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All the world's a stage

Dame Joan Sutherland (AoY 1961), Sir Robert Helpmann (AoY 1965) and Dame Raigh Roe (AoY 1977) were no mere players upon the stage of life.

In the 1950s and 1960s London was the artistic mecca for creative Australians. It was where one hoped to ‘make it’ before returning to Australia, as Barry Humphries satirised in a 1965 interview, ‘with a knighthood or an OBE’. Both Sir Robert Helpmann and Dame Joan Sutherland had established and built their international careers in London; Helpmann eventually returned to live in Australia and Sutherland, based in Switzerland, lived the peripatetic life of a major international opera singer. Asked in the same interview –  ‘The Australian Londoners’ filmed in 1965 – whether she had a responsibility to return to Australia, she replied: ‘Yes, and to the rest of the world if one becomes an international artist’. Helpmann’s response to the interviewer’s expatriate question was that it was important for an Australian artist not to ‘lose their roots to the place where he [sic] desired to become an artist’. Both of these internationally acclaimed performers returned to work in Australia in 1965; Helpmann as co-director of the Australian Ballet and Sutherland toured with the Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company, bringing with her the young tenor Luciano Pavarotti, a sell-out tour that proved the making of Pavarotti’s international career. Both Sutherland and Helpmann were exemplars of the Australia Day Council’s selection of individuals who had brought international acclaim to Australia through their activities.

In 1977 Raigh Roe was elected International President of the Associated Country Women of the World and awarded Australian of the Year by the Victorian Australia Day Council, who claimed in response to the rival Canberran Australia Day Council’s appointment (Sir Murray Tyrrell), that Raigh Roe was the ‘real’ Australian of the Year. It was the first time that the status of women had been accorded such acknowledgment.