Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The Sunday EssayMarch 10, 2024

The Sunday Essay: The ‘voice of the century’ who wound up in a psych hospital for 16 years

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Mina Foley was a formidable talent dogged by wild rumours about her mental breakdown. What is the truth?

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

The first time I heard Mina Foley singing, I ended up in pieces. I’d found a clip of her on YouTube performing the aria Casta Diva from the Bellini opera Norma. It’s around 1950, and in the background picture for the video, Mina has rosy cheeks to match her pink gown and long black gloves to match her raven hair.   

If you’re unfamiliar with the opera’s story, the lovelorn Norma is a high priestess of druids in the Roman Empire who considers killing her own children but (spoiler alert) decides against it. The title role is so hard to sing that only the bravest prime donne of all time have even dared. Here Foley, a former student at Mary’s College in Ponsonby, absolutely crushes it.  

Because I was meant to be doing something else, I followed Foley down a rabbit hole. She’d been discovered by super-nun Sister Mary Leo, later the wind beneath the wings of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Dame Malvina Major. Mina had trained in London, then Rome, where the locals adopted her as their own, calling her “the Italian nightingale”. Others called her “the voice of the century”. 

As she barrelled towards Lorde-like world domination, Foley became the nation’s sweetheart. Reporters gushed about her tiny waist and dreamy frocks, and documented her journeys to Australia, Europe and the US. 

When asked by BBC Radio 3 in 2015 about her favourite singers, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, born 14 years after Mina Foley, said Foley was her idol. “She was like the Pied Piper,” Te Kanawa said. “We were all following the Pied Piper to the top of the mountain.”

But then, just as suddenly as she’d shot to fame, Foley vanished, and for a long time no one spoke about her at all. When she died of a heart attack in 2007, obituaries referred vaguely to long spells of “ill health” that had nipped a glorious career in the bud. No one had written a book about Foley or made her life into a movie. It was as if she’d been forgotten on purpose.  

I contacted anyone who I thought might have known Foley to find out what had become of her. Which is when I started hearing some wild rumours. A Concert FM host told me she’d heard Foley had run naked through the streets of Rome. And several others told me that, back home in Auckland, when she didn’t get a part, Foley had run into Smith and Caughey’s department store and stabbed someone in a rage. 

Fantasy sometimes flowers where facts are missing, so had people just made this stuff up? Was it a coincidence that these tales sounded like the plots of the operas Foley sang? And how had someone so beloved been so thoroughly forgotten?

This all started nearly a decade ago, when my mate Jo Smith, then a screenwriting tutor at Unitec, mentioned Foley while we were researching a play we wanted to write (but never did). 

Jo’s office at Unitec’s Bachelor of Creative Arts was strangely narrow. A window at the back of the room would have had a pleasant view had it not been covered by bars. Outside her door, someone had painted over what used to be a peephole. 

Building Six, as it was known, had once been the women’s quarters of Whau Lunatic Asylum in Point Chevalier. The tutors’ offices had once been inmates’ cells, and the current theatre space for Unitec performance students was the inmates’ day room. At nearby Building 76, someone had counted out their days of incarceration by etching spindly lines into the brickwork. 

Everyone I met there seemed to have a ghost story. One room in Jo’s wing was only used for storage because anyone who’d tried to work in it ended up sick. One day, a nurse from the old days turned up and told Jo there was a woman inside the room who just kept spinning and spinning around. 

The original asylum, Building One, was built in 1865 and considered one of our finest examples of Victorian architecture. Paranormal New Zealand has a long and horrifying list on its website of “unusual activity” it claims people have experienced there, including keys clanging, radios changing station by themselves, weird scratching, a paintbrush flying across the room and people being pushed on the stairs. 

By the 20th century, the asylum had endured two fires, a typhoid outbreak and even murder by pitchfork. As attitudes changed, it became a mental hospital then a psychiatric facility, renaming itself an incredible six times. “Lunatics” became “inmates” then “patients” then “clients”. And throughout its history, it housed some of our most brilliant minds. 

The journalist and novelist Robin Hyde voluntarily committed herself in 1933, having survived an opiate addiction and a suicide attempt. But the only crazy thing about her seemed to be her work ethic. In four years she completed three novels, two volumes of poetry and a book on journalese, all while freelancing as a journalist. 

Janet Frame, misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and fresh from a stint at Seacliff Mental Hospital in Dunedin, turned up in 1951. In her novel Faces in the Water, she described her awful experiences with a new kind of treatment, electroconvulsive therapy.

