Page 1: Biography
Opera singer and teacher
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Rosina Buckman was born in Blenheim, New Zealand, on 16 March 1881, the second child of Henrietta Matilda Chuck, a skilled singer and organist, and her carpenter husband, John Buckman. Rosina showed early signs of a well-above-average singing voice, receiving her initial training from her mother. After the family's move to Āpiti, Manawatū, in 1898, she was given more formal lessons by James Grace, choirmaster of the Methodist church in nearby Palmerston North. Grace realised that his young pupil's talents were such that tuition in Britain was essential and arrangements were made for her to study in Birmingham with the conductor Charles Swinnerton Heap. After his death in 1900 she moved to the Birmingham and Midland Institute's school of music to study under the celebrated voice teacher George Breedon. A fellow student regarded her as pleasant, but not inclined to mix freely.
Rosina Buckman's clear coloratura soprano and fine sense of the dramatic were soon attracting much favourable public and critical attention, and after leaving the school in July 1903 she was able to support herself by taking concert engagements. A serious illness intervened, however, and the consequent lack of income caused her to accept an offer from her parents to pay her fare to New Zealand. She arrived home in March 1904 and almost immediately embarked on a tour with the American baritone Hamilton Hodges. Other appearances followed until she made her operatic début on 25 September 1905 in the Wellington production of Alfred Hill's light opera A Moorish maid. As the magnetic chieftainess, La Zara, she proved that in addition to a finely developed singing voice she possessed all the other essentials for a successful future in opera.
Buckman continued to extend her stage experience in Australia and New Zealand, becoming sufficiently well respected by 1910 to be included in an opera company being formed by J. C. Williamson to tour both countries. She sang Suzuki, the second soprano role, in Puccini's Madame Butterfly, and Mercedes and later Micaela in Bizet's Carmen, eliciting such praise that in the next year she was invited by Nellie Melba to join a company she was forming to support her own operatic performances in Sydney and Melbourne.
Melba and her leading tenor, John McCormack, were highly impressed with Buckman's singing and after much persuasion from each of them she eventually returned to Britain in mid 1912. There she soon obtained work, including an engagement conducted by Thomas Beecham. An audition at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden led to supporting roles in a special Wagner series in early 1914. This was followed by the normal summer repertoire in which she made her début on 20 April as Musetta to Melba's Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème; she went on to sing in three other operas. Although not effusive, the London critics were encouraging. However, war was declared only seven days after the season ended and Covent Garden was closed for the duration.
The following year Beecham formed an opera company of his own from British singers he believed to be the finest of the day and he selected Rosina Buckman as a principal dramatic soprano. Playing long seasons of opera in London and in the provinces throughout the war, Beecham's group achieved new heights of performance and became recognised as reaching a degree of excellence that has seldom been surpassed. Now a prima donna in her own right, Buckman was soon to be described as one of the company's ablest and most versatile members. She sang most of the standard repertoire and although acclaimed for all her work, her most significant successes were in the title role of Madame Butterfly and as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, the latter being considered by many critics as the best ever given in English. On one occasion she continued singing during an air raid, until the manager of the theatre forcibly cleared the stage. By this time, too, she had become an established recording artist, experts claiming that she had a true recording voice with especially clear enunciation. Her catalogue of recordings is extensive and covers many operatic arias and duets along with a large number of ballads and concert songs.
With the post-war reopening of Covent Garden in May 1919, Buckman alternated the leading role in La Bohème with Nellie Melba. Among other operas at Covent Garden over the next 12 months she also played Madame Butterfly in a performance in English which was said to be a revelation to the regular subscribers in that, for once, the occupants of the stalls and boxes did not chatter.
On 24 December 1919 in London Rosina Buckman married the tenor Emile Maurice d'Oisly. Together and separately they sang throughout Britain with many leading orchestras and in distinguished celebrity concerts. After the British National Opera Company was formed in 1922 they became highly regarded regular performers. In that same year Buckman returned to New Zealand for several months and gave a series of joint recitals with her husband. The programmes of operatic excerpts, art songs and ballads attracted huge audiences and she was fêted wherever she appeared, the comprehensive tour rapidly developing into a celebratory homecoming triumph.
The remainder of the decade saw a gradual decrease in Buckman's performances until in the 1930s she had given up public appearances and was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, taking some private pupils as well. A special welcome was reserved for any students from her homeland: her upbringing, education, early music training and the nurturing her burgeoning career had received in New Zealand were obviously important to her. She always kept in close contact with her family, and in her concert programmes she had been proud to demonstrate her origins in the authenticity she brought to her singing of Alfred Hill's Maori songs, one set of which the composer had dedicated to her.
After a serious illness Rosina Buckman died in London at the age of 67 on 31 December 1948. Her husband survived her but there were no children. Colleagues at this time confirmed the very high esteem in which she was held and referred to a voice which had been characterised by great clarity, beauty and warmth, capable of all the finest shades of colour, and matched by her impressive sincerity and total integrity as an artist. She was known to be warmhearted, kindly and generous, in appearance a large woman with an exceptionally beautiful complexion. She was an animated and cheerful companion but not unaware, at least in public, of the distinction her fine career had deservedly brought her. She was remembered for her infinite capacity for taking pains, for allowing nothing to interfere with her work, and above all for her unwavering dedication to the art of singing.