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BIOGRAPHY
Reba Rangan, opera singer
REBA RANGAN
AUSTRALIAN OPERA SINGER

Birth name:
Venezia Maria Rebecca Rangan
1882 - 1969


Primarily written by a close Reba Rangan cousin
WARWICK F. DU VÉ
who died in Melbourne, Australia, on June 16, 2012.
Additional material about the alarming circumstances
surrounding Reba's death and the tracking down of her absent
father added in January and April 2017 by another cousin
IAN D. RICHARDSON

Reba Rangan, Australian soprano

Reba Rangan publicity photographs:

Reba Rangan, Australian opera soprano

Reba Rangan publicity photographs:


Reba Rangan, opera soprano

The last known photograph of Reba Rangan:

Reba Rangan, Australian soprano


REBA RANGAN was born in Melbourne on 10 December 1882, the daughter of Joseph Alfred Rangan, aged 32 years and Emily Rangan (née Cox), aged 24. Both parents had emigrated from Europe; Joseph from Venice and Emily from London; she being a member of the Cox family that had come to Australia in 1874. The marriage certificate shows Joseph as an artist (painter), but does not indicate an occupation for the bride. Reba's birth registration shows her name as Venezia Maria Rebecca, names which, as an adult, Reba always refused to own, insisting that she be known only as Reba Rangan.

During Reba's childhood, the Rangans lived in Melbourne, although when Reba was possibly sixteen or seventeen years of age Joseph Rangan left the family, apparently quite suddenly. It is not known when this occurred, whether he remained in Australia, or what became of him. [He went to the United States. See Ian Richardson notes further down this biography.]

As a schoolgirl, Reba took great pleasure in music and must have been able, after leaving school, to continue to follow her interest. In time, she became active in church music, directed the choir in the local church and participated in the social work undertaken by some of the churches of the Camberwell area. Indeed she became widely known in Camberwell as a church worker, as a teacher of music, as the conductor of the Camberwell Ladies Choir and as the possessor of an outstanding soprano voice.

By 1915, Reba was already an established and acclaimed singer, and the Australian Musical News reported that she had appeared in an open-air concert at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, alongside May Davies, Olive Davies, Ethel Lauchlan and Walter Baulch. Later that year the magazine had this report:

Miss Reba Rangan, a pleasing singer, has been well to the front lately, giving a helping hand to patriotic movements. On October 16, she arranged a series of operatic scenes at the Camberwell Town Hall, for the Camberwell Red Cross Society, staging settings from La Fille der Tambour, Major, Dorothy, and Tales of Hoffmann. It was an ambitious undertaking. but the whole entertainment was capitally stage managed.

Reba became so well-known in Canterbury and Camberwell in 1920 that, as stated in the Camberwell Free Press of 13 July 1933, "an influential committee of Camberwell and Canterbury residents felt that Miss Rangan should be given the opportunity of seeking success upon London concert platforms. A substantial fund was promptly raised to send Miss Rangan abroad, and it was necessary that she take her mother with her." [The two women left Melbourne for London by ship on the SS Borda on 4th April 1921.]

From the Australian Musical News early in 1921:

Farewell Concert

Miss Reba Rangan was tendered a complimentary farewell concert at the Athenaeum on March 17. Her contributions to the programme included Purcell's last composition, From Rosy Bowers; three bird songs by Liza Lehmann; a recit and aria by Haydn; a number of encores, which included Arne's Lass with the Delicate Air and some concerted numbers.

Miss Rangan was in good voice. Her phrasing was good; her tone pure and sound; her enunciation fair only. Her performance was most musicianly, although not always quite full enough of contrast. The assisting artists included Miss Doris Hadden, Miss Gertrude Caruthers, Mr. Ernest Sage, Mr. Mort Pettigrove and Mr. Norman Cottle. Miss Doris Haddlen, as pianist, contributed much sound and distinctly individualised work in her selections.

Miss Carruther's principal solo, Feu Follet by Papini, was treated brilliantly, though in places the tone was disagreeably rough. Mr. Ernest Sage sang with his usual confidence and all his usual mannerisms. He would please more consistently if he cultivated a more natural style and vocal delivery. Mr. Mort Pettigrove will develop and improve as a tenor singer with added public experience. At present his voice is thin, and has not much carrying power. He is naturally gifted. Mr. Cottle fulfilled his duties as accompanist with much satisfaction to all concerned."

