Mary Pretoria Myra O’Neill (1900-1995)
Mary Pretoria Myra O’Neill, known always as Myra, was the oldest of 5 children of Herbert Thomas O’Neill & Mary Jane Thompson. She was born in Taree on 25 Apr 1900 and died in a nursing home in Roseville on 29 Apr 1995.
Early Wingham days, with Myra (aged 9) and Pat (aged 5)
Myra’s health was delicate as a young girl, so much so that her parents decided to send her to board at Mount St Mary’s Boarding School in Katoomba. Her music talents were obvious from those early years, and it was no surprise that she excelled in her music studies. For example, The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Myra gained initiatory honours in the examinations run by the Sydney College of Music in 1909 and 1913.
Myra showed huge promise even as a small child, as is evidenced in an article describing a concert in Gresford that appeared in The Maitland Weekly Mercury on Sat 31 Jan 1914. Miss [Mossie] O’Neill a also mentioned below is an O’Neill second cousin, Miss Mary White most probably an O’Neill second cousin (once removed), and we think Miss Ruby Thompson is a maternal cousin:
St. Helen’s Christmas concert, held in the Gresford School of Arts was a success both musically, socially, and financially. The singing was even throughout, and the different classes of songs and instrumental musical items were so intermingled as to keep the large audience interested and pleased and amused, and, although the last song was rendered on the stroke of 11 o’clock by Miss Ethel Tierney, the large audience wanted more. Nearly all the music lovers of the district were present. The following were the performers:- Miss Ethel Tierney (soprano) sung the two classic songs of Scotland and Ireland, ‘Angus McDonald’ . and ‘Kathleen Mavourneen,’ and was recalled again and again. Eric Tierney did well also. The local, performers did honour to Gresford, namely: Miss Page and Master Page, overture, piano solo. Miss Mary White and John Beatty got a great reception as they appeared, and were encored vociferously by an audience that wanted more. Mr. Rooney recited ‘Shamus O’Brien,’ and ‘The Doctor,’ and proved himself a master in the art of recitation. Miss Mosie O’Neill, A.L.C.M., of Mount Rivers, pleasingly rendered a violin solo and a piano solo. The Manning team, Miss Ruby Thompson and Myra O’Neill, helped the concert considerably. The latter, who is only 13 years of age, showed that she possesses a voice of great promise…
Myra continued her music studies and gained a Licentiate in Music from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, specialising in piano and voice. During the 1920s she studied under Lois Zuker and developed into a fine lyric soprano; Lois Zuker also trained Helene Esserman, another well-known Australian soprano who sang abroad.
The first reference we could find to a public recital by Myra was in The Canberra Times, Fri 01 Mar 1929:
RARE MUSICAL PIECES
In Saturday’s Recital
IN THE ALBERT HALL
At the duo piano recital which is to be given in the Albert Hall on Saturday night next by Miss McDonnell and Mr. Edwards, with Miss Myra O’Neill as the vocalist, the selections include several which are rarely heard, and some which call for the highest skill in execution.
Moy Mell, an Irish tone poem by Arnold Bax, is one of these, and has been produced on only a few occasions in Australia. One piece, Rachminoff’s second suite, will be heard on Saturday night for the first time in Australia. Another interesting rendering will be that of the danse macabre.
Miss Myra O’Neill, who is recognised as an outstanding soprano, will make her first appearance in her first big concert in Canberra on Saturday, when Miss McDonnell and Mr. Edwards will give a duo piano recital at the Albert Hall.
Miss O’Neill is a Manning River girl of 17 years, and holds an L.A.M. for pianoforte. She was taken in hand by Lois Zuker who trained Esserman. At present with the Opera Comique Paris, Lois Zuker says that Miss O’Neill is the best pupil she has yet had. Miss O’Neill’s voice is an effortless one of purity and richness and she should go far in the world of song.
Mr. Colin Edwards, who is a brother of Mr. Frank Edwards, Secretary of the Chamber of Manufacturers, Sydney, is well known at the Sydney University, where he is completing his course in medicine. He is a gifted pianist, and will also make his first appearance in the capital on Saturday night…
At her recital at the Conservatorium next Saturday evening, Miss Myra O’Neill will sing operatic arias, and French and modern English songs.
