Sara Elizabeth Flower (c. 1820 – 1865) was a British-born contralto singer now almost forgotten to history who became Australia's first operatic diva. She began a very promising musical career in London in the 1840s but decamped to Australia late in 1849 for reasons that were, and still remain, obscure, since at the time she was considered England's answer to the great Italian contralto Marietta Alboni, then in London, and her professional future seemed secure. Very soon after her arrival in Melbourne early in 1850 on board a migrant ship she began her career as the Australian vocal phenomenon of the era. In 1852, fifty years before the triumphal return of Nellie Melba to Melbourne in 1902, she displayed her remarkable capacities in Sydney in the first production in Australia of Bellini's iconic work, Norma, still considered a serious challenge by any aspirant to 'diva' status. Flower was, by definition then, Australia's first diva.
Sara Flower was born in Grays, Essex, an English market town on the River Thames and situated on the edge of the Tilbury marshes. In 1821 it had a population of 742, supporting six public houses. Flower's maternal grandfather, Daniel Granger, had the Rising Sun public house. However, close by, overlooking the Thames, the 18th century Belmont Castle exerted considerable influence upon the social and cultural life of the wider region, more specifically, it was the focus of an influential musical circle of metropolitan status.
Sara's father, William Lewis Flower (c.1800-1847), was recorded in the Essex Directory in 1823 as a draper, grocer, and agent for Phoenix Fire & Life. In 1841, upon the entry of his daughter Sara to the Royal Academy of Music, he could declare that he had 'no occupation', hence, the status of gentleman. His elder brother, Robert Flower (1779?-1832), was by 1824 foreman of the local brickworks but had been described in the parish records in 1817 as a yeoman, which suggests an earlier lineage of tenant farmers or small proprietors, and also a drop in social status. With the enclosure movement after the Napoleonic Wars, conditions for this socio-economic group were particularly difficult, which probably explains Robert's change of occupation.
Her mother, Ruth Flower, was the daughter of Grays publican, Daniel Granger. Nothing more is known of her, except for the possibility that she may have been the prototype in Alice Diehl's first published novel Garden of Eden for the mother of a fictional opera singer whose sad fate she prophetically foretells.
Sara was not the only professional singer in the family. Her elder sister, the soprano Elizabeth Flower, also became a public singer, and both sisters had considerable London and regional concert careers in the 1840s, performing, often as a duo, to much acclaim, especially for Sara, with her startling voice. In 1847, Elizabeth married a prominent lawyer, Timms Augustine Sargood and withdrew from public life. However, in the 1860s at their home in London's Bloomsbury district (Gordon Square), she and her husband were the hosts of quite an elevated musical circle in which Alice Diehl took part and which she recalled in her two autobiographical works already cited.
These two musical daughters of William Lewis Flower were frequently confused with the two very talented daughters of political writer Benjamin Flower, Sarah Fuller Flower Adams and Eliza Flower, acclaimed as poet and composer respectively. It was a confusion which followed Sara to the grave and beyond. It is not impossible, considering their similar economic, social, and regional backgrounds, that there may indeed have been a blood connection between the two families although none has ever been established.
Sara Flower's having died before the development of sound-recording technologies there are therefore no recordings of her voice, but from contemporary reports of its compass and affect it can be imagined perhaps as something of a cross between the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912–1953) and the Norwegian Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895–1962): Ferrier's because of the voice's warmth, delicacy, and the immediacy of its emotional affect; Flagstad's because of its all-encompassing power, penetration and versatility, and, as with Ferrier, the simplicity and directness of its production. All three, although trained broadly within the Italian bel canto vocal 'method', were quintessentially northern European voices which goes some way to support what must otherwise be a wholly subjective, speculative proposition. There follows here, however, a selection of 19th-century attempts at describing Flower's voice and vocal affect derived from British and Australian newspaper reports of the period:-
Volume; melody; compass; resonance; sonorousness; simplicity; cultivation; powerful; exquisite; flexible; rich; full; distinct; nervous; rare; delicious; sweet; mellow; liquid; welling; gushing; wonderful; expressive; clear; enchanting; perfect; delightful; wonderful; extraordinary; thrilling; electrifying; melancholy; noble; pure; magnificent; splendid; glorious; astonishing; commanding; great; masterly; force of expression; sensation; harmony; charm; liveliness; ease; heart-pathos; depth of feeling; emotional power; tenderness; a host in itself; divine; beyond praise; heaven; a treasure; the great contralto.
