Florence Austral
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Florence Austral

An Australian Brünnhilde is Bet Briggs' tribute to soprano Florence Austral (1892-1968).
 

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An Australian Brünnhilde — Bet Briggs

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The oldest, truest, most beautiful organ of music, the origin to which alone our music owes its being is the human voice.

— Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama (1851)

 

Wagner knew what he was writing about. To sing at all is an accomplishment. To sing well is a joy to one’s self. To sing so well and so beautifully that others are entranced is a joy to the world. When a good singer is a great singer and the voice can be heard on record long after the singer is dead, how fortunate for us, the dedicated listeners. For it remains a delight and an inspiration.

Great singers are rare and great Wagnerian singers rarer. Florence Austral (her professional name) was both. To ask “Who was she?” is not unreasonable. Until recently she was almost forgotten in her own country. Apart from entries on her in standard reference books, there was little information readily available to the average music lover and opera buff.

The bare bones of her story are these: she was born Florence Mary Wilson in Richmond Victoria in 1892. Her father was a Norwegian carpenter who died in 1895. Her mother, a dressmaker, then married a Syrian bookkeeper and Florence became known by her stepfather’s name of Fawaz. She began to study singing when she was 17. For ten years she studied with two Melbourne teachers, George Andrews (1908-1913) and Elise Wiedermann (1914-1919). After a farewell concert she left for New York to study Italian opera with Gabriele Sibella. She auditioned for the Met but due to an argument over the contract she did not make her début there. Disappointed, she intended coming home to Australia but on reaching London decided to stay. There she made her début on 16 May 1922 with the British National Opera Company at Covent Garden as Brünnhilde in The Valkyries. By the end of the season she had appeared in the complete Ring in this role. It established her career.

In the 1920s she started a prolific recording career with HMV, revealing a broad repertoire, from Wagner, Verdi, Strauss to oratorio and folksong and Lied. She married eminent flautist John Amadio in 1925 and they became regular concert partners. Interspersed with her opera performances, tours to North America, Holland and Australia throughout the 20s and 30s were tremendously successful. Austral was regarded as one of the finest Wagnerian singers of her time. Between the two world wars she was acclaimed internationally and at home.

In the prime of her life and career in 1930 during her début, again as Brünnhilde at the Berlin State Opera, she suffered the onset of multiple sclerosis. She continued singing for more than a decade after but the disease finally brought her career to an end during the war.

Her marriage eventually broke up and in 1946 she returned to Australia. She took up teaching, first in Melbourne, then at Newcastle Conservatorium from 1952 until 1959 when her health worsened and brought that career to an end, too. She died penniless in a Newcastle nursing home in 1968 and was virtually forgotten.

Her obscurity and neglect have been redressed with the publication in 1995 of James Moffat’s excellent biography, Florence Austral: One of the Wonder Voices of the World (Currency Press). A companion to the book followed in 1996 with the issue of Larrikin/Festival Records’ 2-CD set of a selection from Austral’s early 20s recordings of opera, oratorio and song (LRH 453).

Both the book and the CDs have been mind, eye and ear openers for me. Moffat tells Austral’s dramatic story with perception and compassion. The singer herself, through the remarkable reproduction of the recordings, reveals the quality of her voice, the huge range and power, the superb vocal technique behind the richness, evenness and beauty of sound. It leaves me in no doubt of her artistry and, because of it, championing the accolades that were and still are her due.

Having read her story and listened to her song I can flesh out some aspects of her fascinating career, particularly her role as Brünnhilde. For it is acknowledged by most commentators that of all the roles in which she excelled, including those of Senta, Isolde, Aida, Tosca and the Marschallin, her Brünnhilde was her most famous.

The early influence and encouragement and skill of her teacher Elise Wiedermann ought not to be underestimated. She recognised her student’s great talent when she said in 1919: “I consider hers the very best and the most wonderful soprano voice I have heard in my long career as Prima Donna . . . [and] the first Brünnhilde I have heard in Australia.” Though Florence at the time knew nothing of the demands of Wagner’s music and the role of Brünnhilde, Wiedermann did, and considered her young protegée “was born to sing this music above all others”.

Austral proved to have the courage of her own and her teacher’s convictions and lived up to both their expectations. At her farewell concert in 1919 on 22 September, before leaving Australia for America, she sang Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Act II of The Valkyries.

Although a Met début did not happen, in 1921 after a successful audition at Covent Garden, Austral was scheduled to make her London début in May. But the season that year was cancelled, so she took the opportunity to go the Berlin and there she heard Wagner’s Ring for the first time.

Finally on 16 May 1922 she did make her début as Brünnhilde and it was, as Moffat writes,

. . . one of the most remarkable in operatic history . . . She sang as a last-minute replacement for an ailing soprano . . . who’d been contracted for four performances but had withdrawn after one . . . Austral sang, not for the last time in her career, without the benefit of an orchestral rehearsal and only the barest of stage rehearsals and the 3rd Act was not rehearsed at all.

What an achievement! For The Valkyries Brünnhilde is particularly arduous. The singer has to wait until Act II to make her entrance singing the famous Battle Cry and that is “preceded by some of the most energetic, expectant music ever written . . . It is a tortuously difficult scene . . .”

