Miss Ada Crossley, Contralto

Miss Ada Crossley, Contralto

Jane Rankine

A now forgotten Australian singer with ‘a most glorious voice’ achieved worldwide acclaim in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writes Jane Rankine

Fame is made up of four elements: a person and an accomplishment, their immediate publicity, and what posterity has thought about them ever since.

Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History

Talma & Co., Miss Ada Crossley, 1905, nla.cat-vn2599620

Among Dame Nellie Melba’s papers at the National Library are letters of introduction written in Melba's large loopy hand to her beloved French singing teacher, Madame Mathilde Marchesi. The letters are mostly discreet, temperate, befitting a diva extending help to aspiring singers. But one, for a Miss Crossley, is enthusiastic, emphatic, underlined.

The letter is undated, but was dashed off in London on 28 July 1894 when Melba, already a famous soprano at 33, sat down to write a note to introduce the unknown 23-year-old contralto Miss Crossley to Madame Marchesi.

Nellie Melba, Letter to Madame Mathilde Marchesi to Introduce Miss Ada Crossley, Marchesi, Mathilde Family Papers c.1869–c.1945, nla.cat-vn2690884, courtesy Melba Opera Trust

Melba's enthusiasm for Miss Crossley's potential as a singer was proved right. Ada Crossley achieved a successful career and a measure of fame, with her performances, social engagements and wedding (in 1905 to Dr Francis Frederick Muecke) extensively reported in newspapers and magazines. Today, Ada Crossley is largely forgotten, her name more usually mentioned as a footnote to that of her contemporaries Melba and Percy Grainger. Percy Grainger toured with her to Australia in 1903–1904 and again in 1908–1909. She was not part of his Australian concert party. Her fame at the time is indicated by the fact that he was a part of hers.

Ada Jemima Crossley was born in Tarraville, Gippsland, Victoria, on 3 March 1871. At the age of seven, she started piano lessons with ‘Mrs Hastings of Port Albert … the professional of the district’ according to The Musical Times of 1 May 1905. In her late teens, she travelled to Melbourne for piano lessons with the elder Alberto Zelman and then singing lessons with Fanny Simonsen. She was lucky in her time and place. World-class musicians and singers lived and worked in the ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ of the 1880s and Alberto Zelman and Fanny Simonsen were two of the best.

Crossley made her professional debut on 19 November 1889 in a Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society concert. Writing in the Argus the next day, the newspaper's music critic was surprised at her choice of Schubert's The Wanderer (normally sung by a baritone) but her second solo, Charlotte Sainton-Dolby's Out on the Rocks, met with approval. The Library does not have the program for her debut but does have one for her second appearance with the society, on 26 October 1891. This program may be one of the oldest featuring a performance by Ada Crossley held in an Australian collection.

Ada Crossley Concert Programs, Australian Performing Arts Programs and Ephemera (PROMPT) Collection, nla.cat-vn3527424

Australian music critic Gerald Marr Thompson and his wife Eleanor Lucy Cole were in the audience at Crossley’s Sydney debut in January 1892, in a W.J. Turner People’s Promenade Concert. Years later, on 30 October 1929, Marr Thompson wrote in The Sydney Mail:

I well remember my astonishment when the possible star contralto [Crossley] was followed by the possible star soprano [Lalla Miranda]. My … wife … whispered, ‘Are we dreaming?’ We decided to try them again in the second part, which afforded the reply, ‘We are not’.

By January 1894, Crossley had been singing professionally for four years. With the praise of audiences, critics and visiting overseas singers came the question of whether she should stay in Australia or go ‘home’ to Britain. With a coin toss, according to Melbourne’s Leader of 23 August 1902 (although this may well be a furphy), she made the decision to leave home and family for what proved to be a lifetime.

Before leaving, she gave a series of farewell concerts. The first was in Melbourne on her 23rd birthday, 3 March 1894. It was followed by concerts in Sydney and Adelaide. The program held in the National Library’s PROMPT Collection for her ‘Grand Farewell Concert’ in the Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 14 March 1894 and the review in the next day's Sydney Morning Herald bring the performance back to life.

Crossley sailed for London on the RMS Orizaba at the end of March, taking enough capital, including shares in the Coolgardie Gold Mining and Prospecting Company, to keep herself and pay for singing lessons, first with English baritone Charles Santley and then, on Melba’s introduction, six months of lessons from Mathilde Marchesi in Paris. She made her London debut at Queen's Hall on 18 May 1895. From 1896, with talent, a great deal of work and some luck, she carved a significant career in oratorio and ballad concerts. On 29 October 1898, she sang before Queen Victoria. On 20 April 1903, in room 826 at Carnegie Hall in New York, she recorded Caro Mio Ben, the first record for the Victor Company's Red Seal label. She toured to Europe, South Africa, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

She was admired for her rich contralto voice, her voice control and her musical interpretation. The English critic William McNaught, writing in The Musical Times in April 1947, remembered:

in addition to ... [her] superb use of the voice, … [she] put a character into the words: the character, not of a contralto, but of a woman whose nature and urgent need it was to prophesy woe or enjoin faith.

Crossley’s ability to ‘enjoin faith’ may be why she was asked, as the only soloist, to sing at commemorative concerts for two major events of the early twentieth century: the death of King Edward VII in 1910 and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Ada Crossley quietly retired in about 1919 but continued to befriend Australian artists and performers, extending practical help as well as advice. Australian musical theatre star Gladys Moncrieff wrote in her autobiography, My Life of Song (1971), about being out of work in London in 1926:

I auditioned for a show … and I spared not effort or expense to be well dressed for it. The great Australian contralto, Ada Crossley, was extremely kind, She took me along to Revilles [Department Store] and we spent ages choosing a dress.

Crossley died in a nursing home in Buckinghamshire on 17 October 1929.

Ada Crossley, Letter of Condolence Written to Mrs Andrew Fisher (written a year before Ada Crossley's death on 26 October 1928), Papers of Andrew Fisher, 1883–1983, nla.cat-vn342948; Ethelbert Nevin, Oh That We Two Were Maying, Op. 2, No. 8, 1904, nla.cat-vn1128965

In some of the newspaper and magazine articles about Crossley published during her lifetime are quotes from her (lost) letters home. A column in Table Talk, published 22 September 1894, quotes from a ‘letter to a friend’ in which Crossley tells of her meeting with Nellie Melba in London in July: 

I arrived at the Savoy Hotel, and sent up my card to Madame Melba's secretary, Miss Bennett, and soon learned that the great artiste had just come in, and would be very glad to see me. I found her cordial, and that she knew all about me from the Australian Press notices. At the same time she explained that she would better know what to tell Marchesi if she heard me sing … I felt very anxious, though less nervous than usual, because I was in such splendid voice, and I could feel the sound was filling the room on every side … when I turned to her there were tears in her eyes, and she said, 'Oh, what a glorious voice; I've heard nothing like it for years! … Then she sat down and wrote as follows: —‘My Darling Madame,—this is to introduce Miss Ada Crossley, whom you have already heard of. She has a most glorious voice’

Jane Rankine is an AustLit Emeritus Indexer. Her interest in Ada Crossley was piqued by her late father-in-law, a great nephew of the singer. To her shame, Jane was one who thought Ada Crossley was part of Percy Grainger's Australian concert party—until a little research proved her very wrong.