When she made her debut in opera in London, 'anonymously', at Drury Lane on 7 January 1843, as an all-but non-singing Felix (Pippo) to Sabilla Novello's Annette (the youngest daughter of music publisher Vincent Novello) in a hybrid Macready production of Rossini's opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) 'little more than a melodrama with a few airs interspersed', at her first musical entry — a phrase of recitative introducing the duet 'Ebben per mia' with Annette:
'her notes were so exceedingly full and rich, her articulation so admirable, rare qualities in an English singer of recitative, that the audience were literally taken by surprise, and uttered loud and continuous applause, which was frequently reiterated as the very superior quality of her voice was exhibited in the course of the duet'.
The reviewer described her voice then as 'a mezzo soprano of singular volume, with some excellent contralto notes, which she touches with firmness'. She was probably not yet 23 at this time. Unusually though, he went beyond his own critical autonomy to call, not upon an actual description of the voice, but upon the reaction (authority) of an audience. It was an audience which cried out spontaneously over a few bars of recitative, the least 'carrying', and often, from an audience's point of view, the least pleasurable form of operatic singing. It was often resented by audiences and 'got over' as a chore. It is music's compromise with language, whereby an audience is momentarily deprived of its jouissance. However, Rossini's biographer, Stendhal, remarked of recitative: A good voice can render the most dismally mediocre of arias in fine style, the singer being nothing more than a sublime barrel-organ; but a recitative taxes the resources of the human soul.
Contemporary London comment before the advent of the great operatic contralto Marietta Alboni (ca1823-1894) associated Flower's voice with that of Marietta Brambilla (1807–1875) as possessing a 'contralto voice of [...] delicious voluptuous quality'. Six years later in Australia, in a rare attempt by a non-specialist journalist to come to grips with the aural phenomenon, Flower's voice was described as being
like one of those boy-voices that one meets with once in one's life and remembers for ever after, so clear, so full, and nervous, and of such volume and compass.
A voice then, at once masculine and feminine, a voice defying category, even transgressive. Perhaps not surprisingly, the item which produced the response was the duet 'Lasciami; non t'ascolto' from Rossini's opera Tancredi sung by Flower as Tancredi with the young Sydney soprano Marie Carandini as the faithful but abjured Amenaide. It begins with a powerful, and passionate declamatory recitative for Rossini's feminized, masculine hero Tancredi.
Education and training
From late October 1841, Flower was trained, or at least, 'finished' at the Royal Academy of Music (R.A.M) under Domenico Crivelli(1794–1857), who, via his teacher-father, the singer Gaetano Crivelli (1774–1836), presumably passed on some of the 'secrets' of the 'golden age' of Italian castrati, among which, almost certainly, the exploitation of falsetto, technical skills which probably account for Flower's protean ability to cross the entire range of the operatic singing voice, as in Bellini's Norma, from the dramatic soprano of Norma. through the mezzo of Adalgisa; and, not least, the tenor role of Pollioni. She also performed baritone roles and could delight provincial colonial audiences with her 'remarkable' yodeling songs.
Flower first came to public notice, however, within the Psalmody Movement of the 1830s and 40s in London when, on 4 November 1839, the Musical World noted that Sara and her sister Elizabeth had both appeared at a lecture given at the Hoxton National School Room in inner North London by Henry Charles Purday (1799–1885), engaged, presumably, in order to demonstrate the argument of Purday's lecture, entitled, 'The Proper Object of Music'. The Movement in Britain was associated with such names as Sarah Ann Glover, John Hullah and John Curwen. It had strong Independent, or Congregationalist non-conformist religious leanings, and a powerful utilitarian sociology. Flower was also believed to be connected with John Hullah's extraordinarily successful singing classes in London's Exeter Hall, and possibly with 'Music for the Million', the singing school of Joseph Mainzer (1801–1851). It had been modeled, essentially, along the lines of the very structured monitorial method of Guillaume Louis Bocquillon Wilhem [1781-1842] and his 'Orphéon' choral fests) as a means of teaching large masses of often illiterate working people to sight-sing from notation sheets. While it was socially rather than musically motivated, and was largely a non-conformist socio-religious project, it had the effect in the long term of revitalizing musical education in the wider sphere, not least, within the established Anglican Church itself.
If the Purday/Hullah connections suggest Flower's links with non-conformism and/or the Psalmody Movement, it might also suggest a pathway to a musical career, consistent with parental anxiety about the snares of a more public profile, as a teacher within the Movement rather than as a professional, let alone operatic, soloist. However a post-1847 Flower family memorial plaque on the walls of the Grays parish church of St Peter and St Paul does not suggest any powerful non-conformist link. Nor does her R.A.M. career under the dictatorial rule of its President, John Fane, Lord Burghersh (1784–1859).
