Florence Austral is among the many twentieth century opera stars of born in Australia. Although well known internationally during the late 1920s and early 1930s, after her career reached its zenith fame seemed to quickly vanish. “Examining Florence Austral’s life is a little like wandering through a garden maze,” wrote biographer James Moffat. “One constantly encounters false starts and dead ends in the form of half truths, evasions, and even the occasional bare-faced lie.” Both Austral and various publicists are reputed to have perpetuated these myths and lies.
Born Florence Mary Wilson in Melbourne, Australia, Austral used her stepfather’s name, Fawaz, before being urged to take a stage name. Like other Australian divas of the era, the name was derived from her birthplace. To add to the confusion, her birth certificate was reportedly forged using the Fawaz name. The year her birth has been variously given as 1892, 1894, and 1896, with 1894 being the most commonly reported year of birth.
Her childhood and upbringing were apparently a source of embarrassment for Austral. She was born to William Wilson and Helena Mary Harris. Wilson was a Scandinavian-born carpenter who Anglicized his given name of Wilhelm Lindholm after successfully stowing away on an Australian-bound ship in the 1870s. Harris was a partner in a dressmaking firm. The couple married in September 1884. Their first child, Walter Stanley Wilson, was born in July 1885.
Austral’s parents divorced in 1895. Wilson maintained custody of his son, while Florence remained in her mother’s care. To lessen the stigma of the divorce and maintain her position as a businesswoman, Helena said her husband died. It was a lie then 3-year-old Florence Wilson repeated. According to Moffat, this early lesson in deception reinforced “that if some element of her life displeased hershe had only to colour the facts… and the unpleasant truth would disappear.” Her mother remarried to a Syrian clothing manufacturer and devout Methodist, John Fawaz, in 1903.
Austral studied voice in Melbourne but precisely with whom remains in question. Austral was trained as a soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto. Oddly she maintained throughout her life that she did not hear opera performed until 1919. This claim is questionable as it suggests she never saw Nellie Melba perform. At the time, Melba was the most prominent operatic performer in Australia and was also internationally renown. The two sopranos would later have a bitter rivalry.
Austral won the prestigious South Street Eisteddfod competition in 1913 as a mezzo-soprano. In 1919 she left the country to study with Gabriella Sibella in New York. Although her trip to America was ostensibly to capture the attention of the Metropolitan Opera, when offered a contract at the Met, she did not accept. She auditioned for the Chicago Opera Company during that period, as well.
Instead, she tried her fortunes in London, auditioning for the Grand Opera Syndicate in 1921. Her pieces included “Elisabeth’s Greeting” from Wagner’s Tannhauserand “Ritorna Vincitor” from Verdi’s Aida. She was promptly given a contract and counseled regarding her professional name. Linking one’s stage name to the area of their birth was considered a conceit common among Australian opera stars of the day. It was said to distinguish them from British operatic stars and distinctly announce their origins.
Austral made her debut at Covent Garden with the British National Opera Company May 16, 1922, as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure/The Valkyrie. She was reportedly given a standing ovation as well as 11 curtain calls. She would later sing the part in the entire “Ring” cycle and would be forever associated with Wagnerian roles. This is perhaps not terribly odd, given her father’s Scandinavian heritage.
“For sheer vocal quality Florence Austral had few equals until Kirsten Flagstad came upon the scene,” wrote critic
Born Florence Mary Wilson, 1892 in Melbourne, Australia; died May 11, 1968, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia; parents, William Wilson and Helena Mary Harris; stepfather, John Fawaz; married John Amadio, 1925.
Operatic soprano trained in Australia and New York; debuted at London’s Covent Garden with the British National Opera Company May 16, 1922, as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure/The Valkyrie; associated with Wagnerian roles throughout her career; made American debut in 1925. Recorded for British recording company HMV, 1926-31; diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis, 1930; lost voice during her last performance, 1942; returned to Australia and taught voice and adjudicated vocal competitions throughout 1950s; final radio interview, and diagnosed with breast cancer, 1964.
Cedric Wallis, who was in attendance at the Covent Garden debut. “I shall always remember the quality of Austral’s voice. As an instrument in Wagner’s orchestral patterns she was of the highest quality; a vocal phenomenon that does not happen very often. Perhaps the critic who summed it up the best was the one who wrote; If there is a greater Brünnhilde in the world she has not sung in London.’”
Despite raves following her debut, Austral seemed continually overshadowed by Melba. She made an appearance at Covent Garden during the 1922-23 season after which she pled with the audience to keep opera alive in England and help the “brave little band of singers” in the British National Opera Company. Austral received little but scorn from her countrywoman early in her career. This has been attributed primarily to Melba having injured her voice while attempting to sing Wagner. This became a lifelong frustration to Melba.
