Elva Blair as Mabel in "Pirates of Penzance"

Elva – publicity shot

Elva was born in Clifton Hill, Melbourne.  Although a city girl, both her parents came from rural backgrounds – mainly mining and farming in NE Victoria -  from Longwood, near Euroa, through to Yackandandah.  She was raised in Thornbury, attended Victoria Park and Thornbury State Schools and the Demonstration School in Melbourne University. She left school at 15 in 1932 and won a job at Myers but her first love was music and she once sang solo in church at about 8 years old - to be followed by loud, and quite solitary, applause by her proud grandpa.

While at Myers, as part of the competition for the Melba Scholarship for untrained voices, she won free lessons, during her lunchtimes, at the Melbourne Conservatorium.  Several competition successes followed and ongoing scholarships eventually enabled her to study full-time and complete her Diploma of Music in 1939.  She was soon included in J C Williamson’s Gilbert & Sullivan Company in 1940.  After a period touring wartime Australia and New Zealand in the chorus and understudying the lead, she got her big break when the imported soprano, Viola Wilson (later Lady Tate), lead lost her voice in Brisbane and Mum was thrust into the lead role - Mabel in Pirates of Penzance. 

She became a national celebrity and remained the soprano lead until the tour finished in 1945 and sang on radio, in street rallies to raise money for War Bonds and in many concerts, including with Gladys Moncrieff on her very last farewell.  She successfully played 28 roles, including 9 leads throughout Australasia alongside such identities as Ivan Menzies and Max Oldaker. During the war she had married and her new post-war family life as Elva Foster proved too much of a distraction and she retired.  She still sang socially, her voice remaining true for many years, and she was often approached to return to the professional stage. Elva Blair’s rapid elevation may have been initially aided by the lack of imported singers in the war years but contemporary reviews indicate that she showed that Australia had its own pool of singers available, just awaiting their chance. Perhaps it was a glimpse into the future.

Her press clippings, papers and awards and oral history tapes along with numerous photos, musical scores and programs were requested by National Library of Australia as a unique record of a young Australian’s career in our developing theatre and this occurred in 1993.  A search for Elva Blair in the Library’s catalogue will locate this collection.

Submitted by Ian Foster.

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