Harold Blair, trailblazer
Wulli Wulli tenor Harold Blair AM was Australia’s first professionally trained Aboriginal opera singer. An honour he had to fight for.
Blair was born on Cherbourg Mission in Queensland in 1924, and his life, like that of so many of his contemporaries, was strictly controlled by the Aboriginal Protection Board, established by the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld). Life under ‘The Act’ was harsh and cruel, and Blair was not exempt from this cruelty.
Blair had one thing going for him that helped him escape a life on the Mission: he could sing. His voice captivated people.
His talent led him to have the confidence to apply to train at Sydney and Melbourne conservatoriums of music, both of which rejected him as they felt he was not ‘educated enough’ to cope with the demands of their opera-singing courses. The Melba Conservatorium of Music (now the Melba Opera Trust) in Melbourne, however, saw no such barriers for Blair and accepted his application. They and Blair knew that it would be a hard slog, but despite his lack of formal education, Blair passed his degree with honours. So began his professional life as a singer of national and international repute.
A voice for the ages
Blair’s life after graduating was filled with international travel and further training. He was sponsored to move to Harlem in New York City, where he gained a voice coach to help develop his tenor voice into the strong and lilting musical instrument that helped him secure many new opportunities.
After success in North America, he returned to Australia and settled in to married life with his bride, Dorothy. After their first child, Nerida, was born in the late 1950s, Blair and his young family moved to Switzerland to become part of the Moral Re-Armament Movement. He was able to perform in many different places and for many different people, including singing to East German soldiers across the Iron Curtain!
In Australia, Blair headlined each year at the Melbourne Carols by Candlelight (produced at that time by Australian media entrepreneur Reg Grundy); he performed around the nation, and he became politically active in wanting social justice and human rights for his people.
Blair never received an opera residency and in between singing and teaching roles he would work in menial labouring jobs in factories and workshops in Melbourne.
In 1973, Blair became a member of the Australia Council’s first Aboriginal Arts Board. It was in July of this same year that he gave his last public performance, at the newly completed Sydney Opera House. Appearing in the one-act opera Dalgerie in the Opera Theatre, he became the first Aboriginal person to perform in the very first opera ever staged in this iconic building. At the time, nobody knew that this performance would be his public swansong.
Paving the way
Creating history and paving the way for others seemed to be Blair’s life’s work. Many others have followed in his operatic footsteps, including soprano, composer and playwright Deb Cheetham AO and baritone Don Christopher, the first Aboriginal person to perform with Opera Australia. In the 1990s, Kim Walker, a then recent graduate of NAISDA (National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association) Dance College, devised and choreographed a ballet inspired by the singer’s life, titled Harold, which toured nationally. The Melba Opera Trust is the administrator of the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship for emerging First Nations opera singers. Those who have received this scholarship include Tiriki Onus, Shauntai Batzke, Elias Wilson and Nina Korbe.
Many First Nations people followed Blair in performing at the Opera House. In the Opera House’s first year, actors David Gulpilil AM and Jack Charles (both now deceased) graced its stages. The Opera House has been a place of gathering and cultural expression for First Nations people ever since.
Blair passed away in 1976, aged 51. His legacy continues to this day.