Florence Austral (26 April 1892 – 15 May 1968) was an Australian operatic soprano renowned for her interpretation of the most demanding Wagnerian female roles, although she never gained the opportunity to appear at the Bayreuth Festival or the New York Metropolitan Opera.
She was born Florence Mary Wilson, but adopted the professional surname Austral in 1921 in honour of her homeland of Australia. She was considered to have few equals in sheer vocal quality until the arrival of Kirsten Flagstad. Acting was not her strong point and her characterisations were mainly achieved with the voice, which made her recordings so vastly enjoyable. She, Germaine Lubin and Frida Leider were considered to be the great Wagnerian dramatic sopranos of their era, together with Flagstad, who did not rise to international fame until the 1930s. (Among all post-War Wagnerian sopranos, only Birgit Nilsson and, to a lesser extent, Astrid Varnay, have been in their exalted league.)
Austral was born in Richmond, Victoria as Florence Mary Wilson, the daughter of a Swedish carpenter formerly known as Wilhelm Lindholm, and his wife Helena Mary, née Harris, a dressmaker. Her father died in 1895 and her mother set up in business. In 1903, Florence's mother married again, to a 28-year-old Syrian book-keeper named John Fawaz, and Florence took the name Florence Fawaz.
She was discovered by the choirmaster Rev. Edward Sugden at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Palmerston Street, Carlton, Melbourne (now Church of All Nations). In 1914, she won first prizes in both the soprano and mezzo-soprano categories at a singing contest in Ballarat, obtaining a scholarship which enabled her to continue her studies with Elise Wiedermann. She went to New York in 1919 to study further with Gabriele Sibella. Her voice impressed influential listeners and she was offered a contract to sing at the Metropolitan Opera; but she declined the Met offer in order to gain stage experience in England, and never again had a chance to sing with the New York company.
Austral duly went to London where she was promoted by the leading British bass of the day, Robert Radford. She made her Covent Garden debut on 16 May 1922 as Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre, and later in the same role in Siegfried. She shared this role with Frida Leider, who received greater acclaim due purely to her superior acting skills. Austral's other roles at Covent Garden included Isolde and the title role in Verdi's Aida.
In 1923, Austral appeared with Dame Nellie Melba, who called her, "One of the wonder voices of the world", praising the purity of her tone and the gleaming power of her high notes. Unfortunately for her career, due to prevailing circumstances and the reputed antipathy of conductor Bruno Walter, she ended up singing more with the British National Opera Company than at Covent Garden in the 1920s.
During the mid-1920s she made the first of more than 100 recordings for HMV, which are still treasured by music-lovers and collectors. The famous recording engineer and producer at HMV, Fred Gaisberg, said: "In the early twenties Florence Austral was the most important recording artist we had, thanks to the beauty, power and compass of her voice". She recorded operatic arias as well as songs, sacred music and oratorio extracts. She can be heard, too, in superb duets opposite Feodor Chaliapin, Miguel Fleta, Tudor Davies and Walter Widdop that employ both the acoustic and electrical recording processes. (Her acoustic recordings for HMV include the pioneering, English-language series of excerpts from The Ring Cycle.)
In 1925, Austral became the second wife of the Australian flautist John Amadio, and they toured widely together in America, Europe and Australia. She often sang in the Ring operas in Philadelphia, and in concert under the conductor Fritz Reiner. However, she never appeared at Bayreuth, or at the Vienna State Opera. She was negotiating to sing in Vienna, but this did not eventuate.
Austral, however, did become a principal singer with the esteemed Berlin State Opera in 1930. It was there in that same year that she showed the first signs of multiple sclerosis, which manifested themselves on stage during a performance of Die Walküre opposite bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr. Her opera career gradually suffered as a result of the advance of this debilitating disease, but she was still able to devote herself to concert and recital work, developing a large lieder repertoire, although she also sang operatic pieces. Her appearances in opera during this time included ones in her home country, Australia, where she toured with tenor Walter Widdop in 1934-35, singing the Australian premiere of Les pêcheurs de perles.
She returned to Britain in 1939, and appeared in many benefit concerts during the early part of World War II, before her illness forced her to retire in 1940. In 1946 she returned to Australia, by now almost completely paralysed with the multiple sclerosis. Many of her possessions were lost in a fire. Royalty earnings from her recordings had declined, too, and she found herself in need of an income, so she taught singing at the Newcastle Conservatorium (now part of the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia) from 1954 until her retirement in 1959.
Austral gave a few newspaper interviews in her retirement. She died of cerebrovascular disease in a church home for the aged at Mayfield, Newcastle, on 15 May 1968. By general critical consent, she remains the finest dramatic soprano ever produced by Australia, as her various recordings, now available on CD reissues, readily attest.
- The Waters of the Rhine seem to mount high, and over all rides the triumphant voice of Florence Austral as Brunnhilde. Her singing can justly be called queenly. Even after hearing the glorious singing of Frida Leider on other records, Austral's triumphant voice remains in the mind.
- Neville Cardus, Manchester Guardian, 1928.
- Elphinstone, Michael and Wayne Hancock, When Austral Sang: the Biography of Florence Austral, Hyde Park Press, Richmond, South Australia, 2005, 655pp. ISBN/ISSN: 0-646-440-330
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- Florence Austral Collection in the Performing Arts Collection, the Arts Centre, Melbourne (news clippings, photographs, programmes etc.)
- Listen to Killarney at the National Film and Sound Archive
- Listen to the Last Rose of Summer at the National Film and Sound Archive