Florence Austral

Florence Mary Austral (1894-1968), singer, was born on 16 April 1894 at Richmond, Melbourne, only daughter of Helena Mary (born Harris) and William Wilson, a Swedish carpenter formerly known as Wilhelm Lindholm. After her father died in 1895 her mother set up as a dressmaker. In 1903 she married John Fawaz and Florence took his name. He was a Methodist.

She received no early vocal training but in 1913 went to Ballarat to sing in the South Street Competitions and won first prize in the mezzo- soprano section and two other prizes. At the suggestion of the adjudicator Fritz Hart she took lessons with Madame Elise Wiedermann at the Albert St Conservatorium of Music. In 1917 she won an entrance exhibition to the University Conservatorium where Wiedermann then taught. She decided to make singing her career. After a farewell concert on 22 September 1919, when critics praised her voice for its 'remarkable size and great beauty', she left to study Italian opera in New York. She auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and a contract was offered but arguments arose over a proposed debut in Chicago. She decided to return to Australia but broke her journey in London and remained.

She adopted Austral as her professional name in 1921. Her first appearance in London was at a Sunday concert at the Albert Hall. She successfully auditioned for Covent Garden but did not appear there until 16 May 1922 when at short notice without stage or orchestral rehearsal she replaced Elsa Stralia as Brünnhilde in the British National Opera Company's production of Die Walküre. She was an instant success, recognised thereafter as an operatic phenomenon, a tireless worker of easy temperament with a voice unequalled in quality and power, particularly suited to the Wagnerian roles in which she was to excel.

She continued with the British National Opera Company at Covent Garden until the end of 1924. Her many engagements at this time included contracts with (Sir) Landon Ronald and the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Sir Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra and the Halle Orchestra in Manchester. Her Wagnerian discs established her reputation. She had lived openly with John Amadio in Melbourne and they married at Hampstead, London, on 15 December 1925, two months after his divorce. It caused a rift with her parents which their visit to London failed to mend and she did not see her mother again. With Amadio, she returned to Australia in 1930, giving her first concert in Sydney on 24 May and in Melbourne on 21 June. Critics exclaimed over her 'perfectly wonderful voice, amazing skill . . . lively intelligence . . . glowing intensity, all informed by unerring judgment'. In Europe in November she sang at the Berlin State Opera. During a performance of Die Walküre, she found herself unable to stand without help, the first public evidence of her long battle with multiple sclerosis. She later attributed her 'wooden acting' to its early effects.

She had made the first of six successful tours of North America in 1925. With Amadio, these tours were resumed in 1931-32 and 1932-33. Her English recital tours also continued but she did not appear at Covent Garden again until 1933. She toured Holland in 1931 and 1933-34. In April 1934 Austral and Amadio returned to Australia for a season of concerts. The critics noted her vitality and the 'infectious air of personal enjoyment' in her performance. Sir Benjamin Fuller engaged her for his season of grand opera and Australians saw her in her famous operatic roles for the first time. With the season ended Austral and Amadio toured Australia, making several successful broadcast recitals as well, and returned to London.

In 1946 Florence Austral returned alone to Melbourne and in 1954 took up an appointment to teach at the newly formed Newcastle branch of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. She retired in ill health in 1959. When she later became paralysed, the Florence Austral Association paid for her care. She died in a church home for the aged at Mayfield, Newcastle, on 15 May 1968.

Th&eacuterèse Radic