bride and Romeo and Juliet.

Although Australian artists were busily engaged in live performances, apart from Joan Sutherland, not many were recorded – not representative of their actual importance on the world’s operatic scene, so many great performances are available only on "pirated" recordings. For reasons of policy and finance, the Australian opera in recent years has also failed to record or video performances. In the Eighties, several operas were recorded on video, mainly those starring Joan Sutherland and conducted by Richard Bonynge, so through these we are able to hear a selection of some of Australia’s finest voices.

When I returned to Australia in 1967, I worked at the Conservatorium of Music teaching students of opera French repertoire, therefore upholding the tradition of opera in the original language once more. Consequently I worked at the Australian Opera coaching the singers their roles in French.

In 1981, working for the Multicultural Television station Special Broadcasting Service, also known as (Channel O), we purchased some twenty operas from Europe, great productions including some by acclaimed French director Jean Pierre Ponnelle. It was a tremendous challenge to learn to subtitle these operas into English for screening on television. This meant combining all the skills I had ever learnt linguistically and musically to attempt careful translations which were rhythmic rather than rhyming. It was a work I adored, but the irony of doing the opposite to the work of my grandfather did amuse me too.

Opera nowadays is generally viewed in major theatres with surtitles in English (or the native language of the audience) and this has brought meaning to the libretto of many otherwise considered "challenging" works, particularly Wagner’s Ring Cycle.


  1. Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata Violetta’s aria Addio, del passata bei sogni ridenti with Maria Callas. Sweet memories of the past, to which we all wish to cling yet must so often relinquish. This melodrama, after the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave, tells of a woman’s sacrifice for the man she loves. Dying, she remembers the best times they had, and her surrender represents to me the total giving within each woman when she truly loves. This was one of Callas’s strongest roles, and one which she played fully in her own tragically shortened life.
  2. Richard Wagner: The Prize Song from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg with Placido Domingo, my favourite tenor. This aria embodies the drama of the piece, is the high point of an opera which became my favourite at the age of eight. The philosophy of the mastersingers and the creation of guilds is of historic interest, as well as the romantic appeal of winning the hand of a fair maiden by a singing contest. I can recall my anxiety as a child that Eva would indeed need to be in love with the contestant Walter.
  3. Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffman: The Doll Song with Joan Sutherland. I choose this recording for several reasons. Firstly, I know and admire the great soprano and had the privilege of working with her on the role in French, as well as knowing her socially and within the company during my years with the Australian Opera as French coach. Olympia, the doll with whom Hoffman falls in love, represents man’s fantasies about the perfect woman who does not exist at all. As Olympia requires winding up to continue her aria, she reminds me of the multiple surgery I have sustained to "wind me up" and keep me functioning!
  4. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The finale of the last act of The Marriage of Figaro.. ‘Al meno per loro, perdono otterro‘ The Countess shows her mercy for her husband despite his philandering. Many a good wife does the same, for love has its own virtues and strengths, and forgiveness is one of the greatest healers. I would like the soprano to be Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.
  5. Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette, The love duet preceding "Non, ce n’est pas le jour," when the young couple are savouring their first love, following their marriage, knowing that Roméo is about to be exiled and fearing their separation, knowing not what the future holds. The recording artists of preference would be Roberto Alagna whom I consider to be the finest French tenor of our decade in this repertoire, with the Russian soprano Leontina Vaduva who sang the role with him when he first sang it at Covent Garden just after the death of his first wife. He decided to dedicate the performance to his wife’s memory knowing she would not have wanted him to cancel. Their portrayal of the two young lovers is visually as stunning as it is vocally and is one of the all time great performances of this opera I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. As a child I had the fun of being an on-stage musician during the Ball Scene in which Juliette is introduced to society and first sees the man who will be the love of her tragically short life.
  6. The theme of this particular opera is central to our world, is it not? Two families in feud, two lovers who find each other despite deadly risk. It reminds us of the many needless wars between people of differing faiths, backgrounds and nationalities. Love only can cure the world, but when is it permitted to so do? The finale at least shows, from Shakespeare’s marvellous play, that both Capulets and Montagues comprehend that their hatred must end, for it has caused the deaths of their beloved children, and others whom they held dear.

  7. Modest Moussorgsky: Boris Godounov: The nursery scene when the Tzar explains the role he expects of his son Feodor when he will rule, following his father’s death. Chaliapin worked with my father so I would like this recording please. Father conducted this opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when I was a child who played an urchin in the production, disgracing myself by having an attack of hiccoughs as I knelt at the feet of the Tzar during his great Coronation aria.
  8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro: The Vendetta aria from Act I, sung by Australian bass Clifford Grant in a recording conducted by Colin Davis. I had the pleasure of working with Cliff for several years at the Australian opera (he sang for example, to great acclaim, the role of Nilakantha in Delibes’ Lakmé) and we have remained close friends. Revenge is a harmful emotion when carried to extremes. It can lead to death and misery, harming the lives of all who become part of its evil power. Vengeance thus is a universal theme, but here the revenge against Figaro symbolises only our fear of what is known sometimes as ‘knocking down the Tall Poppy’! Figaro is the loved and admired man about town who succeeds at all he does, whereas Dr Bartolo, who expresses his strong emotions seeking revenge, is generally frustrated and disliked.
  9. Giacomo Puccini: La Tosca: Vissi d’Arte with Joan Carden the Australian soprano who has made this role special with heartfelt interpretation of lyrics and dramatic effects which are unforgettable, to all those who have enjoyed her performances. It is a privilege to honour a dear friend once more.
  10. (I would not choose recordings by friends unless they were outstanding artists, but obviously the combination of friendship plus fine music has a very strong influence on my choice.)

  11. Pyotor Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Prince Gremin’s aria. (After a poem by Pushkin,) The Prince sagely explains that age and experience can show that love develops and never dies and his understanding of Tatiana, whom he adores, increases with every day. He sings graciously to the anti-hero, Onegin, who has foolishly wandered the world seeking he knew not what, abandoning the woman who had honestly poured out her heart to him only to be shamed by his disdain and haughty rejection. This is a great bass role, and should be sung by a singer with technique and ability , and a confident smooth legato such as Nicolai Ghiaurov. Once more, it is love which is the central theme. Had I not believed in love and happiness, my life would not be as filled with joy as it is now.
  12. Engelbert Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel, sung in English. I leave the choice of performers to the reader. The important connection for me is that this was one of the first operas to which I grew close. As a child of twelve I was taken backstage to meet the Australian soprano June Bronhill who measured herself up beside me, declared that "Gretel is supposed to be twelve and we are the same size" and that seemed a great privilege to me! The score of this opera is deceptively sophisticated. Influenced by Mahler, the composer blends a large orchestra with melodies of great beauty. It is a difficult work for a student production, and although some schools insist on showing it on the grounds that it is a good introduction to young audiences, a good cast is essential to do justice to the excellence and challenge the music holds. The excerpt known and loved by many is, "Brother come and Dance with me". I wanted to have such a number within my selection to balance against the heavier emotions we have experienced, also to finish on a lighter note.

For my selection I have chosen only opera, which has always been my first love and choice is so abundant it goes on forever. In Sydney in 2001 I was asked to choose my five favourite recordings for a similar talk/chat programme with broadcaster Margaret Throsby for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. These recordings listed above are amongst some of my immediate choices, but there were others, and if you woke me in the middle of the night and asked for another 10 just off the top of my head, I would produce more still. Not that I am fickle, but that it would be an impossible choice to eliminate almost anything from the world’s magnificent repertoire!

September 3rd, 2003-09-03

Copyright Renée Goossens


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