British professional career - 1843-48
SF = Sara Flower
Dates for theatrical roles are for first performances only.
- c. 4 November 1839 — London - Hoxton National School Room – assists at C.H. Purday's lectures on 'The Proper Object of Music'.
- 21 October 1841 — London - aged 21, recommended by Lord Burghersh to Royal Academy of Music examination. Admitted 29 Oct. to study singing.
- 7 January 1843 — London - Theatre Royal Drury Lane - La gazza ladra (Rossini) - SF's operatic debut as Felix (Pippo) under Macready's management with Sabilla Novello as Annette.
- 17 April 1843 — London - Princess's Theatre (PT) - Tancredi (Rossini) - SF as Tancredi.
- 17 July 1843 — London PT La gazza ladra (Rossini) 'with the whole of the music' - Emma Albertazzi as Annette - SF as Felix (Pippo).
- 11 October 1843 — London PT - L'elisir d'amore - SF as Adina (first time) - Mr Barker as Nemorino - Paul Bedford as Dulcamara, Rebecca Isaacs as Floretta.
- c. 15 May 1844 — London - Ancient Concerts, dir. earl of Cawdor, leaders Mssrs Cramer and Loder, cond. Sir H. R. Bishop: Miss SF, 'O Salutaris' (Cherubini).
- 5 March 1845 — London Lyceum – SF's last recorded London appearance till 28 Oct. 1846, when she is reported to have been studying in Italy.
- 28 October 1846 – London PT – Night Dancers (Edward Loder) - Emma Albertazzi as Giselle, SF as Bertha. Cited as her first public performance since SF's return from Italy.
- 19 December 1846 - London PT – Seven Maids of Munich (George H.B. Rodwell) - SF as Ernestine.
- 12 January 1847 - London - PT – Anna Bolena (Donizetti) - Louisa Bassano as Anna Bolena, SF as Smeaton.
- 23 April 1847 - London PT - Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare) - SF as Oberon.
- 20 January 1848 - Lond. PTL The Young Guard (Edward Loder) - Anna Thillon, SF as Donna Olympia.
- 24 July 1848 – London - Surrey Zoological Gardens [SZG] - Concerts Monstre - Louis Antoine Jullien - first appearance of SF.
- 28 September 1848 – London – SZG - possibly last SF appearance in London before departure for Australia late 1849 per Clifton.
Australian professional career - 1851-65
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Notes and references
- Essex County Record Office (Chelmsford), Baptismal Records, Grays. Baptized as Sarah Elizabeth Flower (the 'h' in Sarah dispensed with very early), 29 December 1820. However, she was of course born earlier, perhaps even in 1819, because the Parish Records of St Peter and Paul, Grays, at that period only give the baptismal record; but also because she was baptized with a younger sibling, Ellen. Her entry in the Register of the Royal Academy of Music, 21 October 1841, however, gives her age as 21, which, if correct, validates 1820 as the year of her birth. The ADB article gives c.1823 for the birth, but this is clearly incorrect and is probably derived from the mis-information on her tombstone giving her age at death as 43 when she was 45 or near enough; she died 20 August 1865
- A.V. Beedell, 'Terminal Silence: Sara Flower and the Diva Enigma. Explorations of Voice and the Maternal in Operatic Experience in Colonial Australian History ca. 1850-1865 in 2 vols', Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, 2000, 2 vols
- New British Traveller (1784), in Laurie Leeham, 'From Stocks to Docks' Essex Countryside August 1967 pp.53+; William White 1848, History, Gazeteer, & Directory of the County of; Essex; Essex Directory , p.294.
- Alice Diehl 1897, Musical Memories, London; ; The True Story of My Life. An Autobiography , London.
- Royal Academy of Music, Register. She had been admitted, 21 October 1841 upon the recommendation of the Academy's founder, John Fane Lord Burghersh, later 11th earl of Westmoreland, soldier, diplomat and amateur opera composer.
- Essex County Record Office. Grays Parish, baptism records for his many children, almost all of whom pre-deceased him. For conditions for the remnants of the yeomanry - the English tenant farmers of the 1820s and 30s - see William Cobbett for a contemporary account in his Rural Rides of 1830.
