Florence Austral 1892-1968

Florence Austral

Florence Austral

One of the world’s great Wagnerian sopranos was born Florence Mary Wilson in the humble Melbourne suburb of Richmond on 16 April 1892.

Adopting the stage name ‘Florence Austral’ in tribute to her homeland, she made her operatic debut as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre with the British National Opera Company at Covent Garden on 16 May 1922

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The Antipodean Brünnhilde

‘In the early Twenties,’ wrote pioneer HMV record producer Fred Gaisberg, ‘Florence Austral was the most important recording soprano we had, thanks to the beauty, power and compass of her voice. Added to this she was a quick study and adaptable for all types of music. Without apology, we could invite her to sing in concerted numbers when artists from the Covent Garden International Season recorded for us. Thus with Frida Leider she shared the role of Brünnhilde in a fine series of Walküre records, the first Wagner album recorded with the new electric process (1927). Austral took part with Chaliapin in that great favourite, the Church Scene from Faust. I well remember the occasion. Chaliapin could not resist the temptation to give the buxom Marguerite a sly pinch. So unexpected was it that she let out a squeal like a siren whistle. We all joined in a good laugh, after which we settled down to another attempt at the Church Scene, and this time it was successful.’

One of the world’s great Wagnerian sopranos was born Florence Mary Wilson in the humble Melbourne suburb of Richmond on 16 April 1892. From 1903, when her mother remarried, she took the name Florence Fawaz. After some basic voice training she won several prizes in the 1913 Ballarat South Street competitions and was accepted as a pupil of the respected Elise Wiedermann, first at Fritz Hart’s Albert Street Conservatorium, and later at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium. By 1919 she was ready to undertake further studies in New York, but not before she had been engaged by J.C. Williamson Films to sing between silent movie presentations at the Paramount Theatre in Bourke Street. Her associate artist was New Zealand born flautist John Amadio.

New York proved professionally disappointing, so the young soprano tried her luck among the many Australian singers in London. There, in September 1920, she made her professional debut singing at a fashionable restaurant. Adopting the stage name ‘Florence Austral’ in tribute to her homeland, she made her operatic debut as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre with the British National Opera Company at Covent Garden on 16 May 1922. Later in the season she also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. She made the first of her many recordings in September, and then toured Britain with the BNOC, singing the Wagner repertoire and the title role in Aida. She sang in concerts and continued her studies at the London School of Opera. Parts of her performance in Siegfried at Covent Garden on 11 January 1923, conducted by Eugene Goossens, were broadcast ‘live’ by the BBC. On 20 January she shared the stage with Melba in a gala finale to the BNOC’s season and in June she sang Tristan and Isolde for the first time.

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Biographical references

Michael Elphinstone and Wayne Hancock: When Austral Sang, Privately published, 2005
Fred W. Gaisberg: Music on Record, Robert Hale, London, 1946
James Moffat: Florence Austral, Currency Press, 1995
Thérèse Radic: ‘Florence Austral’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 7