Reba soon became one of London's leading oratorio sopranos, appearing on several London and provincial English concert platforms. The Australian Musical News had the following item in its January 1923 issue:

SUCCESS IN ORATORIO

According to a report received this month, Miss Reba Rangan, the well-known Victorian soprano, has been engaged to sing in Coleridge Taylor's Hiawatha, at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, December 15. Following upon a long list of appearances on oratorio throughout England, this speaks well for Miss Reba Rangan's success abroad. In the opinion of leading critics, Miss Reba Rangan has the true traditional rendering of oratorio, combined with a perfect diction.

However, at the height of Reba's success in Britain, her mother was taken seriously ill, with the result that she and her mother had to return at once to Melbourne. Reports did not specify Mrs Rangan's illness. They returned to Melbourne on the Esperance Bay on 5th October 1923.

An article from the Australian Musical News dated March 1, 1928 provided the most complete account:

WON FINE LAURELS
Reba Rangan's English success.

An Australian soprano who really did achieve a number of successes in oratorio in England is Miss Reba Rangan, who returned to Melbourne…owing to the advice of doctors as to her mother's health. She certainly forfeited her chance of becoming one of the most prominent oratorio singers of the day, as established by such commendations as The Times awarded her for her performance in Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall, and the Daily Telegraph for her singing in The Messiah.

The Times said "Miss Reba Rangan sang with dramatic intensity," and the Daily Telegraph, which is the acknowledged "musicians' daily," that "Miss Reba Rangan is a true oratorio singer, and gave a memorable performance of the soprano solos. It is a long time since we have heard such fine singing." For her work in Elijah, the Daily Mail critic pronounced that "Miss Rangan's renderings of Hear Ye Israel, and the other music allotted to the soprano were all that could be desired, and proved her to be not only the possessor of a beautiful voice, but to have it under perfect control. Moreover, she has that interpretative power which is everything to the singer of oratorio."

On another occasion the same London daily declared that "Miss Reba Rangan, the Australian soprano, is fast singing her way into the hearts of the English people."

Commended by Great Conductors

Naturally, with such acceptance of her singing, it was a great disappointment for Miss Rangan to have to relinquish her work in England and return to Melbourne. She had been associated with many of the leading English artists, and the late Sir Frederick Bridge, conductor of the Royal choral society and organist of Westminster Abbey, wrote "I can sagely and confidently recommend you anywhere for your oratorio singing."

Equally high in her praises was Sir Frederic Cowen, who declared after hearing her shortly after arrival in England that her instinct was absolutely for oratorio and her training in it had been thorough. For her training in Australia that fine artist Mrs Palmer had been responsible, and, of course, Miss Rangan is thoroughly well remembered for a number of admirable performances with the Melbourne Philharmonic society and other bodies.

Since her return to Melbourne she has taken up teaching work at Glen's, and also at 14 Trafalgar Road, Camberwell. She is conductor of the Camberwell Ladies' Choir.

It may be mentioned, as showing the magnitude of her work in England, that she there sang a repertoire of no fewer than sixteen different oratorios and allied compositions. The demand for her services was becoming so great that for the last Good Friday night she spent in England, she had five Messiah engagements offered to her. In the ordinary concert field her success was likewise marked. Of a Scotch night, the London Daily Chronicle said that "Miss Reba Rangan received a great ovation for her singing of Scotch songs. Although all her songs are frequently heard, they appeared to possess new and special attractions when rendered by this talented vocalist."

At the time of their return from England, Emily Rangan was sixty-five years of age and apparently in need of continuous care. Before leaving for England in 1921, she and her daughter had been living in rented accommodation in Hawthorn and later in Canterbury. By 1926, Miss Rangan was living at 14 Trafalgar Road, Camberwell, in the house which in April 1942 was transferred to her as owner and was to be her home until her death in 1969. Apparently, on her return from England, Miss Rangan had recommenced her church work and teaching in Melbourne.

PRESS COMMENTS - 20 August 1929

Oratorio and Song Recital

Miss Reba Rangan, who some little time ago made a name for herself in London as a vocalist of distinction, especially in the realm of oratorio, gave a recital last night in the new Central Hall. A comprehensive programme afforded Miss Rangan an admirable opportunity for demonstrating her powers of vocalisation and interpretation. After opening with a bracket consisting of two Handelian songs, one from Joshua (Oh! Had I Jubal's Lyre), and the other from The Messiah (Come Unto Him).

