So little seems to have been known about this pioneering recording artist. In his memoirs of 1947, Fred Gaisberg, the American recording engineer who had come over to set up the first London studio—at 31 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in 1898, for The Gramophone Company—wrote:
The autumn of ’98 saw me making the first records in London … As [the music hall artists’] rendezvous was Rules in Maiden Lane, next door to the premises we had taken as a recording studio, [Bert] Sheppard brought his companions to us to be amused and this served to give us contact with the greatest artists of the then flourishing music-hall world.1
Then in a later conversation (in 1949) with Brian Rust, Gaisberg added:
I remember Syria Lamonte. She was an entertainer: I suppose she must have served drinks—in Rules, the pub next door to the first recording studio in Maiden Lane. She was the first artist I recorded, I’m sure of that… she had a big voice, and that was what we wanted.2
So what does that tell us about her? A “barmaid” at Rules? A singer who had made one of, possibly the earliest studio recordings in Europe? At some stage it was suggested that she was Australian. But was she really? Who exactly was this mystery woman?
In July 2009, the search for Syria Lamonte was set in motion by an email from Rob Morrison in Melbourne. Attached was a letter he had received from the doyen of Australian collector-researchers, Peter Burgis. In the course of one paragraph on Lamonte, Burgis refers to her as a “Melbourne soprano” and also a “Sydney soprano”. And in a letter to For the Record magazine (Spring 2008), Peter Adamson of St. Andrews University asks, “So was Syria Lamonte perhaps Australian?”
Quite quickly a group of interested individuals3 started the search for her. Given the growth of the online newspaper database, TROVE, by the National Library of Australia, assembling her early career turned out to be a relatively straightforward matter.4 She first appears in March 1892, performing with the touring theatre company from England of Mrs Bernard Beere in Melbourne. Then singing the coloratura aria “Regnava nel silenzio” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Trotère’s “In Old Madrid” at the first of several concerts at the Rotunda Hall, Bourke Street.
By March the following year she was touring Victoria and South Australia (venturing as far as Broken Hill in New South Wales) with Gourlay, Walton and Shine’s Musical Comedy Company in G.R. Sims’s Skipped by the Light of the Moon, the singing of Syria Lamont (without the e) “much admired”. By September she was back in Melbourne performing at a benefit for the unemployed stagehands of Melbourne theatres.
By January 1894 Syria Lamont was a leading member of the Melbourne-based touring Austral Opera Company, recently formed by two English-born singers, tenor Charles Saunders and baritone William D’Ensem. Initially they gave Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney and Dibdin’s The Waterman, interspersing these performances with “sacred recitals”. Later in their tour of Victorian towns, the company introduced Balfe’s Dolores (with Lamont in the title role). Throughout that tour, Syria Lamont was praised by local newspapers as young, beautiful and an excellent singer.
Early in 1895, Syria performed at Melbourne Opera House in a benefit for Mrs Edouin Bryer and by April she was making her debut season in Sydney (with William D’Ensem) in vaudeville for Harry Rickards at the Tivoli. By this time, Miss Lamont had become Lamonte. In June she sang at another benefit, this time a farewell, at the Lyceum for the celebrated English singer who had settled in Sydney, Emily Soldene (1838-1912). The audience included most of the great and good of the city.
By August Syria Lamonte had left the Rickards company at the Tivoli and had joined Williamson and Musgrove’s Royal Comic Opera Company, initially performing in Brisbane in Ross and Leader’s musical comedy In Town. They followed this up at the Lyceum in Sydney with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, Syria Lamonte as one of the “little maids”, but by January the following year she was back in Melbourne with Harry Rickards’s company at the Opera House.
In May 1896, Syria Lamonte was reported as having sailed the previous month to London “to complete her musical studies under Marchesi”. Whether her target was Mathilde Marchesi, Nellie Melba’s teacher in Paris, or Mathilde’s daughter Blanche in London, is not clear—and there is no indication (thus far) that this ambition was ever fulfilled.
Arriving in London, she seems to have been offered a part in Wagner’s Lohengrin in Berlin and at the same time a three-year contract with the Tivoli and Oxford music-halls. She seems, not unnaturally, to have taken up the latter, the London Stage reporting that she had “a true, sweet soprano voice of much flexibility and good range, and her singing [of Ganz’s ‘Sing, Sweet Bird’] is something to be enjoyed.” She was in exalted company at these halls, the other artists including Vesta Tilley, Katie Lawrence, R.G. Knowles and James Fawn.
Clearly the contract with the Tivoli and Oxford was not too restrictive for her, and by December she had been cast to play the role of Principal Girl in the pantomime Dick Whittington in Birmingham, with George Robey as Idle Jack.
