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Castles, Amy Eliza (1880–1951)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Amy Eliza Castles (1880-1951), by Troedel & Co., 1902

Amy Eliza Castles (1880-1951), by Troedel & Co., 1902

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H2000.180/66

Amy Eliza Castles (1880-1951), dramatic soprano, was born on 25 July 1880 at Melbourne, eldest child of Joseph Castles, printer, and his wife Mary Ellen, née Fallon, both Victorian-born. In the early 1880s the family moved to Bendigo where Amy was educated at St Kilian's primary school and then at St Mary's College.

The Castles family was highly musical. Amy's sister Ethel (Dolly) became well known in Gilbert and Sullivan opera both in Australia and abroad; Eileen sang in grand opera, making her début in Australia with the Melba Grand Opera Company in 1911; and George, a tenor, sang professionally at home and overseas. The other three sons were locally known as singers.

Amy's talent was discovered by E. Allan Bindley while she was still at school. He became her teacher and directed one of her earliest public performances in a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, in October 1898. Next year, on 16 March, she made her début in Melbourne at the annual meeting of the Austral Salon. The 'magnificent quality' of her voice astonished her audience and public concerts were immediately arranged: the 'slip of a girl in a simple white frock' with her hair down to her shoulders created a sensation, although her promotion was not without its critics. To help raise money for overseas tuition she toured Australia and, backed by an unprecedented sum of £4000, left in September to study with Madame Marchesi in Paris. Alarmed when Marchesi attempted to produce her as a contralto, Amy left her to study with Jacques Bouhy.

In November 1901 she made her first London appearance at a St James's Hall concert with Ada Crossley and Clara Butt, and was enthusiastically received. In 1902 she returned to Australia to tour for J. C. Williamson; 20,000 attended her farewell concert at the Exhibition Building, Melbourne. After further study in Europe, she reappeared in London in 1905 at Queen's Hall concerts and in 1906 gave a command performance before King Edward VII. She sang in the larger German centres, making her European début in grand opera in 1907 at Cologne in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet. She appeared in seasons of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and Faust and became a favourite of the Queen of the Netherlands. She also took part in the Harrison tours of Great Britain and at various times sang under the batons of Hans Richter, (Sir) Henry Wood and Landon Ronald, achieving success in concert, opera and oratorio.

In September 1909 Amy Castles returned to Australia for a four-and-a-half month tour of seventy-two towns for J. & N. Tait. Her voice at this time was described as astonishingly even and full. At the end of this tour she appeared in the Australian première of Puccini's Madame Butterfly for J. C. Williamson. She returned to London in 1911 for a special series of Chappell concerts. In 1912 she accepted an offer of a four-year contract from the Imperial Opera in Vienna and was appointed chamber singer to the Imperial Court. With the outbreak of war she was obliged to leave Austria, returning to Australia in 1915 to tour the capital cities. In 1917 she made her American début in New York at Carnegie Hall. With American involvement in the war Amy gave concerts for the sick and wounded and opened her Manhattan home to visiting Australians. At this time Dolly and Eileen were also working in the United States.

In 1919 Amy toured Australia with the Williamson Grand Opera Company, opening in Sydney. She returned to Sydney again in 1925, at the end of a concert tour of Australasia managed by her brother George and including Eileen. In 1930-31 she visited Hollywood to take part in a 'talkie' but although she still gave occasional concerts she was 'happiest in retirement' and never fulfilled the promise of her pre-war years. 'From time to time' a newspaper article commented, 'Miss Castles has picked up the loose threads of her career, but never with the same enthusiasm'.

A diabetic for many years, Amy Castles died in hospital at Fitzroy, Victoria, on 19 November 1951 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. She had been living with her sister Dolly in Camberwell. She did not marry.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • Lone Hand, 2 Aug 1909
  • Southern Sphere, 1 Aug 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1899
  • Punch (Melbourne), 3, 24 Apr 1902
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 7, 14 Aug 1909
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Feb, 2 Mar 1925
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Feb 1932
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Nov 1951
  • A. E. Castles papers and newsclippings (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Castles, Amy Eliza (1880–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/castles-amy-eliza-5530/text9419, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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