Miss Rangan was heard in a great variety of items, solo and concerted. Among them were Ward-Stephen's sacred song, In My Father's House Are Many Mansions, three of Liza Lehmann's Bird Songs, two delightful melodies of Dr. Arne, and a couple of favourite national songs, one Scottish (Annie Laurie), and the other Irish (The Last Rose of Summer). She also collaborated with Mr. Ernest Sage in the duet, What Have I to Do with Thee, from Mendelssohn's Elijah; with Messrs. Pettigrove and Sage in a trio from Haydn's Creation; and with the Meister Singers in a quintet, The Image of the Rose.

In all these contributions she disclosed the practised hand and was able to give her listeners the fruits of a rich and varied experience. Sensitive phrasing, careful attention to expression, and remarkably clear enunciation were among the qualities which earned for Miss Rangan the well-deserved plaudits of a warmly appreciative audience.- Melbourne Argus

Vocal Recital

A concert of special interest to vocalists took place last night in the Central Hall. The recitalist, Miss Reba Rangan, who has enjoyed considerable experience and success in oratorio and concert singing in England, appeared in selections from Handel's Joshua and Messiah, songs by Arne, bird songs of Liza Lehmann, national songs and concerted numbers.

A bright soprano voice, a free production and excellent diction unite to make the singing of Reba Rangan very attractive. Expressive features were always in evidence, the singer gave great pleasure to her appreciative audience, while one of Miss Rangan's best numbers was the sacred song, In My Father's House Are Many Mansions, by Ward-Stephens. This the singer very sympathetically treated, the devotional style being one in which she feels most at home. Very popular were Arne's Where the Bee Sucks and the Lass with the Delicate Air. The audience found the recital varied and enjoyable, and the artist was required to sing extra numbers. With assisting artists, Miss Rangan took part in a duet, a trio and a quintet from the works of Mendelssohn, Haydn and Reichardt.- Melbourne Age

Reba Rangan Sings -- A Varied Programme

Though she had not been heard on a Melbourne concert platform for a long time, Miss Reba Rangan attracted a large audience to the Central Hall last night. This soprano exhibited musicianship throughout a long and varied programme. Sensitive phrasing and clear diction were notable qualities of her work.

Miss Rangan devoted the first part of her programme to oratorio, in which she has had wide experience, and subsequently gave a bracket by Arne, three of Liza Lelimann's Bird Songs, and Scotch and Irish songs. Miss Rangan was also associated with Mr. Ernest Sage in the duet What Have I to do with Thee?" from Mendelssohn's Elijah, Haydn's On Thee Each Living Soul Awaits, and with the Meister Singers' male quartette in Reichardt's The Image of the Rose. - Melbourne Herald

Reba Rangan's Concert

Designed largely to give prominence to the oratorio work in which she was for a long time a distinguished singer in Melbourne, and afterwards won favour in England, Miss Reba Rangan's concert in the Central Hall was much more solid in programme than most of those to which the public is invited nowadays. In that respect it carried memory back to pre-war musical conditions.

Miss Rangan is deeply imbued with the traditions of oratorio and in Oh, Had I Jubal's Lyre, from Handel's Joshua, and Come Unto Him, from The Messiah, the Widow's Music for Elijah (sung with Mr Ernest Sage) and the trio, On Thee Each Living Souls Awaits, from The Creation, she showed the retention of musicianly authority. One of her most acceptable items in this vein was In My Father's House Are Many Mansions (Ward-Stephens), where the call is for suavity of expression. Her secular airs from Arne, Liza Lehmann, and the traditional Scotch and Irish, also won much favour with a large audience.- Australian Musical News

Reba continued to be a public figure in her district as is indicated by the holding of a Public Testimonial Concert under the patronage of the Mayor and Mayoress of Camberwell, the Ormond Professor of Music, and other dignitaries, held in the Memorial Hall at Canterbury in July 17, 1933. The Australia Musical News said that more than 600 people attended the event. The Camberwell Free Press of 20 July 1933 reported the event as follows:

The public testimonial concert given to Miss Reba Rangan in the Memorial Hall, Canterbury ... was a gratifying success. The large hall was full to the utmost to do honour to a well beloved artist.

