This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Sara Elizabeth Flower (c.1823-1865), opera singer and teacher of singing, was born at Grays, Essex, England, daughter of William Lewis Flower. Sara studied with Gaetano Crivelli at the Royal Academy of Music, London. After a successful career as a concert singer in London, she took up the suggestion of the composer Stephen Marsh and came to Australia in 1850, making her concert début in Melbourne. Considered to be the most talented singer then to come to Australia, she was hailed by the Melbourne press as 'the modern Sappho', 'the Queen of song' and 'the Australian Nightingale'.
Moving to Sydney, where the existence of an opera company performing on a regular basis offered more scope, Flower made her Australian opera début at the Royal Victoria Theatre, on 1 May 1851, as the heroine in an English adaptation of Rossini's La Cenerentola. On 20 December that year at St James's Church of England, Sydney, she married Samuel Howard Taylor, an actor known as Sam Howard; the prima donna Marie Carandini was a witness.
Roles premièred by Flower in Australia included the title role in The Enchantress (by Michael Balfe), Bertha in The Night Dancers (Edward Loder)—the operatic version of the ballet Giselle—and most importantly, and curiously, since she was a contralto, the title role in Bellini's Norma on 16 February 1852. A shortage of tenors on the Australian colonial operatic stage often meant that women had to perform male roles and Flower sang Edgardo in the first Australian performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor on 13 February 1855. She also made appearances with ad hoc companies formed by visiting stars and local impresarios. Opposite the Norma of Catherine Hayes in Sydney in 1855, she sang the role of Adalgisa and in the second performance, when Hayes was unable to finish, took over the title role for the last scene.
In Melbourne shortly afterwards, another tenor problem caused Carandini and Flower to take the tenor roles in Hayes's opera season. Flower sang Edgardo in Lucia again, Pollione in Norma and, in her proper vocal range, the travesty role of Maffeo Orsini in the Australian première of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. With the English soprano Anna Bishop in Melbourne in 1857, her performances included the baritone role of Don Carlo in Verdi's Ernani.
In 1859—in her proper vocal range—she was a distinguished Azucena in the first hearing in Sydney of Verdi's Il Trovatore. Thereafter her appearances were mainly restricted to concerts. She had taken part in the major choral festival to inaugurate the Great Hall at the University of Sydney in 1854, when Handel's Messiah and Haydn's Creation were performed.
As a teacher, Flower advertised herself as a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and the principal musical societies of Milan, offering tuition 'according to the approved systems of Masters Crivelli and Mazzucato'. She was red-haired, large framed and not particularly good looking, although her expression became transfigured by the music on the concert platform or stage and she radiated great emotional power. On tours of the goldfields where she was, like many others, showered with nuggets by appreciative miners, she was said to be fond of porter with the boys.
Reputedly, Flower converted to Catholicism about 1863, regularly attending St Benedict's Church, Sydney. She was poor in her later years. Sara Elizabeth Flower Howard died of rheumatism on 20 August 1865 at her home at Woolloomooloo and was buried in the Catholic section of the Devonshire Street cemetery. Her remains were removed in 1902 to La Perouse where a memorial was erected.
Alison Gyger, 'Flower, Sara Elizabeth (1823–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/flower-sara-elizabeth-12919/text23341, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 27 May 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005