Born in Benoni in 1928, Lawrence started voice training with Alan Webster and music theory with Gillian Davies who trained the Benoni Orpheus Choir. Lawrence was soon given the opportunity of performing some of the baritone solos. It was here that he met the popular Benoni violinist Marie Lotter who was employed by the Johannesburg Municipal City Orchestra. Marie had recently returned from four years of study in England. She was able to broaden his musical horizons and encouraged him to focus on singing opera. He moved on to taking singing lessons with Amy Parkinson and acting lessons with Taubie Kushlik, making his stage debut in Peter Pan with Bruce Anderson.
In 1953 Lawrence and Marie married and moved to London where Lawrence continued his singing studies at the Guildhall School of Music, Morley College and the London Opera Centre. In 1957 he turned professional and after completing a UK tour of Lilac Time, he joined the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. He soon went on to become a principal baritone through roles such as Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, Escamillo in Carmen, Prince Yeletsky in The Queen of Spades, the Father in Hansel & Gretel, Valentine in Faust, Agamemnon in La Belle Hélène, Leander in The Love of Three Oranges and Ramiro in Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole. Many of these productions were broadcast on BBC Radio and Television. He also played Sam in Ledlanet Nights’ UK premier of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and performed in Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement.
In 1967 Lawrence returned to South Africa with his wife and three daughters, where he became one of the country’s first full-time professional opera singers. He rapidly established himself as a leading baritone of Italian repertoire and achieved particular acclaim in the Verdi roles, portraying Macbeth, Nabucco, Rigoletto, Count de Luna, Giorgio Germont, Simone Boccanegra, Renato, Rodrigo, Amonasro, Iago and Falstaff.
Lawrence’s repertoire embraced Puccini’s Scarpia, Michele, Marcello and Sharpless; Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva; Donizetti’s Enrico and Dr Malatesta; as well as the Barber of Seville, Jokanaan in Salome and Balstrode in Peter Grimes.
Over the course of his career, Lawrence forged some powerful stage partnerships. In Cape Town he sang Jokanaan to Leonie Rysanek’s final performances as Salome. He also played Scarpia to her final performances of Tosca. Lawrence’s performances opposite Marita Napier in Macbeth and Nabucco were also highly acclaimed. He had great camaraderie with Giovanni Gibin and Andre Turp as “brothers-in-arms” in various productions of Don Carlos and La Forza del Destino. Lawrence was particularly fond of these works and felt privileged to have had a close working relationship with Maestro Franco Ferraris, under whose baton he sang these roles and many others. In numerous productions Lawrence Folley held his own as the only South African in a cast of international luminaries. He is widely regarded as having been the greatest single inspiration to generations of young South African singers who went on to become professionals themselves.
Lawrence also demonstrated a flair for musicals and operettas. He starred as Hajj in Kismet, Johann Strauss Snr in The Great Waltz, Fred Graham in Kiss me Kate, Emile in South Pacific, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, Danilo in The Merry Widow, and Paquillo in La Perichole. In 1986, his unforgettable performance as Don Quixote in The Man of La Mancha marked the Cape Performing Arts Board’s celebration of Lawrence’s 30 years as a singer.
In 1993 Lawrence retired from the stage and moved back to the UK to be near his three daughters. He enjoyed travelling around the world with his son-in-law, tenor John Treleaven. In 1998 Marie died in Scotland and in October 2001 Lawrence married the South African theatre director, Jacky Vermaas. They settled in the Scottish village of Kilmacolm. After a long battle with skin cancer, Lawrence died at Ardgowan Hospice in Greenock, Scotland, aged 78.