“Any Australian soprano who made a name in Wagner, or even seemed likely to, never inspired Melba’s affection,” according to John Hetherington’s Melba: A Biography. “In a gala performance one night Melba sang in a scene from Bohème in the first half and Austral in a scene from Aida in the second half. Next morning Austral was talking with the stage manager when Melba came in.” After a polite introduction, Melba pretended not to know Austral.
After some off handed comment, Melba rudely acknowledged her and abruptly walked off. Despite the Wagnerian rivalry, the aging Melba in 1924 said Austral had “one of the wonder voices of the world, especially in Wagner.” That Austral was associated with Wagner “to the exclusion of almost all other music, was pretty much her own doing,” according to Moffat. “She saw no danger in appearing in Wagner’s operas so early in her career, but in the face of her own predilection, she was at least aware of the dangers of typecasting.” Certainly Austral performed the works of other composers, including operas and songs by Handel, Richard Strauss, Verdi, Weber, Rossini, and Arthur Sullivan.
In 1924, Austral severed all connection with her family. Austral and her publicists constructed an elaborate facade to project the carefully crafted image they desired. The following year, she married to flautist John Amadeo.
Austral made her American debut in 1925 and toured throughout America in 1926. Cities where she performed included New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Denver and Cleveland. Her experiences in the United States were not pleasant, neither at this time nor during her tutelage by Sibella. Her isolation and failure to understand the culture colored her opinion of the United States.
She was most frequently associated with British opera and had a British recording contract with HMV. Austral recordings for the label span the years from 1926 to 1931. Of her 78-RPM recordings, some were reissued on LP; some of her work appears on compact disc reissues, primarily on compilations. Again, many of these are of Wagner selections.
Austral was acknowledged to be at the peak of her career between 1926 and 1931. “To judge from contemporary accounts,” according to Opera News, “in her peak years her voice packed a wallop in the theater. She was noted for opulence of tone rather than for fire, nuance or interpretive depth, or for acting.” Her voice was said to be “less forceful and more lyrical than that of many Wagnerian dramatic sopranos,” according to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. “[S]he maintained a consistent beauty and evenness of tone through the arduous parts.”
But in 1929 herfortunes radically changed. She became ill with the flu after a performance at Covent Garden that season and canceled her remaining appearances. Later that year, she was invited to sing at the Berlin State Opera, reportedly the first British opera star to sing Wagner there since World War I. She then became ill again. With looming questions about her health and ability to perform, Austral was sent to a doctor for a comprehensive examination. The diagnosis was vague, but the Berlin State Opera management was convinced Austral could not fulfill her obligations. She was paid and sent home.
Among Austral’s few confidantes was Dame Clara Butt, who suggested Austral might have multiple sclerosis (MS). Butt had MS and referred Austral to her physician. He confirmed the lay diagnosis in 1930. Like Butt, Austral was advised to give up her career, however, Austral’s engagements extended through 1931. In that era little was known about MS, which was often called Disseminated Sclerosis. Austral kept her condition a secret.
Austral continued performing until 1943, but gave her last professional performance in Australia in 1936. On the eve of World War II, Austral abandoned plans to tour South Africa and instead volunteered with the Entertainment National Service Association in England. Her last BBC broadcast was an October 1942 performance of “The Vesper Hymn.”
Her final career performance, the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, brought an embarrassing end to a magnificent career. She endured the humiliation of losing her voice on stage. “Her voice returned shortly after the collapse but her decision neverto sing in public again was irrevocable. It was the most dismal and inappropriate of endings to a great career,” wrote Moffat. “There would be no farewell performances, no gala send-offs.”
Austral spent her final years teaching voice at the Melbourne University Conservatorium and Newcastle Conservatorium. She was also a consultant to the National Theatre for a few seasons in the late 1940s and judged numerous vocal competitions, including some in which the young Joan Sutherland performed. In some circles, Austral is considered the link between Melba and Sutherland.
Austral finally announced publicly that she had MS in April of 1962. Her health deteriorated more markedly after Amadio’s death in 1964. After a diagnosis and operation for breast cancer, she moved to Sidney to be cared for by a professional nurse. In March of 1967, she was admitted to a nursing home in Newcastle. She died May 15, 1968 in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.
Florence Austral, Rubini, 1983.
Recorded Rarities I, Sanctus.
Ring Des Nibelungen/Ring Motiv, Pearl /Koch.
History of Covent Garden on Record, Pearl Gemm.
Florence Austral, Pearl.
Burbank, Richard, editor, Twentieth Century Music, Facts on File, 1984.
Hetherington, John, Melba: A Biography, 1967.
Moffat, James, Florence Austral: One of the Wonder Voices of the World, National Library of Australia, 1995.
Mordden, Ethan, A Guide to Opera Recordings, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Sabin, Robert, editor, The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, Ninth Edition, 1964.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, first edition, 1988.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, 1992.
Opera News, April 13, 1996.
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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