AUSTRALIAN OPERA SINGER
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 publicity photographs:
Reba Rangan publicity photographs:
The last known photograph of Reba Rangan:
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
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
From the Australian Musical News early in 1921:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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.