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07 May, 2008

Salute to the life of John Cargher.

Mr John Cargher 1919-2008

Australia has lost a great musical ambassador with the death of John Cargher on Wednesday 30 April 2008 at his home in Melbourne aged 89. He was a self-taught expert and critic on voices, composers, opera and classical music generally. His 'Singers of Renown' has been a Saturday afternoon fixture on ABC Radio for forty two years. I listened avidly to his broadcasts whenever I could and they often raised discussions between family and friends.

I only knew John from his occasional outings to the opera in Sydney and from numerous email exchanges. Many in Melbourne knew John personally from his involvement in record stores and theatrical exploits from 1951 when he arrived from London. Yet it was his broadcasting which took his softly spoken European accent and his personality into homes across Australia and beyond. His father Jacob was a rabbinical student in London where John was born. He was raised in Germany and Spain due to the illness and early death of his German mother. John then returned to London as a teenager to learn a trade and also attend operas and concerts in cheap seats.

John’s choice of items was always novel as were his eclectic commentaries between them. Even many non-opera people know John's signature tune, the 'nostalgia' duet from Il Tabarro with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi. This glorious and previously obscure piece of soaring Puccini is now probably the most often broadcast opera excerpt in the world after more than 2000 programs. Dame Joan Hammond also popularised a famous aria from this Puccini Trittico masterpiece "Oh mio babino caro".

Even up to recent weeks John was still making his pre-recorded weekly broadcasts, despite some repeats due to illness. On the week of his death the ABC replayed a program from the 1990s featuring Verdi’s opera Ernani with excerpts from the 78 era to the present day. While personally favouring the great baritone arias, he played a vastly varied selection from the last castrato to strained falsettos and booming basses. My own favourite ‘oddities’ were the delightfully drunk soprano song, the famous pussy-cat duet "Miaou" and the tone-deaf Florence Foster Jenkins. He avoided the temptation to showcase Callas, Sutherland and Pavarotti who he played infrequently. Other century greats he played included Gigli, Tucker, Di Stefano, Schmit, Warren, dal Monti, Ponselle, Muzio and Caruso. His historical notes often included how the Second World War affected careers and lives of individuals. He often mentioned the cantorial tradition and occasionally mentioned his Jewish roots.

John Cargher wrote numerous books popularising classical music and he was made a member of the Order of Australia for his services to music and the theatre. His wry wit, profound knowledge and occasional exposed mistake will always be remembered by this listener. Rest in peace. May his passing inspire others to such heights. He leaves his second wife, Robyn Walton and daughter Penelope.

[Written by Sydney addictions physician and opera critic Andrew Byrne]