In introducing the Mayor, Mr Edgar said it would be an inspiration to Miss Rangan to see the large and enthusiastic audience present to pay honour to an artist who had done so much for many years in the cause of charity and to church organisations. Her art had been given most graciously and willingly in her kindly desire to help.

The Mayor spoke on behalf of the citizens of Camberwell and extended to Miss Rangan the heartfelt thanks of the citizens for the splendid service she had rendered to them during her years of residence here. She was a professional singer but she had waived her right to her legitimate fee on occasions too numerous to mention.

The programme was of high artistic merit, Hear My Prayer was rendered by the choir under the baton of Mr. W. W. Davies, the soloist being Miss Rangan. The work was well-performed, the balance excellent and expression all that could be desired. Mr. Syd. Exton, who possesses a pleasing tenor voice, followed with A Spirit Flower, and was encored. Mr Percy Pledger, with his violin solo Serenade du Tsigane also received a well-deserved encore.

Miss Rangan then appeared and received an enthusiastic welcome. Her three items: Love finds a Way, My Lovely Celia and L'Eté were most artistically rendered. Her pianissimo was beautiful and the richness of her middle registers a delight to listen to. She proved herself a finished artist in the handling of these items. For an encore she sang The Night Wind and her imitation of its dreary mournfulness was vivid and real.

Mr Ray Warren with On the Road to Mandalay pleased the audience so well that he was doubly encored. Mr Roy Shepherd's performance on the piano was an artistic treat… Miss Rangan's rendering of Oft in the Stilly Night held the audience spellbound. The delicate pianissimo was a musical treat and she well­ deserved the spontaneous encore she received.

From teaching music, and from what seems to have been infrequent opportunities to arrange public concerts, Reba must have gained only a small income. Also there were the additional duties involved in the caring for her mother until the time of Mrs Rangan's death, followed by the time given to the caring for Reba's aunt, Florence Cox [daughter of Joseph and Rebekah Cox] in her last years.

Through the development of the 1930s economic depression conditions became even harder. Reba let rooms in her house and undertook contracts for piece-work at home in which she hand-painted and coloured Christmas cards, greeting cards, photographs and pottery. Some of her pots became collectors' items. Her garden seems to have been almost her only recreation.

The house allotment was large, some 121 feet by 45 feet (approx. 37m. by 13¾m) and was developed fully and most actively at the front and back of the house. The owner also redecorated most of the rooms at one stage, repairing walls and ceilings herself, and turning her capable hands to the making of furniture from cane and seagrass, and making various items in wood for use in house and garden.

As an old woman, as the present writer knew her, Reba was good company, and though suffering increasing loss of eyesight enjoyed meeting visitors and making visits. Unable now to do any effective gardening and able to do less in the house, her days were increasingly spent in her sitting-room listening to her radio and waiting for visitors. She might speak of former days and the time spent in England but only as fond remembrances, never recalling the disappointments or reflecting upon her sharp change of fortune.

In her last years, her disabilities were added to by the appearance of a small lump in one breast for which surgical removal was recommended. She faced this calmly, made detailed arrangements for the welfare of her cat and the distribution of her treasured possessions before leaving for hospital. The operation affected her severely. She had a brief period of consciousness afterwards, but was severely fatigued. She died shortly after. The date was 20 August 1969. Reba was 87 years of age.



Additional material provided by
IAN D. RICHARDSON
with research carried out by Rosemary Richardson

WAS REBA MURDERED?

During a visit I made to Warwick at his home in Melbourne, we got onto the subject of Reba's death. After some hesitation, he said he regarded Reba as having been murdered. She died the day she underwent an operation for a lump on her breast at the age of 86.

Warwick had taken the doctor's advice that such an operation was necessary, but when he returned to the hospital after the operation, he ran into a former student from his days as a teacher and who was a trainee doctor. The trainee, he said, was very upset about the operation, which he had witnessed. He said that one of those in the theatre had said to the surgeon "this woman is too old to survive this operation", to which the surgeon is alleged to have replied: "I know that, but I want you to see this sort of operation."

Warwick said he was deeply shocked when she died later that day, but felt that he would not succeed in taking action against the surgeon.