In 1897 Syria Lamonte sailed to South Africa for a three months’ engagement “at £35 a week”. Her return to London in November was not to be a happy experience. Before the voyage from Cape Town, she had met a cattle dealer named Ian Henterick Hugo, who had “conceived a grand passion for the fair Australian”, and showered her with expensive diamond jewels. Unfortunately, on arrival at Southampton together, Hugo was arrested, apparently having obtained money by false pretences, and Miss Lamonte had to relinquish the jewels to the police.
This episode was followed, according to Era in December, by a “severe illness of five months”, from which she was “now on the road to recovery.” What was the nature of her “illness”? Pneumonia? Pregnancy? Imprisonment?
The stint at Rules and the consequent pioneering recordings came in August the following year. In all, she recorded some fourteen sides with Gaisberg (one, a duet, being uncredited). It is probable that it was Gaisberg himself who accompanied her on the piano. The exact dates of all these remain unclear. By October she was back at the Oxford Music Hall, accompanied by Tom Collins, touring with him the following spring.
By 1900 her career had also encompassed continental Europe. November saw her at Ronacher’s in Vienna, where, according to reports, the band one day struck up “God Save the Queen”, Syria leading the singing “with heart and voice, winning much applause”. Vienna was followed by Bucharest and St. Petersburg, and Paris in 1903.
In July 1906 she had emigrated to America, where she appears to have lived and presumably worked in vaudeville for the following years (reportedly making further recordings for Columbia), before returning to Australia in 1912.
She seems to have opened at the Empire in Brisbane in early April, before misfortune overtook her following a train journey between Sydney and Melbourne. Her luggage was lost—including all her performing wardrobe and her jewellery “which she values at £800”. This mishap (the luggage was quite quickly found at Wagga Wagga and restored to her) created the possibility of dramatically raising her profile again in Australia, from which she had been absent for some sixteen years.
However, there are few reports of further performances by Syria Lamonte. Aside from a broadcast in Melbourne in May 1926 and an entertainment at Caulfield Military Hospital in June 1929, she seems effectively to have retired.
But does her long association with Australia mean that she was really an Australian? After all, she could well have come initially from England with Mrs Bernard Beere’s troupe.
This remained a puzzle for quite some time. Exploration of the online births, marriages and deaths indexes of both Victoria and New South Wales revealed plenty of Lamonts of Scottish origin, but no-one who could be our Syria. Eventually it became clear that she was neither a Lamont nor a Syria by birth.
In fact, she was Sarah Cohen, daughter of Morris Cohen and Rachel née Isaacs, born 12 March 1869 at Elizabeth Street, Sydney. Father Morris was 23 and a clerk, mother Rachel just 18. Both had been born in London and were married in the gold-rush city of Ballaarat in Victoria in 1868. Morris Cohen was later described as a “commission agent”. Exactly when the Cohens moved from Sydney to live in Melbourne is not clear, but it was most probably in 1873. Sarah, the eldest, was to have at least six siblings.
It is clear from newspaper reports in the 1890s that Sarah Cohen’s singing teachers had been Lucy Chambers and Pietro Cecchi. These were arguably the finest teachers in the city, their work reflected in the good reviews that Lamonte received throughout her performing careers in Australia and England. The contralto Chambers was born in Sydney in 1840 and studied under Manuel Garcia jnr in London, then with Romani and Lamperti in Italy. Following a successful career in Europe, she returned to Australia in 1870 with Lyster’s Italian Opera Company. She was often described as the “Australian Marchesi”, her successful pupils including Amy Sherwin and Florence Young. The Italian tenor Cecchi was Nellie Melba’s main teacher in Melbourne prior to her move to study with Marchesi in Paris.
In February 1889, at nineteen, Sarah Cohen married Joseph Pearl, a Melbourne jeweller. He strongly opposed her performing ambitions, but she persisted. There were two offspring of the marriage, both dying in childhood. The marriage was dissolved in 1900, when Syria was living in London, following her “desertion and misconduct with one J.J.A. McMeckan.”
She next married Anton Vincent Jonescu, an electrical engineer, in London in April 1905, presenting herself grandly on the marriage certificate as Syria de Lamonte Cowane. Whether or not he went with Syria to America the following year remains unclear, but he supposedly died in 1908.
As Syria Jonescu she married a third time in June 1924—in Melbourne, to George Arthur Senior, a master butcher. She was 55, he 59. Sarah/Syria Cohen/Pearl/Lamont/Lamonte/de Lamonte Cowane/Jonescu/Senior died at St. Kilda, Melbourne, aged 67, on 8 April 1935, eight months after her last husband.