- The concert pianist Alice Diehl was the author of at least 41 novels. She also wrote two works of autobiography: Musical Memories, London, , and The True Story of My Life. An Autobiography , London. She grew up in the same area, in nearby Averley, granddaughter of the local Doctor, Charles Lewis Vidal (1782-1862), and her autobiographical works show that she and her family were social associates of the Flowers of Grays, either through a local music making circle at Belmont Castle where Diehl's mother was a favourite, or perhaps kinship. The 'Alice Diehl' entry in 'Thurrock Heritage - Factfiles' particularly in relation to the identification of 1882 as the publication date of Diehl's first novel, considered by this source to have been Garden of Eden provides some support for the proposition. [www.thurrock.gov.uk/heritage] The British Library's copy is dated 1907, possibly the Library's accession date.
- The Australian Monthly Magazine vol. I, no.1, September 1865 in a short obituary commented, 'We believe she was sister to Eliza Flower, composer of that beautiful English sacred glee — 'Now pray we for our country', and we trust that those who can afford it will see to it that posterity shall not look in vain for the resting place of one who certainly was among the pioneers of opera in Australia.'; in other words that she was the poet Sarah Fuller Flower Adams, who had written the words for the enduring hymn 'Nearer my God to Thee', set to music by her sister Eliza Flower.
- Grove 1961 'Voice-Training', vol. 9, pp. 43-66
- Musical World 12 January 1843, p.22
- The Times 'Drury Lane Theatre', 9 January 1843, p.4f.
- Michel Poizat 1992, The Angel's Cry. Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera
- Stendhal (Henri Beyle) 1956  Life of Rossini trans. Richard N. Coe, London, p.56
- Musical World 22 Feb. 1844
- Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 'Parramatta Concert', 8 July 1850, p. 3a.
- See Grove 1961, vol. 2, p. 536 for these life dates
- Part of a wider musical/social phenomenon broadly constructed around the philosophical idealism of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi modified, however by the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. See Rachel Cowgill and Peter Holman Music in the British Provinces 1690-1914 (Ashgate, 2007; Bernarr Rainbow 1970, The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church (1839–1872). (London, Barrie & Jenkins)
- The title of the lecture is an echo of the title of the1824 Quarterly Musical Magazine [QMMR] article on a work of 1807 by Guillaume André Villoteau. following Pestalozzi, extolling music as a pleasure unique in its moral effect; able 'to elevate and ennoble the soul by purifying and strengthening the mind'. (QMMRvol.vi, pp.39-40). Purday himself was a well-known singer, lecturer, editor and composer of popular songs and hymns, also conductor of psalmody to the Scottish Church in Crown Street, Covent Garden, and composer of the popular hymn, 'Lead Kindly Light'. Grove 1961, vol. 6, p.1022
- Sydney Morning Herald 'Contributions from Home', No. 18', 18 February 1851, p.4f
- Musical Times 1 October 1844, p.39.
- Wilhem was Musical director-general of music in the municipal schools of Paris. Based upon a plan of 'Mutual Instruction', he developed a huge music education organization (Orphéon) throughout France. (See Grove 1961, vol. 9, pp.298-99)
- Bernarr Rainbow 1970, The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church (1839-1872). (London, Barrie & Jenkins)
- Later 11th earl of Westmorland; soldier, diplomat and amateur opera composer, generally considered to have been the found of the R.A.M. in 1839. His works, all within the genre of Italian opera, were often rehearsed by R.A.M. students. Flower probably had the perfect alto voice for his project, and probably for her teaching master, Domenico Crivelli.
- Beedell, A.V. 2000, 'Terminal Silence: Sara Flower and the Diva Enigma: Explorations of Voice and the Maternal in Operatic Experience in Colonial Australian History ca. 1850-1865' in 2 volumes. Ph.D. Faculty of Arts, Griffith University, Queensland.
- Diehl, Alice  Musical Memories, (London)
- Diehl, Alice  The True Story of My Life. An Autobiography, (London)
- Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians 1961, 5th ed. edited by Eric Blom (London, Macmillan)
- Gyger, Alison, "Flower, Sara Elizabeth", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition (accessed 18 January 2010)
- Musical World (London 1836-91)
- Poizat, Michel 1992, The Angel's Cry. Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera, trans. Arthur Denner (Ithaca and London)
- Rainbow, Bernarr 1970, The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church (1839–1872). (London, Barrie & Jenkins)
- Stendhal (Henri Beyle) 1956  Life of Rossini trans. Richard N. Coe, London
- Times, The (London)
- 'Cowgill, Rachel and Peter Holman 2007, Music in the British Provinces 1690-1914 (Ashgate)'
- 'Thurrock Heritage - Factfiles [Alice Diehl]' www.thurrock.gov.uk/heritage