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Wilson, Austral Groves (Strella) (1894–1989)

by Peter Dunbar-Hall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Austral Groves (Strella) Wilson (1894–1989), soprano, was born on 19 December 1894 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, second of five children of Harry Wilson Carpenter, an American mining engineer, and his wife Annie, née Skewes, born in South Australia.  After a few years in Perth with her family, Strella was educated (1907-10) at Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Melbourne.  Harry Carpenter and his family adopted Wilson as their surname.  Taught singing by Agnes Janson, in 1915 Strella was chosen to study under (Dame) Nellie Melba at the Albert Street Conservatorium, Melbourne.  She also studied with Anne Williams and Mary Campbell.  Wilson’s first professional appearance was as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, with the touring Rigo Grand Opera Company in Melbourne in 1919.  Tall, with blue eyes and fair hair, she had a charming stage presence.

With the J. C. Williamson Grand Opera Company (after it took over Rigo) Wilson sang various roles, including Micaela in Carmen, and met the American tenor Ralph Errol Smith, who was known professionally as Ralph Errolle.  They married on 21 September 1920 at the office of the registrar of marriages, Melbourne.  In 1922 they moved to the United States of America, where Errolle had a contract (1924-26) as principal tenor with the New York Metropolitan Opera.  She appeared with the De Feo Opera Company in Canada.  Divorced in 1926, Wilson returned to Australia with their two daughters to live with her parents in Melbourne.  She established herself as a regular performer, especially in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan for J. C. Williamson Ltd.  In the early 1930s, while living in England, Wilson performed for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, with the American soprano Rosa Ponselle, and, at the Drury Lane Theatre, as Princess Mirabelle in Cavalcade, a role written for her by (Sir) Noel Coward.  She also sang with touring companies (notably as Teresa in The Maid of the Mountains), for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in London nightclubs.  She returned to Australia in 1934 to star in J. C. Williamson’s production of White Horse Inn.

In the late 1930s and 1940s she was well known as a radio performer, both with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (with concert broadcasts of operatic roles, including the title role in Verdi’s Aida) and on commercial radio, where she worked extensively with Jack Davey.  During and immediately after World War II Wilson made troop-entertainment tours to the Northern Territory, New Guinea, Hong Kong and Japan.  She was appointed OBE in 1950.  The next year she retired from performing.  From 1952 to 1968 she worked as an official hostess at Australia House, London, for the Australian Federal government.  Back in Australia she settled at Elizabeth Bay and served on various music committees.  In 1973 the Australian Musical Association gave her life membership.

Commercial recordings of Wilson are almost unknown.  Transcription discs of radio shows from the 1940s reveal a well-trained spinto-style soprano voice that Wilson used to good advantage across opera, operetta, popular song and concert repertoire.  She died on 10 February 1989 at Darlinghurst and was cremated.  Her two daughters survived her; the elder one, Pauline Garrick, performed (1974-88) with the Australian Opera.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Dunbar-Hall, Strella Wilson (1997)
  • C5287, items 79/1 and 79/2 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Dunbar-Hall, 'Wilson, Austral Groves (Strella) (1894–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-austral-groves-strella-15795/text26994, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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