While she was by no means a major star, nevertheless Syria Lamonte was an admired performer with a thriving career in light opera, musical comedy and music hall, and was an important pioneer in the fledgling recording industry—not someone to be a mere footnote in musical history.
Having listened to several of her recordings in 2009, Tony Locantro, veteran of EMI, concluded: “I would say that Syria’s voice had a firm and well supported lower register that enabled her comfortably to sing in the mezzo range but a bright top and a good technique to do the more showy soprano pieces. And I was quite impressed with her trills—would that more of today’s songbirds could do as well!”
When I wrote about Syria Lamonte in 2014, I was convinced that she had been the first Australian singer to be recorded—by Berliner in London—on 28 August 1898. Now I believe that particular garland belongs to Frances Saville, who recorded ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto on cylinder for Bettini in New York in 1896/97.
1. F.W. Gaisberg, Music on Record, Robert Hale, London, 1948, pp.28/42
2. Jerrold Northrop Moore, A Voice in Time: The Gramophone of Fred Gaisberg 1873–1951, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1976, pp.241–242
3. The group, which corresponded mostly by email, included Peter Adamson, Anton Crouch, Kurt Gänzl, Andrew Lamb, Tony Locantro, Peter Martland, Rob Morrison, Roger Neill and Frank Van Straten. Andrew Lamb wrote up the results in an article for On Stage (Summer, 2010) in Australia and Call Boy (2010) in Britain.
4. Australian newspapers consulted include: The Argus (Melbourne); Bendigo Advertiser; The Advertiser (Adelaide); South Australian Register; Barrier Miner (Broken Hill); Euroa Advertiser; Riverine Herald; Horsham Times; Camperdown Chronicle; Colac Herald; Bairnsdale Advertiser; Traralgon Record; Morwell Advertiser; Warragul Guardian; Sunday Times (Sydney); Sydney Morning Herald; Evening News (Sydney); Brisbane Courier; North Melbourne Gazette; Daily News (Perth); Chronicle (Adelaide); Referee (Sydney); West Australian (Perth); Kalgoorlie Miner; Queensland Figaro (Brisbane); The Register (Adelaide); Williamstown Chronicle
Syria Lamonte’s Berliner recordings
The Gramophone Company, 31 Maiden Lane, London, with piano
A Geisha’s Life (The Geisha, Jones)
E3000 28 August 98
Star of Twilight
E3001 no date
The Holy City (Adams)
E3002 no date
Sing, Sweet Bird (Ganz)
E3003 no date
Si tu m’aimais (Denza)
E3004 no date
Il Bacio (Arditi)
E3005 1 September 98
Il Bacio (Arditi)
E3005X 7 September 98
Tell Me My Heart (Bishop)
E3006 not seen
Comin’ thro’ the Rye (trad)
E3007 2 September 98
Jewel of the East (sic) (The Geisha, Philp)
E3008 7 September 98 (unissued)
The Cows are in the Corn (Harding)
E3009 no date
Roberto tu che adoro (Roberto il diavolo, Meyerbeer)
E3010 7 September 98
Listen to the Band (= “Soldiers in the Park”, A Runaway Girl, Monckton)
E3011 27 September 98
The Jewel of Asia (The Geisha, Philp)
E3012 27 September 98
They always follow me (The Belle of New York, Kerker)
E3013 27 September 98
Dear Bird of Winter (Ganz)
E3014 27 September 98
Home, Sweet Home (Bishop)
E3015 3 October 98
The Poor Little Singing Girl (A Runaway Girl, Caryll)
E3016 3 October 98
A Streamlet full of Flowers (duet, uncredited)
E3017 not seen
When a Merry Maid Marries (The Gondoliers, Sullivan)
E3018 3 October 98
The Amorous Goldfish (The Geisha, Jones)
E3020 3 October 98
Listen to Syria Lamonte singing ‘Comin’ thro’ the Rye’, as featured on From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record (Decca Eloquence):
This article was first published in The Record Collector, March 2014. Republished with permission.
Syria Lamonte’s final resting place in Melbourne was recently located with the assistance of Brighton General Cemetery researcher, Travis M. Sellers, who provided the following photos of her gravestone in the Jewish section of the cemetery, where she had been interred under her final married name of Sarah Senior. The inscription (with translation) reads:
"[Hebrew (part): In memory / Sara bat Moshe haKohen] / In loving memory of / Sarah Senior / eldest daughter of the late / Morris and Rachel Cohen / who died 8th April 1935-5695 / aged 66 years. / may her soul rest in peace / erected by her / sorrowing brother and sisters."