One such concert was reviewed in The Sydney Morning Herald on Mon 21 Oct 1929:
MISS MYRA O’NEILL’S RECITAL.
Miss Myra O’Neill, a young lady from the North Coast, and a pupil of Ms Lois Zucker, gave a song recital at the Conservatorium on Saturday evening, before a large audience, who gave an encouragingly warm reception to the young singer. The voice is a lyric soprano, still in the student stage, but possessing marked flexibility and sweetness. Miss O’Neill showed possession of good technique, and she sang confidently in the principal numbers, which included “Care Selve” (Handel), “Depuis le Jour” (Charpentier), “Cradle Song” and “Voci di Primavera” (Strauss), “Qui donc Vous a Donne Vos Yeux” (Godard), “Phidyle” (Duparc), and “Le Nil” (Leroux); the last with violin obligato. In addition, several lighter selections were given, and two encores, “Songs my Mother Taught Me” (Dvorak), and “The Last Rose of Summer,” sung with natural grace and sweetness. Mr. Hugh McClean, a pupil of Mr. G. Walenn, contributed violin solos, “Havanaise” (Saint Saens), “Caprice No. 20” (Paganinl-Kreisler), and “Variations on a Theme by Corelll (Lartini-Kreisler). He also played the obligato to Miss O’Neill’s song “Le Nil.” Mr. McClean’s execution was clear, and he played with considerable warmth. ‘ Mr. G. Vern Barnett’s work at the piano was very helpful.
There were several radio recitals by Myra over the next two years, including a recital of excerpts from the opera Norma. She was advised to travel to Milan, as an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald on Sat 02 May 1931 indicates:
TO STUDY IN MILAN.
Miss Myra O’Neill, who is to leave Sydney on June 2 by the Baradine to complete her studies abroad, will leave the vessel at Malta, and proceed thence to Milan, to begin a course of instruction as a pupil of Signor Cattone, a well-known teacher of that city. Miss O’Neill has won warm favour in many concert appearances in Sydney by the quality of her voice, a lyric soprano, and among those who have advised her to study and travel in Europe are Mr. Edgar L. Bainton, the British composer, who was here not long since as examiner for the Associated Board. Mr. Bainton, who twice heard Miss O’Neill sing, has expressed this view in a letter to her, in which he writes of the “great possibilities” of her voice, and enumerates various qualities which are in her favour. Miss O’Neill, whose native town is Wingham, New South Wales, has been for the past six years a resident of Taree, with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert O’Neill. During her schooldays, at St. Mary’s Convent, Katoomba, she studied the piano, and gained the L.A.B. diploma. Her vocal teacher is Miss Lois Zucker, upon whose recommendation Signor Cattone has agreed to take Miss O’Neill as a pupil.
The Dungog Chronicle: Durham and Gloucester Advertiser reported, in its edition on Tue 02 Jun 1931:
Miss Myra O’Neill.
A very pleasant gathering of 120 friends of Miss Myra O’Neill gave this promising young Australian soprano a splendid farewell at a dance and concert held at Sargents, Market-street, on Saturday night last.
Miss O’Neill and her mother, Mrs. Herb O’Neill, of Taree, were presented with, bouquets on arrival and during the evening Miss Lois Zucker presented her with a nicely bound Opera score which was autographed by the 120 friends present.
Mr. Brunton Gibb responded on behalf of Miss O’Neill.
During the evening Miss O’Neill delighted the gathering with several songs and received very hearty applause including special praise from Mr. Hugo Larsen (who is managing the tour of Mr. Peter Dawson and Mr. Mark Hambourg), Mr. Ewart Chapple of 2FC and 2BL and Mr. Oswald Anderson of 2UW.
Miss Joyce Player excelled in a delightful exhibition of toe dancing; Mr. Don Scully assisted with a violin solo and Mr. Maynard Wilkinson, and Mr. Vern Barnett were the accompanists. Miss O’Neill is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Herb. O’Neill, of the Royal Hotel, Taree, and is leaving Sydney by the s.s. ‘Baradlne’ on Tuesday, June 2, for Milan, Italy, where she is to study opera. Mr. Pat. O’Neill, of the Bank Hotel, Dungog, is a brother.
