My old school pastime – opera at Unley High

On stage, Unley High School 1951 opera production 'Iphigenia'

On stage, Unley High School 1951 opera production ‘Iphigenia’



Ken has just found this old photo buried in his desk ! At the Unley Town Hall, August 1951, a scene from the Unley High School production of Gluck’s ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’, musically directed by Duncan McKie, with a22 piece orchestra (unphotographed) below and I was at the piano for the main accompaniments.   Queen Clytemnestra (with crown, left) was played by Beryl Pfeiffer (Powell), pianist-singer who became the conductor of Lobethal Harmony Club, Princess Iphigenia on steps was Jennifer Andrews.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                In the chorus was my family friend, 14 year old Janice Hearne from Year 9, who as Janice Chapman has since become a Professor of Voice in London, an opera singer of renown, a teacher and writer on holistic voice training. Leaning on the wobbly mock marble pillar was my shy boyfriend at the time, Don Worley alongside Dick Gluyas, both became known Adelaide dentists. In the centre was (I think) David McKie as Calchas the high priest.  Most of the boys listed in the programme went on to become professional engineers, doctors, teachers, a priest or two, musicians.  On the Unley Town Hall stage we just had to imagine the temple in ancient Greece, even though the papier mache giant pillars stopped short of the overhead proscenium.  Physics teacher Bill Boundy was an energetic producer always, and the props and backdrops were constructed by woodwork and art teachers Fred Hawkes and Victor Adolfsson.

The hero Achilles (not pictured) was tenor John Worthley, brother of famous Max, brought in as guest by Mr McKie. He wore a short tunic which showed his knobbly knees, I remember, but had a good voice. Bass singer Brian Holt (old scholar, another boyfriend of mine) played King Agamemnon.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Mr McKie was also a composer himself and would write out by hand in faultless manuscript all his orchestral arrangements and any recitatives he wished to insert.       When I was there (1948-1952) his Unley High productions included King Arthur (Purcell), Orpheus (Gluck), Hugh the Drover (Vaughan Williams) in which I began my repetiteur experience from Year 10 onwards for the next 4 or 5 productions – Iphigenia, The Bartered Bride (Smetana), Oberon (Weber), The Emperor’s Nightingale written by McKie himself (1953) with Jan Hearne singing the lead, The Black Tulip (1954) ditto, helping as old scholar and co-pianist.  I still have the scores presented to me with inscriptions from the production team. A privileged training.
Bit of history there. McKie was an amazing music teacher, expecting the students to rise to his expectations as he introduced us to forms of music we would never have experienced otherwise. He looked like an absent-minded professor, down at heel shoes, same suit for the whole year, scruffy, eccentric, but a brilliant arranger and mentor to many students like me who learnt so much about classical music from his teaching and extra-curricular activities like madrigal groups, appreciation (after school listening to records), orchestra in which I played violin for a while, SATB choir, opera productions. And he was paid the lowest of teacher salaries for this pioneering work in secondary music education. I believe he was the brother of William McKie the Royal Organist, their parents were missionaries in China at one time.  Mr McKie wrote a reference for me to get into Adelaide Teachers College for music teaching training but it never happened, home circumstances changed my direction and I eventually became a cadet journalist.  But amazingly, another set of circumstances brought me into music teaching anyway, in the country ……. but that’s another story.

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Comments & Responses

4 Responses so far.

  1. John Pederson says:

    I was at UHS from 1950-1954 and a member of the orchestra and various choirs. Duncan McKie fostered my interest in music and gave me the opportunity to learn the clarinet progressing from squeaks and grunts in 1st year to being able to accompany the Madrgal Choir with Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock and Bach’s Jesu Joy (there being no oboist) in 5th year. Well do I remember those heady musical experiences of riding my bike several miles back up Cross Road on Wednesday evenings hail or shine for orchestra practice, thrilling to the choir practising in Norm Jolley’s physics lab Zadok the Priest and other works from the coronation of Queen Eilizabeth II, visits to the ABC studio in Hindmarsh Square for live performances by the choir and those wonderful operas. I too still have handwritten scores for clarinet of various pieces arranged for the orchestra by Duncan. He was a man of great talent and there are many of us who can attribute our continuing love of music to his gentle inspiring encouragement. In my retirement, I am a regular presenter of classical music programs on 5MBS (99.9FM) and I still thrill when I play excerpts from The Bartered Bride or Oberon.

