Finding Diane Holmes—ephemera and memorabilia
Ask a Librarian revisits the past of Australian opera through the ephemera collection
6 August 2015
As a regular concert-goer and opera and ballet lover, I enjoy reference questions which lead me to the Library’s Australian performing arts programs and ephemera collection, otherwise known as the PROMPT collection. Searching through this fascinating material can be time consuming, as it is a huge collection, but fortunately there are a number of finding aids to help.
This collection is certainly useful when we get reference questions about a particular performer, such as this question I received about the amazing Diane Holmes:
I am trying to put together an article on one of my residents within my retirement village. She was formerly Diane Holmes and was a very well respected opera singer in the 1960s. She has informed me that she has performed at The Tivoli, Sydney, and the Sydney University between 1962 and 1964, where she played Lucretia in Britten's Rape of Lucretia. She used to be part of the Sutherland/Williamson Grand Opera Company and has performed with a young Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland. Unfortunately she no longer has any memorabilia and photographs of her performing at all and I wondered if you could help by either pointing me in the right direction or forwarding any information you may have.
Many thanks to Diane, now Diane Helgesen, for allowing us to revisit her story here. She says that these days her husband is the only one who hears her sing when she’s “pottering around at home” but I discovered that audiences in the past heard some memorable performances.
Starting the search
They had also sent a good clue for starting the search, a Trove record they had found using the Sutherland-Williamson connection: Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company: Her Majesty's Theatre 1965. This particular item is held at the State Library of New South Wales, but the National Library has a similar item in the PROMPT collection: Her Majesty's Theatre - Sydney, the Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company programmes 1965. This is a bound volume of programs, and they are also available unbound, exactly as opera-goers would have collected them at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
The operas listed in these programs are Lucia Di Lammermoor, L'Elisir D'Amore, Eugin Onegin, Semiramide, Faust, La Sonnambula and La Traviata. Sutherland and Pavarotti appeared in some of these, and together in La Traviata, as Violetta and Alfredo.
Diane Holmes is listed in all of these programs as one of the 'Ladies of the Chorus'. She may not have performed in every show, but we can see she did indeed appear in productions with Sutherland and Pavarotti.
The collection of programs is very evocative and fascinating to search through, and of course quite time consuming.
JC Williamson Limited was the dominant theatrical agent for a number of years, and the National Library has produced a finding aid which lists performance programs in the collection. In this case, we are looking at opera, comic opera and operetta programs. The finding aid lists the Grand Opera Season 1965, but doesn’t list cast members.
A useful short-cut is AusStage, a database for researching live performance in Australia. AusStage has used programs from the Flinders University Library Special Collections and several other collections, including the National Library’s PROMPT collection, as sources for this database. Although the material from the PROMPT collection is not yet fully indexed, a search of AusStage is a good start in finding relevant programs in the National Library. We can see that Diane Holmes performed in:
- Iolanthe, in Sydney and Adelaide, 1969
- The Pirates Of Penzance, Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, NSW, 25 September 1969
- Rigoletto, Canberra Theatre, Canberra, ACT, 21 August 1967
- Grand Opera 1967, Various Australia, Australia, 30 May 1967
- Orpheus in the Underworld, Melbourne and Brisbane, 1962 and 1963
The notes in AusStage led me to search the programs of Garnet H. Carroll Management and the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company.
The Garnet H. Carroll Management: theatre programmes, ephemera, etc. included three programs from 1962 and 1963 of Orpheus in the Underworld. The program from the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on 22 October 1963, lists Diane Holmes as Venus and includes a short biography:
Diane Holmes as Venus…Diane Holmes will be remembered for her appearances with the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company’s 1962 season as Flora in La Traviata and Meg Page in Falstaff. A singer who has achieved considerable success, Diane Holmes studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She has a number of scholarships and awards to her credit, including The Sydney de Vries, The Melba Trophy, A.B.C. Radio Vocal Competition and the National Television Quest. Her most recent stage role was Lalume in Kismet.