Another celebrity patient arrived in 1961 at what was by then known as Oakley Psychiatric Hospital. The budding diva Mina Foley had suffered a mental breakdown. She checked in and didn’t walk out again for 16 years.

Foley was born Wilhelmina Maile Foley in 1930 and died 77 years later. She was the illegitimate child of James Rudling, a 22-year-old Tongan-English champion boxer and swimmer, and Ida Foley, an 18-year-old Aucklander descended from South Africans.  

Hers was a story of many Wilhelminas. It was not only her full first name, but that of both of her grandmothers, and on the South African side the name went back multiple generations. Her middle name, Maile, is Tongan for Myrtle and was also the middle name of James’s elder sister Gladys. 

James and Ida weren’t married but seem to have remained friends. Mina Foley’s family told me they have a photo of the young parents together at a function two years after Mina’s birth. The family members were unsure why James and Ida didn’t marry but speculated it could have been because of their different races, different religions (James’s father was staunchly Methodist while the Foleys were Roman Catholic), or simply the fact that they were so young. 

In any case, when Mina Foley was small, her father married another woman and her mother relocated to Australia where she married another man. Mina’s South African grandmother, also a singer, brought her up and paid for lessons in voice, cello and piano. 

In her book The Enigma of Sister Mary Leo: The Story of New Zealand’s Most Famous Singing Teacher, Margaret Lovell-Smith wrote that Mina Foley was always Leo’s favourite. But even as she “flashed like a meteor from comparative obscurity into a blaze of publicity,” per Lovell-Smith, Foley remained painfully awkward and shy.

After school, Foley worked as a physiotherapist’s nurse and would come to the convent in the evenings to train. She usually hadn’t eaten, so Sister Mary Leo would provide dinner too. Later, the nun recalled how Foley’s reticence had often made the lessons hard going. And she’d had to coach her into singing an emotional aria without bursting into tears. 

Coloratura singers like Foley were the Mariah Careys of their day, capable of hitting super high notes and performing tricky trills and runs. But it was the tone of her voice that won her so many hearts, possessing all the confidence and worldliness that she herself seemed to lack. And she was very good at making people cry. As the baritone Donald Munro put it, “It is the kind of singing that wrings one’s heart.”

By her teens, Foley was winning competitions, performing at concerts and playing pin-up to Australian soldiers bound for Korea. When she didn’t win the prestigious Melbourne Sun Aria competition, instead coming second, the Auckland Star called on her fans to stump up the funds for what would have been her prize: a passage to London for training. While there, Foley sang on the BBC, and an English family told her she shattered their best crystal. 

The Brits gave her a scholarship to study in Rome in 1951 with the retired opera star Toti Dal Monte. The first opera she taught Foley was Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, another Everest of a vocal feat. Like Norma, the Scottish aristocrat Lucia is lovelorn and homicidal, and eventually loses her grip on sanity. Foley’s teacher declared her ready for opera’s Holy Grail, La Scala. 

It all sounded impossibly glamorous. In reality, Foley was having to eke out her scholarship funds, and was hungry and exhausted. Later, she told reporters that some members of the family she’d stayed with resented her living with them and had starved her of meals. Foley collapsed and had to be treated for malnutrition. 

Then Foley found out her beloved grandmother was dying of cancer. Against everyone’s advice, she came home to Auckland. Her grandmother, who shared her name and love of music, died two weeks later at the age of 89. 

Mina Foley performed to sold-out crowds in a national tour. In Wellington, where she sang with the National Orchestra, she got a standing ovation that lasted nearly ten minutes. But poverty still followed her. She didn’t know how to say “no” to endless requests for charity concerts. Foley would walk from Herne Bay to Victoria Street for a 40 cent bowl of soup and stuff the holes in her shoes with newspaper. And she was never able to return to Europe.

In 1957, Foley won the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, to be performed at His Majesty’s Theatre in Auckland. This time the main character, a Parisian courtesan, was lucky in love but thwarted by a family feud plus a fatal illness. While rehearsing, Foley passed out on stage, leaving her young co-star Mary O’Brien to take over. And in 1961, she had a breakdown so severe she stayed silent for nearly two decades. 

Because no one would let us, Jo and I were desperate to visit the basement underneath Building One, to which only a few staff members had access. To our surprise, one day in 2016, our wish was granted and we won an afternoon in the creepiest place imaginable.  

Lena Corlett was then Unitec’s timetabling scheduler, who’d performed blessings and tapu-lifting ceremonies on the site. She met us in the foyer then led us down a well-worn concrete stairwell towards a cramped, dungeon-like space containing a tiny, windowless cell. 