Her voice is well-known to many thousands who have heard her over the air from 2BL and 2FC, and her friends are looking to her to make a great name for herself and Australia. Miss O’Neill has great determination to succeed and should do well. She is staying with her mother at the Tudor Hotel, Phillip-street, Sydney.
Then again, on Tue 22 Dec 1931:
MISS MYRA O’NEILL.
Last week’s ‘World’ contained the following:-
From time to time news filters through to Sydney of students who are studying abroad. One of these is pretty Myra O’Neill, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert O’Neill, of Taree, (and once of Wingham), and a pupil of Miss Lois Zucker, of Sydney, who took her lovely soprano voice to Italy in June to see what could ‘be done with it.
Miss Zucker has received cheering news from Laurie Power, the South Australian singer who knew the ropes well, as he had been in Italy for 5½ years, and who helped Miss O’Neill with her Italian when she first arrived. He it was who suggested for her Pieraccini. In fact, he went along to the audition given by the maestro, and chronicled all that was said about Miss O’Neill’s voice. “It is a light soprano, being neither coloratura nor of the lyric type which sings ‘Boheme’ and ‘Butterfly'”,Pieraccini said, “but it is a real voice for such operas as ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Manon,’ etc. The voice is perfectly pitched, the tone emission is perfectly even, the breathing is very fine, and besides possessing sweet quality it shows signs of careful study and reflects the greatest credit on the teacher. It is a voice which must not be forced, and there may be big developments verging toward the lyric.”
The maestro was also struck by the development of an almost unknown quantity in singers nowadays – the quality of a pretty ‘voce mista’ or mixed voice, actually the key of the door to fame for singers. And, Mr. Power says he guards her voice as something precious.
Miss O’Neill is a sister of Mr. P. O’Neill of Bank Hotel, Dungog.
Whilst in Milan she slipped on an icy footpath and injured herself so badly that she had to abandon her studies. She settled in London and became a concert artist, studying under Esta D’Argo. (Esta D’Argo was actually born Hetty Holroyd in Yorkshire but came to Australia as a young child. She went abroad as a promising soprano, returning in 1911 after European success. In The Adelaide Advertiser, Wed 13 Sep 1911, Esta is quoted as saying:
When I went to Italy to sing I found that the Italians never pronounce the aspirate, and people could not find an equivalent in Italian for Hetty Holroyd. At the time the Boer War was on the feeling against the English was great, so it was politic to change my name. I evolved the name of Esta Dargo. Esta is as near as I could get in Italian to Hettie.
Myra sang in musicals and operettas in the UK for some 17 years, including a number of BBC Empire broadcasts. The family possesses a pre-war tape of a BBC recital that Myra gave. Naturally the quality of the tape is poor, but thanks to a family friend, Andy Busuttil of Blue Mountains Sound, some of the tracks have been cleaned up enough to get a sense of Myra’s fine voice. The recital has been split into distinct mp3 tracks.:
BBC announcing Myra’s concert:
Serenade by Richard Strauss:
In this sweet loveliness by Phyllis Harding:
One fine day by Giacomo Puccini
At the Well, words by Sir Rabindranath Tagore, music by Richard Hageman
Graetchen’s Song by Elsie Janis:
Photo of Myra’s mother Mary Jane and her brother [Alfred] Patrick listening in radio station 2BL’s studio to one of Myra’s broadcasts from London.
Myra was mentioned by The Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer on Tue 08 Dec 1942 in a feature on her cousin, Neill Moses, a grandson of PJ O’Neill and Ann Mary Hough:
‘Macleay Argus’: Sergeant Air Gunner Neill Moses, son of Mr. and Mrs. F. Moses, of Manly, and formerly of the Hotel Kempsey, writing to the Secretary of Kempsey – Crescent Head Surf Club, states that he is now in the Middle East, after completing his training in Canada and England. During his stay in England he met his cousin, the celebrated singer Miss Myra O’Neill, who showed him over the countryside. Neill spent part of his time in Scotland and Wales, and speaks highly of the hospitality extended him by those people. He remarks on the spirit of the people of England, and of their determination to see the war through, to the end, despite the terrific hammering they have taken from the bombing.