  2. Judy Pearce says:

    Great to get your comment John, you were two years after me at UHS, yes the choir practices in the physics lab are remembered, we did Beethoven’s Hallelujah as well as the other one! You have a fellow feeling for Mr McKie – he taught us so much and was so ‘unsung’ himself.

  3. Ian McKie says:

    My eldest son found this blog a few days ago. Thank you for the beautiful things you wrote about my father, Duncan MᶜKie (and yes, that is my brother David playing the high priest.) I was the youngest in the family and did not start at UHS until 1955, although in 1954 the Highgate Primary School allowed me to leave school a bit early once a week to attend rehearsals and sing in the chorus for “The Emperor’s Nightingale.” (Incidentally, a small thing but The Emperor’s Nightingale was staged in 1954 and The Black Tulip in 1955, not 1953 and 1954. His third opera, “A Persian Fantasy,” was performed in 1956.)
    But talk about nostalgic memories! Our family attended every school opera, from Dido and Aeneas in about 1947 to the last UHS opera performance — from memory, a repeat of The Black Tulip in 1960. (My elder brother Alan played Aeneas in a 1958 performance of Dido and Aeneas, and in 1959 I was a “Wise Man” in The Emperor’s Nightingale.) So names like Brian Holt (a stalwart over so many years), Judy Yeatman as you were then, Janice Hearne (her younger sister Marilyn had a part in A Persian Fantasy), and all those teachers’ names come back like old friends. (We were touched when William S. Boundy attended our father’s funeral in 1982.)
    It’s exciting to see how far so many of the students progressed in music. One could probably add Alan to that list. Among other things he sang in Westminster Abbey and with the choir of Kings College before becoming a prominent South Australian baritone, and musical director of a couple of community groups. That aside, it’s gratifying to see the leavening effect of the work that Duncan MᶜKie so often felt to be a thankless occupation (mostly for lack of support from the bureaucracy). Actually one quality not mentioned so far is how hard he worked, sitting up till all hours copying parts for instrumentalists or solo vocalists, or “cutting” Gestetner wax stencils (remember those?) for the choral music.
    His proficiency as an arranger was probably sharpened by the “pot luck” factor in the range of instruments available in a school orchestra. Where there was no French horn, the part might have to be divided between, for example, Joan Rooney’s tenor horn and her young brother John’s euphonium. (This was in 1955-56; both were very competent members of their Salvation Army band.) He also had to find roles for some other “left field” instruments such as a saxophone. Anyone who wanted to take part in playing Mozart (or whatever) was welcome.
    It was good to read the response from John Pederson, as I guess it was him that I met at a Summer Music School around 1990. His younger brother – David, I think – was in Alan’s class at UHS. I don’t know whether your shared memories of the Physics Lab also extend to lessons and rehearsals in the old Druids Hall across Unley Road — not quite the favourite memory because the acoustics were terrible, magnifying all the noise that only a room full of high school kids could generate, and I remember our father saying a couple of times that the place had taken ten years off his life. That nightmare finally ended in, I think, 1958 when most of the school’s female students were transferred to a new site, enabling two on-campus classrooms to be conjoined to form the school Music Room.
    Just for the record, Duncan MᶜKie did have a brother named William (“Will” for short) in South Australia, but as far as I know no relationship to William MᶜKie the Royal Organist has ever been established.
    All best wishes from Canberra

    • Judy Pearce says:

      A wonderful blast from the past to speak to Ian McKie by phone following this post. It is good to know that all his father’s archives, including those amazing handwritten ‘occasional’ arrangements (shades of Bach, Handel et al) are held at the Elder Conservatorium library in Adelaide. Maybe a research scholar will find them and give Duncan McKie the accolade he deserves. Colin Schumacher (also a prominent participant in the UHS operas) has also reminisced with me about those achievements of the 50’s. I will post some more material as a Blog hoping it will be of interest. John Worthley’s nephew also sent an enquiry but I have mislaid his message. Hope he will see this.