A standing ovation and eleven solo curtain calls ensured next day the most favourable reviews, one critic describing Austral’s singing as “the most sumptuous of this generation”, and another saying: “If there is a greater Brünnhilde in the world she has not sung in London”.

A few months after this triumph, on 20 January 1923, again at Covent Garden, Austral shared a gala performance of operatic excerpts with Nellie Melba. A truly historic occasion! Austral at 31, the rising star, the splendid new diva sharing the platform with the great Dame, now 62 and nearing retirement. Melba, magnanimous in praise of the young singer dubbed Austral “one of the wonder voices of the world”. Melba herself had long been one though she had once jeopardised herself when she attempted the role of Brünnhilde in Siegfried. Instead of just singing the role of the Forest Bird for which her voice was more suited, she sang Brünnhilde. In doing so she learned a severe lesson, namely to keep her great voice intact for those roles which were her real triumphs and for which she is remembered.

Another of Austral’s accomplishments was her attention to the libretto — much more than was the custom at the time. Wagner himself would have been impressed, for it was his contention that: “A singer who is not able to recite his part according to the intention of the poet cannot possibly sing it according to the intention of the composer”. Austral’s ability to integrate and express the intentions of both by vocal nuances, inflection and accent so well in evidence on her recordings.

As well as her opera, concert and recital performances on stage, Austral became a prolific recording artist in days of acoustic and early electrical recordings. Her repertoire ranged from the Wagnerian roles through the dramatic and lyrical Italian ones of Verdi’s Leonora, Acuzena and Aida to English oratorio and song.

In 1923 conductor Albert Coates chose Austral to sing Brünnhilde on the HMV recordings Wagner at Home. She recorded the Brünnhilde from Act II of Siegfried, singing the love duet with tenor Tudor Davies as Siegfried. She also sang the Forest Bird because the coloratura soprano Bessie Jones did not turn up for the recording session. Austral was not the first singer to sing both roles — German soprano Lilli Lehmann did both in the 19th century. But Austral was, according to Moffat, the first to record them both.

Her Australian tours with her husband John Amadio, particularly the 1934-1936 tour, were highlights for both performers. Their concerts in capital cities and larger country towns were well received by the public and critics. In September 1934 Austral joined the Benjamin Fuller Opera Company for the 1934-1935 season of Grand Opera with long-term associate, tenor Walter Widdop. For the first time Australians saw her in her famous operatic roles.

She was the first Wagnerian soprano to win widespread public support in Australia and first to put the dramatic soprano into the same league as the lyric/coloratura sopranos who had monopolised the attention and affection of the Australian public. (Moffat)

When the Fuller company season ended in 1935, Austral and Amadio continued to tour Australia and also made several successful broadcast recitals on the ABC. They returned to London by the end of 1936.

With the onset of World War II and the worsening of the multiple sclerosis, Austral appeared only at occasional concerts. Her last appearance on stage was in 1940 in a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music.

It is gratifying to know Austral has finally achieved greater recognition. Had she not, it would have been to her loss and to ours. Wagner made some comments about a country’s and its people’s neglect of its artists: at the end of The Mastersingers there’s a relevant passage sung by Mastersinger Hans Sachs. When Walther has won the song contest but at first refuses to take the golden chain that will make him a Mastersinger, Hans reads him a grave homily on the respect due to art: “Disaster overtakes the land that forgets its songs and singers”, he says. (Stephen Williams, Come to the Opera!) Grave words, indeed, even in translation! But a notion not to be ignored. We are the better for knowing about our great artists and nurturing their memory. Their contribution to our cultural well-being is invaluable. We are the better for honouring Florence Austral and her gift.

James Moffat’s final comment on Austral is interesting and perceptive:

Above all, we are left with a highly creative — a Wagnerian — force, which made its mark on the operatic and concert stage in a way which opera buffs of a later generation associate with Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. Though an Australian by birth, the quirky fact of her father being a Scandinavian, and her voice being a typical exemplification of the “Scandinavian” powerhouse voice, gives her the additional claim to being regarded as having a direct link to the outstanding crop of Scandinavian Wagnerian singers who have dominated so much of the 20th century. But she is also a figure who oddly resembles her most famous creation, Brünnhilde. Like the Valkyrie goddess, she was born to an immortality of which she was ultimately deprived by fate! Like Brünnhilde, she did not take to the role of goddess easily. Within her were too many warring elements that made it difficult to play the role of diva. But, again, like Brünnhilde, she did not relinquish her greatness as easily as she had imagined.

Back in the 1950s Florence Austral was someone I knew of in name only. I wish I had known then that I know now about her, thanks to James Moffat’s book and those 2 CDs. For during the years in the 50s when Austral was teaching at Newcastle Conservatorium, I was there studying piano and theory. I don’t ever remember seeing her. I’m not even sure I was aware that she was member of staff. For those years from 1952 to 1955 I went in and out of that early, temporary building that was the Con in Civic Park. I went for my lessons without ever realising I was in the unseen presence of a once great diva.

I cannot do justice to her memory in this small tribute. But I can recommend both the book and the CDs which will, I hope, restore her to prominence. The one describes, the other expresses accurately and beautifully their subject: Florence Austral, One of the Wonder Voices of the World!

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