This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979
Florence Mary Austral (1892-1968), singer, was born on 16 April 1892 at Richmond, Victoria, only daughter of William Wilson, a Swedish carpenter formerly known as Wilhelm Lindholm, and his wife Helena Mary, née Harris, a dressmaker. Her father died in 1895 and her mother set up in business; in 1903 she married 28-year-old Syrian book-keeper John Fawaz, a staunch Methodist. The singer was known as Florence Fawaz until 1921 when she adopted the professional name of Florence Austral.
Austral received no early vocal training but in 1913 went to Ballarat to sing in the renowned South Street competitions. She won first prize in the mezzo-soprano section and second prize in two others. At the suggestion of adjudicator Fritz Hart, she took lessons with Madame Elise Wiedermann who was then at the Conservatorium of Music, Albert Street, Melbourne. In 1917 she won an entrance exhibition to the University Conservatorium where Wiedermann was then teaching. At 27, with first-class honours in second-year diploma and first-year bachelor of music, 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 appeared at festivals in Boston and Chicago, afterwards auditioning at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. A contract was offered but arguments arose over a proposed début in Chicago. Homesick and disillusioned by what she regarded as corrupt practices at the Metropolitan Opera, she decided to return to Australia. However, she broke her journey in London and remained there.
Florence Austral first appeared in London at a Sunday concert at the Albert Hall early in 1921. She successfully auditioned for Covent Garden but it was not until 16 May 1922 that she made her début there under the auspices of the British National Opera Company. At short notice, without stage or orchestral rehearsal for the part, she replaced Elsa Stralia as Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre. She was an instant and lasting success. Thereafter it was recognized that Austral was 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 the famous International Season 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 Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. On 20 January 1923 she appeared for the only time with Melba in an evening of operatic excerpts. In the 1920s she began recording on acoustic discs and made the earliest of her many electrical recordings; her Wagnerian discs established her reputation.
Austral had known John Amadio from student days in Melbourne. Her marriage to him at Hampstead, London, on 15 December 1925, two months after his divorce, caused a rift with her parents which their visit to London failed to mend: she was not permitted to see her mother again.
With Amadio, Austral 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'. Back in Europe in November, she contracted to sing 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.
Austral 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 in capital cities and large country towns. The critics noted her vitality and the 'infectious air of personal enjoyment' in her performance. In September Sir Benjamin Fuller engaged her for his season of 'Grand Opera', and Australians saw her in her famous operatic roles for the first time. When the season ended early in April 1935, Austral and Amadio continued to tour Australia, making several successful broadcast recitals as well, but by the end of 1936 Austral had returned to London. During World War II she appeared for occasional benefit concerts, but her career was at an end.
In late July 1946 she 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 at the end of 1959. When she later became paralysed, the Florence Austral Association paid for her care. She died of cerebro-vascular disease in a church home for the aged at Mayfield, Newcastle, on 15 May 1968, and was cremated with Methodist rites.
Thérèse Radic, 'Austral, Florence Mary (1892–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/austral-florence-mary-5084/text8483, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979