Corlett didn’t hold back on what she suspected had gone on down there in Victorian times, namely torture, rape and murder. “A lot of bad things happened in this room,” she told us. “A lot of bad feelings were felt here.” She felt Jo and I had been sent down there for a reason, which only freaked us out even more. 

But when we met the facilities manager Frank Webb, who’d worked there for three decades, we got an entirely different take on things. He’d heard all the ghost stories but put them down to old pipes and wind blowing through windows that hadn’t shut properly in years. Not that he wasn’t poetic about it. “Sometimes it’s like the building sings,” Webb said. 

By the 1960s, when Mina Foley arrived, the asylum was a long-ago memory. But as mental health inquiries uncovered later in the 20th century, mistreatment and cover-ups continued. Patients at Oakley alleged that in the 60s and 70s they’d been sexually assaulted and beaten, locked in solitary confinement for long periods and punished with electric-shock therapy and drug injections. 

Whether Foley experienced any of this cruelty, I couldn’t say. Glimpses of her during this period were frustratingly scarce. 

I did learn that my aunt Margaret, a Point Chevalier piano teacher, would see Foley at the shops at a time that certainly sounds like the 1960s, since Foley was allegedly sporting a massive beehive and bright red lipstick. 

And in Bertie Plaatsman’s documentary Building One, the artist Lauren Lysaght, a former patient at Oakley, recalls peeling potatoes with a woman who barely spoke but had a beautiful singing voice. Later she learned the woman had stabbed someone. 

In recent years, heritage lovers lost their fight to save Building One, a Category 1 heritage-protected building, and work has begun to demolish it to make way for hundreds of new homes. Lena Corlett considered it a happy ending. “From my perspective, the building being torn down, because I love the architecture, it will be sad,” she said. “But for the patients, it will be an absolute happy moment for them.”

When Mina Foley finally left Oakley, it was the late 1970s, and the coloratura style was falling out of fashion. But when she announced a comeback concert, Aucklanders rushed out to buy tickets. A large profile by Susan Maxwell in the NZ Herald that year gifted us a rare treasure: Foley speaking in her own words. 

By then, nearly 50 and living in a state flat, Foley was working for a government department. Maxwell noted that she seemed just as “unworldly and hesitant” as she had as a teenager, but could at least now accept a compliment, albeit with a blush. 

In the profile, Foley said her name for friends who’d stood by her during her illness was “golden leaves”.  The ones who’d vanished were “autumn leaves”. The year being 1979, there was of course no talk of Oakley and definitely none of mental illness. In its place were euphemistic hints at Foley’s “bad luck” and the time “before her world folded up”. 

Foley told Maxwell she’d sung recognisable tunes back when she was still in a cradle. “They told me if they hummed a tune I would sing it right back.” About the La Scala debut that never was, she said, “La Scala? I’ve always loved New Zealand.” And she put a positive spin on whatever it was that made her go away. “I have something now in my life I could never have achieved in years of singing. Sincerity. Love of God.” 

Foley’s comeback show was a wild success. She sang 16 songs and arias and brought a ballroom full of fans to their feet (and yes, my aunt can confirm they were all weeping). Reviewers wrote that her crystal-clear, bell-like top notes were still very much intact. But pretty soon, Foley became unwell and disappeared again. 

In the mid-1980s, the singer Michael Tarawhiti McGifford met Foley at a dinner party. After convincing her to sing, he was so impressed he asked her to join him on tour. And it was a pretty big tour. On the sly, McGifford sent tapes of her singing to his managers in the US, who secured gigs for them both at the Lincoln Centre in New York and the Kennedy Centre in Washington. 

In an article in Women’s Weekly, McGifford empathised with Foley’s struggles as a singer abroad, describing it as “a rough and lonely life”. “If you are not in the public eye,” he said, “no one wants to know you. When you’re down, no one cares who you are.” Now, there was “an exciting life ahead of her and it is well overdue”. But the pair never made it to their tour because, once again, Foley fell ill. And that was the last of the comebacks. 

After a lengthy obsession, I was still unsure exactly what “ill” meant when it came to Mina Foley. Had she been mentally unwell, or was she just too nervous or too sweet or too talented? Were any of the crazy rumours about her even halfway true? 

But I did find out why Foley was still such a powerful singer, despite being out of sight and earshot for so long. Above all others, Sister Mary Leo was Foley’s golden leaf. The patron saint of New Zealand opera singing, tiny musical genius and woman Foley called a “little mother” had never stopped training her, not even during her long spell at Oakley.  

Thanks to Jo Smith, genealogist Christine Liava’a and Mina Foley’s family member Hadley Bensen for helping me piece together (some of) her story. 

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