Dorothy Helmrich

Dorothy Jane Adele Helmrich (1889-1984), singer and founder of the Arts Council of Australia, was born at Woollahra, New South Wales, on 25 July 1889, the youngest of six children of Esther Isobel (born Pepper) and John Hellmrich, architect. (The spelling was later changed to Helmrich). She enjoyed a carefree childhood and was educated at Mosman Academy and High School, followed by a year's commercial training. She dropped the second 'l' in the family name.

All the family were musical. Dorothy began piano lessons at age seven, saw her first musical at eight, and started singing with the Mosman Musical Society. Her voice attracted attention at society musicales. Lady Alice Cooper became her benefactor, enabling her to study at the New South Wales State Conservatorium and, in 1919-23, at the Royal College of Music, London.

Of mixed German and Celtic stock, Helmrich was raised an Anglican. Around 1908 she espoused theosophy: 'a philosophical basis for living . . . for which I am extremely grateful'. In London she joined the United Lodge of Theosophists, and the Theosophical Society provided a base for her cultural work in Australia in the 1950s.

Helmrich's debut at Wigmore Hall, London, was arranged by her teacher Sir George Henschel. Provincial engagements followed. Her career coincided with the beginnings of broadcasting and the renaissance of English music. In London she was a regular soloist at the 'Proms'. She toured widely in Britain and Europe, as well as America. A warm contralto/mezzo soprano who made her name as a German lieder singer, Helmrich built and maintained her international reputation on sincerity, professionalism and an extensive repertoire. She was well received when she toured Australia for the ABC in 1936.

Stranded in Sydney in 1941 after a second Australian tour, Helmrich accepted a post at the Conservatorium, where she taught until 1974. In 1943 on the basis of earlier war work in England, she founded an Australian Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), 'to bring art, in all its forms, to the people'. Following her study tour of Britain in 1946, CEMA became the Arts Council of Australia, with Helmrich vice-president and later president. She was president of the New South Wales division for 20 years. With negligible resources, she built a broad-based organisation sponsoring art, drama, music and arts education, nationwide, particularly in schools and rural areas. The first great success was the royal gala performance of Corroboree in 1954. Commonwealth funding was never forthcoming. In 1967 the voluntarist Arts Council of Australia was superseded by the Australian Council for the Arts. In 1959 Helmrich was awarded an OBE, limited recognition of her remarkable vision and pioneering achievement.

Twice engaged, she never married. 'I was fated to live my life in single blessedness. But it was never loneliness . . . I have led a very busy and happy life.' She died at Strathfield on 1 September 1984. At her request excerpts from The Light of Asia and The Bhagavad Gita were read at her funeral.

Jill Roe

Victor Carell & Beth Dean On the Wings of Song 1982.