Myra returned to Australia in 1948. The West Australian reported her arrival in its Tue 29 Jun edition:
Passengers Aboard Athenic
Among women who arrived at Fremantle yesterday morning in the liner Athenic from Britain were Australians returning home after many years’ absence, and English women who will visit relatives that they have not seen for a long time.
Bound for Sydney after 16 years’ separation from her family is Miss Myra O’Neill, a lyric soprano, who left Australia to study grand opera in Italy. Through an injury she was forced to give up operatic studies and became a concert artist. She studied under the late Esta D’Argo and Mr. Spencer Clay. Miss O’Neill is an accomplished pianist. During the war she spent a good deal of her time at the Boomerang Club, where she entertained Australian servicemen. She plans to stay in Australia indefinitely, and her voice will be first heard when she passes through Melbourne.
The number of young Australians who had ill-advisedly gone to England to study singing and instrumental music, she said, was heart-breaking. They needed not only talent but sufficient money to support them through the first few years, but too often they were discouraged by lack of funds.
Myra remained active for a few years in Sydney before illness forced her into retirement. For example, she was the soloist in Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion; ftpm The Sydney Morning Herald, Wed 29 Mar 1950:
SYDNEY TOWN HALL, WEDNESDAY, 5th APRIL. 8 p.m.
ROYAL PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY OF SYDNEY
(Conductor, Dr. Ernest Toy.)
SAINT MATTHEW PASSION (Bach)
Soloists: MYRA O’NEILL, FLORENCE TAYLOR, RONALD DOWD, FRANK LISLE, ALAN LIGHT.
Prices: 6/-, 4/- (no tax). Concessions available.
Plan, Paling’s. L. A. White Hon. Sec. JA3g83.
Throughout her life Myra suffered from Meniere’s disease, a condition in which there is an excess of fluid in the inner ear which disturbs the ear’s balance and hearing mechanisms and greatly affects singing quality. As she became older she succumbed to severe osteoarthritis that was eventually to make her bed ridden. Despite her battles with illness over her lifetime, she passed away at the ripe old age of 95.
The following is a delightful memorial to Myra, given at her funeral by her adoring niece Pauline Howard (née O’Neill):
Mary Pretoria Myra O’Neill was born on April 25, 1900, she was the eldest child of our wonderful grandparents, Herbert Thomas and Mary Jane O’Neill.
Myra was educated in Cundletown near Taree and later at Mount St Marys Boarding School in Katoomba. She showed outstanding musical talent especially in voice and at the age of 17 received her LAB from the Sydney Conservatorium. At the age of 32 she left Australia for Milan and London to continue her singing and we were not to see her again in Australia for another 17 years.
Myra was born at the time of the Boer War hence the addition of Pretoria into her name. She lived through World War 1, left Australia at the end of the depression and experienced the horrors of World War 2 in London.
When she left Australia she had three nephews, my cousins John O’Neill and Peter Devenny and little Pat O’Neill and one niece, myself. When she returned in 1948 she had five nephews and eight nieces with whom Myra had very special relationships. She was our Aunt by blood and our very dear friend, confidant and advisor by our choice. Everyone of us would make a special effort to visit Auntie Myra as often as possible. I especially recall my cousin Peter Devenny’s return journey to Australia from Washington D.C .. He would see his beloved Mother Kathleen, have a rest and then visit Myra. We all loved her.
She was truly a remarkable person and character. She was an outstanding example to her family and friends. She rose above the ordinary. She was so patient, so non judgmental, so accepting of her lot. Myra spent her 95 years in a most troublesome body. I don’t think she had had the experience of feeling well ever. Her Meniere’s Disease persisted incessantly for many decades and seriously affected her singing career, quite apart from the nausea and giddiness that is part of that condition. Her joint problems were multiple and crippling, forcing her to take to her bed for many years and finally to become hospitalised in Queenslyn Nursing Home for the last 7 years of her life.
