Opera Australia’s 60th Anniversary production of My Fair Lady is a hit. It has been an opportunity for fans new and old to see an authentic recreation of one of the most sumptuous musicals of the century, with one of our most beloved actors, Julie Andrews, in the director’s chair.
But for 88-year-old Ailsa Sloane, it was a trip down memory lane.
Opening in Melbourne in 1959, the first Australian production of My Fair Lady was hot on the heels of the show’s triumphant Broadway and West End seasons. It starred Bunty Turner and Robin Bailey, and when JC Williamson’s touring production moved on to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney in 1961, they were in need of a new cast member. Without any professional theatre experience behind her, Ailsa was cast as one of the eight ‘singing ladies’ in the ensemble.
So how did a training singer with no main stage experience land a role in what is referred to by critics as ‘the perfect musical’? With ‘a little bit of luck’, of course!
Ailsa, an aspiring performer, became one of Margaret Krauss’ pupils in the late 1950s. A Polish Jew, Krauss had been principal soprano at both the Vienna and Munich State Opera in the 1920s and 1930s. At the start of WW2 she fled to London before setting her sights on Australia.
“[Margaret] knew somebody had left the cast and that they needed another ‘singing lady,’ as they called it, and she thought since I was tall I would probably suit them,” said Ailsa.
Ailsa inherited Krauss’ distinctive German vocal technique. “Pull your belly in,” she would say. “Stand straight” and “sing behind your eyebrows”.
Ailsa had dreams of becoming a professional opera singer and so, when she arrived at the audition, sang Cherubino’s aria from Mozart’s Figaro, a song she knew by heart.
Music Director Gabrielle Joffe invited Ailsa to join the show the very next week, but not before saying: “That was very nice dear, but next time you sing [for a musical like this], try to organise it so that you have something that’s lighter…but it was very lovely.”
Ailsa gave her notice at the ABC, where she was working a secretarial job, and began a rigorous six months in the cast, performing eight shows a week. It is a window of time in her life that she looks back on with extreme fondness.
“I learned a lot. I learned how to change quickly and make myself up and presentable, and the discipline of having to be there at a certain time every night and Wednesday afternoon.
“You had to keep your wits about you – it was a good experience for me. Especially getting ready quickly, it made me get ready for anything very quickly, which was a help when I got married and I had four children.”
The backstage world of My Fair Lady was full of laughter and pranks, and on her third performance with the company Ailsa was herself initiated.
She had just become engaged, and so before every performance her pink sapphire engagement ring was handed over to the stage manager, along with everyone else’s valuables. On this particular night, as she was walking away from collecting her ring after the performance, she looked down to see a gawdy prop ring on her finger. Gasping, she rushed back to retrieve her ring as the manager laughed.
“I nearly had a fit! It was a great joke,” she recalled with a chuckle.
Half a year later and the production was preparing to travel on to Brisbane and there was talk of taking it to Japan, but Ailsa made the difficult decision to withdraw from the company. With an upcoming marriage and the desire to start a family, she felt she had little choice. In the early 1960s, the option of maintaining any career (much less one in the performing arts) wasn’t really there for new mothers.
Little would she know that nearly six decades later, her daughter would surprise her with tickets and for one afternoon she would relieve 1961.
Revisiting the show in 2016
Catching up with Ailsa after seeing the mid-week matinee, she was full of praise for the show.
“I just loved it. I loved every minute of it. It’s so well done. Everything’s seamless.”
She praised the absolute beauty and precision of all elements: gorgeous sets, elegant costumes, an aloof speak-singing Higgins (Alex Jennings), an operatic, everywoman’s Eliza (Anna O’Byrne), and a supporting cast with enough talent to rival the leads.
Ailsa praised the subtle integration of new technology in the set rotations, the glory of the Opera House as a location, the subtle differences in the costumes to ones she wore back in the day, and the addition of Mrs Higgins’ gorgeous (vintage, pastel blue and white) car driving across the stage before the Ascot scene. “That was exciting, the audience nearly went mad!”
To Ailsa, one of the biggest surprises was the sight of a woman (Kellie Dickerson) leading the orchestra as their valiant conductor. ”She was very good!” Ailsa is quick to say.
When it came to the scenes, the cockney frivolity of ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ was one of Ailsa’s favourite to perform, and she says the newly restaged scene is “Such fun! Reg Livermoore [as Alfred P. Doolittle] was wonderful!”.
She considers the Ascot scene “the absolute Zenith of the whole thing”. The Edwardian-chic black and white trackside gowns paired with supreme music – “I still hear it in my head” – attests to this.
“I always loved Ascot, I loved the orchestration of that, it’s so beautiful, and the atmosphere created by the music was really beautiful…”
Ailsa sounded as though she could have danced all night.