Sylvia Fisher was the ereigning dramatic soprano at London's Royal Opera House during the 1950s. She studied initially in her native Melbourne, making her operatic debut in a production of Lully's Cadmus et Hermione in 1932. Strangely, she made no more stage appearances for 15 years, concentrating instead on recitals and oratorio and the occasional radio performance of such operas as Don Giovanni and Aida. After moving to England in 1947, she made her Royal Opera House debut the following year as Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio. Following Fidelio, she appeared as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and in 1949 sang her first Wagnerian role, the Third Norn in Die Götterdämmerung.
Her warm and vibrant voice was slightly less heroic in size than those of Kirsten Flagstad or Astrid Varnay, but was ample and beautiful enough to win high praise from critics and public alike. Her impulsive musicianship reminded many of Lotte Lehmann's and, indeed, she came quickly to excel in three of her predecessor's best roles: the title role in Fidelio, Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre, and the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.
When she undertook Isolde in 1953, there were predictions that it would prove too stressful for her, but she surmounted its imposing demands, not stinting on the score's several high Cs. Dramatically, hers was a passionate, womanly interpretation, one which had listeners comparing her to the best of her predecessors. Fisher's career outside of England was limited, although she sang several Wagnerian roles in Italy, where she met her husband, language coach Ubaldo Gardini.
She enjoyed greatest success in those roles presenting positive, decisive characters. Her rather matronly figure worked against her in roles of a more passive nature. In 1956, she sang the demanding title role in Puccini's Turandot and gained yet another round of acclaim. However, the stress of the role, undertaken during a period of questionable health, robbed her permanently of the ease in the top register she had formerly commanded.
In the late 1950s, she increasingly pursued roles sometimes taken by dramatic mezzos, such as the implacable Kostelnieka in Leos Janacek's Jenufa. She triumphed as a singing actress in that role both in London and in Chicago. In 1966, she portrayed Elizabeth I in Benjamin Britten's Gloriana. Her imperial, yet vulnerable performance contributed significantly to a reevaluation of the work, poorly received in its Coronation Year premiere 13 years before. When the same English National Opera production traveled to Vienna, Fisher was awarded one of the most tumultuous receptions of her career.
Live performances and a 1964 Decca recording of Britten's Albert Herring under the composer's direction demonstrated a notable talent for comedy. As the imperious Lady Billows, Fisher brought to the chamber opera a still impressive voice (if now with a rather strident top register) and a faultless gift for delivery of deadpan humor.
Appearances as Lady Billows at the Stratford Festival, Ontario in 1967 confirmed that her stage presence was every bit as effective as her vocal one.
Fisher continued to sing well into her sixties, appearing as the unyielding Aunt in Britten's television opera, Owen Wingrave -- a role composed specifically for her.