Myra had a genius for organisation. Although she was bedridden at home for a long time, that home ran very smoothly. She had a battalion of loving and willing helpers. Regular visits from her Eucharistic ministers, indispensible assistance from her good friend Vera Charles, her wonderful neighbours the Briese family and I would like to list just some more of Myra’s services, it is remarkable and yet amusing:
- The Dentist came to the house to attend to teeth.
- Aunty Kath would do any specific shopping.
- Meals on Wheels delivered seven meals a week to her.
- The National Bank called to her house to cash her cheques.
- Her lawns and gardens were attended to regularly.
- Her floors were vacuumed.
- Her cousin Jess O’Shannessy would come to the house for perming the hair.
- The Podiatrist attended her at home.
- The Doctor made his necessary visits.
- Her good friend Ann Carolan would take her hearing aids into the city whenever attention was required.
- Her long standing and good friend Tim Fitzpatrick attended to her business needs.
- Willoughby Council delivered some 20-30 books each month to her for many years.
- Example: If new carpet was required somehow this was all organised from her bed via the telephone.
It was a very special person who could become this well organised, with everyone feeling it was a joy and a real pleasure to be of help.
Even though she lived the later stages of her life within the confines of her home and Nursing Home Myra remained in touch with her family and world events.
My last memory for the moment is that her home became the centre for family celebrations. Each Easter, Christmas and of course Anzac Day, her Birthday, were celebrated at Mowbray Road. My cousin Mary Thomas had her 21st Birthday at Myra’s, I asked if I could have my 50th birthday party in her home and of course her answer was yes. My Father, Clare and myself stayed with Myra in 1953. Our Aunt Ceil Hayes was a frequent resident. Myra’s home was used for musical evenings a long time ago and was in fact the centre for family and fun.
He have been so privileged to have been part of a remarkable life. She will remain an inspiration to us all. We remember her warmth, her graciousness, her generosity.
My family invite you to continue celebrating Myra’s life when we can continue more story telling. After her Burial, we have prepared Lunch at 109 Holt Avenue, Cremorne. You are warmly invited.
We as a family wish to thank everyone who assisted Myra throughout her long journey.
Press Comments (dates not recorded)
Bath Chronicle & Herald
Miss Myra O’Neill, a soprano, with a particularly well-trained voice, revealed the excellence of her diction and control, and sang with fine legato phrasing.
Glasgow Daily Record
Miss Myra O’Neill’s beautiful clear voice was heard in an excerpt from “Louise”, and songs by Delius.
The work of Miss Myra O’Neill was fully appreciated. She took the solo role in Bridge’s “Flag of England,” and she delighted with “Solveig’s Song”, “Bird of love divine” and other encores.
Myra O’Neill’s clear soprano voice was heard to good effect in Sanderson’s “Spring’s Awakening” and Landon Ronald’s “Down in the Forest”.
B.B.C. Empire Broadcast Recital
The items given were all by modern composers, and not familiar to most listeners, but the choice was happy in that it gave ample scope for Miss Myra O’Neill to show the wonderful quality, flexibility, resonance of the voice, and interpretative conception of the artist.
The Sydney Morning Herald
Myra O’Neill’s lyric soprano voice is sweet in quality and true in intonation. She sang with grace and charm, displaying purity of tone and considerable vocal flexibility.’
Sydney Daily Telegraph
Miss Myra O’Neill sang “Caro nome” from Rigoletto, and displayed an extensive range and a voice of light and fine quality.
Sydney Daily Guardian
Miss Myra O’Neill, whose sweet soprano voice has won her a large measure of popularity, was warmly applauded. So pleasingly did she acquit herself that encore requests necessitated the curtailment of other parts of the programme.
A lyric soprano voice of marked flexibility and sweetness, and she sings with natural grace and sweetness.
Her voice is well placed and she employs a sound method; factors that made for good Mozart singing.
The voice is perfectly pitched, tone emission is even, and the breathing is very fine. Besides possessing sweet quality, it shows signs of careful study.
Music in Australia
A lyric quality voice, very flexible and pleasing.
Miss Myra O’Neill possesses a voice of sweet quality, which she uses with confidence yet with discretion. She sang with expression and clear diction, and her voice is evenly produced.