This little paragraph was a good find, because while the Library has collected a large number of programs, not every performance is represented, so biographies help to add to the story. The next place I looked was the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company: programs and related material collected by the National Library of Australia, where I found Diane listed in performances from 1962 to 1969—1969 was a particularly busy year, with six touring performances, in:
Falstaff as Meg Page
- Boris Godounov as Xenia
- School for Fathers as Margarita
- HMS Pinafore as Cousin Hebe
- Iolanthe as the Queen of the Faeries
- The Pirates of Penzance as Kate, Major Stanley’s daughter
The programs from the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company’s season of Gilbert and Sullivan (1969) include a vivid biography:
Tall, glamorous and elegant, Diane Holmes could well have stepped straight from the front page of a fashion magazine. However as a principal mezzo soprano with the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company, Diane Holmes says she has never tried her hand at modelling and has always been more interested in a musical career. In fact, she has been singing ever since she can remember, going back to her first professional appearance at the age of 2 ½ on a Sydney radio programme. After studying music at the Sydney Conservatorium, Diane Holmes joined the Company in 1962 and has many major roles to her credit. For the Gilbert and Sullivan season, Miss Holmes will sing Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe, Cousin Hebe in Pinafore and Kate in Pirates.
One more biography was found in the souvenir program, Grand Opera 1968, The Elizabethan Trust Opera Company:
Sydney mezzo soprano Diane Holmes joined the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company in 1962 after a series of competition successes to sing in productions of Falstaff and La Traviata and has since appeared in all but one of the company’s main seasons. Last year she sang roles in Turandot and Rigoletto. A student of the Sydney Conservatorium, Diane Holmes has also appeared in a television production of the opera Cinderella and toured Australia as Venus in the long running operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. In 1965 she sang with the Sutherland Company and in 1966 was in the cast of the popular musical, The Boys from Syracuse. This year, Australian opera audiences will see her as Wowkie in the Girl of the Golden West.
As well as the competition successes, Diane had also appeared on television!
Programs and other theatrical memorabilia may also be found within manuscript collections. Special collections material such as pictures, manuscripts and oral histories often help breathe extra life into the personalities and performances with photographs, set and costume designs, business records, personal correspondence, diaries and scrapbooks as well as audio recollections. The biographical cuttings series also has newspaper clippings on well-known opera singers. A search of the Catalogue for names and companies is a good way to start.
To find more about Diane Holmes' career, I also searched the Trove newspapers. As most of the publications in Trove are not represented after 1954, I didn’t expect to find a great deal, but in January 1952, we can see that Diane appeared on radio in Australia’s Amateur Hour, leading the votes. Much later, The Canberra Times has reports of the 1969 performances of School for Fathers and Falstaff and the 1970 Gilbert and Sullivan season.
My final discovery is a personal favourite. In the Australian Women's Weekly there is an entertaining description of a 1965 ABC television production of La Cenerentola, Rossini's opera based on the story of Cinderella.
Cinderella (Janice Copeland, centre) is intimidated by stepsisters Glorinda (soprano Rosalind Keene, left) and Tisbe (mezzo-soprano Diane Holmes), who are not so much ugly and wicked as overdressed, overwigged and over-confident.
My answer also included directions for our Copies Direct service. With this ephemera, I hope I have helped Diane to recapture her remarkable past.
Not sure where to start your research? Stuck somewhere along the way? Ask a Librarian.
The Library was saddened to learn that Diane Helgesen passed away on 6 August 2015.
Throughout the research and writing of this blog, reference librarian Sue Chan uncovered a fascinating array of material relating to Diane’s opera career, and was fortunate enough to discuss these memories with Diane. Sue enjoyed getting to know her in this small way, and we are very grateful Diane allowed us to share her story here.
Diane’s legacy lies safe within the collections of the National Library, and will be preserved for the benefit of future generations.