It is difficult to know the truth of what happened, but Warwick did not strike me as someone who would over-react to, or overstate, a situation. Even without knowing more about the lump in Reba's breast, it does seem unusual for a woman of advanced years to have undergone such an operation in the 1960s. It was often felt that a cancerous tumour- if that is what it was - be left alone if the woman was very elderly.

REBA AND DAME NELLIE MELBA

Although I have not been able to track down concert programmes that list Reba and Dame Nellie Melba appearing together, there is an accumulation of circumstantial evidence from press and other reports that they did. Certainly, Reba had been tutored for a time by Dame Nellie (birth name Helen Porter Mitchell). Warwick was sure they had appeared together in concert, both in the United Kingdom and Australia. "I don't think Reba liked Melba much," he told me.

Warwick said he was about 16 when he first met Reba and in her later years she had been "like a mother" to him. He told me that Reba's mother, the former Emily Cox, had been "difficult" and her relationship with Reba was "very poor". Reba felt that her mother was not encouraging about her singing career. It is quite possible that this tension could be traced back to Reba having to return to Australia with her sick mother in 1923, just as her international opera career was on the ascendency.

REBA'S MISSING FATHER

It was Warwick's firm understanding that Reba did not know what had happened to her Italian-born father, Joseph Alfred Rangan, who was a artist-painter and had changed his surname from Rangani to make it more acceptable in Australian society. He understood that Joseph left the family when Reba was in her teens, but it was much earlier than that. My wife, Rosemary, found that he had gone to the United States. It appears he first pitched up in San Francisco in 1887, when Reba would have been about five. He seemed to have spent the rest of his life in California.

Joseph gained American citizenship in 1896. He died in the Los Angeles area late in 1917 - apparently as a result of having been in a vehicle accident a few months beforehand. He had been working in the United States as a fresco painter and odd job man. A local newspaper reported that no heirs had been found. This is no surprise as the authorities would not have known that he had a wife and daughter still alive in Melbourne.

Emily's marriage to Joseph was what once would have been called a "shotgun marriage". Put another way, Emily was already pregnant with Reba when she married Joseph late in June 1882. Reba was born less than six month later. It is not known whether Reba was aware that she was conceived out of wedlock. It is quite probable that she wasn't. Back then, sex before marriage met with strong public disapproval.

Although Warwick had been very close to Reba for much of his life, when it fell to him to fill in her death certificate, he made significant errors. By putting "unknown" against her father's name he implied she was illegitimate, and he gave her mother's first name as Amelia instead of Emily. When I asked about this he apologised, but said he'd had to guess some of the details.

Reba was cremated at Melbourne's Springvale Crematorium and Botanical Cemetery, but it is not known what was done with her ashes. There is, however, a memorial plaque to her in the cemetery rose gardens (see next page). When Rosemary and I inspected the memorial in March 2017 we noticed that its paid-for placing in the garden has expired, but so had many of the neighbouring plaques. It was unclear what eventually happens to "expired" plaques.

It would be easy to dismiss Reba Rangan as just another talented soprano who missed out on the special ingredient that made the likes of her contemporary Dame Nellie Melba an international celebrity. But it is clear from the huge number of newspaper articles published in the first half of the 20th century that Reba was a notable, frequent and popular performer, but with a career restricted by being her mother's carer for many years.

I was too young to hear Reba perform, and as far as I can establish, there are no recordings surviving of her singing, even though she did perform on ABC radio.

Reba never married but I have been unable to establish whether she had any romantic relationships.

Warwick Du Vé's biography came about because of his desire to keep Reba's memory alive. "She had a very hard life and deserves not to be forgotten," he told me. I agree, but sadly Warwick died before he could get the biography published or widely distributed. I am now putting this right by making it available on the Internet and to relevant archives in Australia and the United Kingdom.


Reba Rangan memorial, Springvale Crematorium and Botanical Cemetery, Melbourne, Victoria (photographs taken March 2017)


One of Reba Rangan's early performances before she became famous in her own right:

From the Melbourne Age, January 5, 1907:

From Punch Magazine, October 17, 1912:

From the Melbourne Age, March 18, 1921:

It is not clear how many performances Reba Rangan gave at the Royal Albert Hall
in London, but this is the only one that gas survived in the records:

Extract from Royal Albert Hall program:

The program for the above concert:



Compiled, edited and partly written by Ian D. Richardson, Preddon Lee Limited, London.

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