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William Saurin Lyster (1828–1880)

by Sally O'Neill and Thérèse Radic

This article was published:

William Saurin Lyster (1828-1880), by unknown engraver

William Saurin Lyster (1828-1880), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S04/12/80/324

William Saurin Lyster (1828-1880), operatic entrepreneur, was born on 21 March 1828 at Dublin, third son of Chaworth Lyster, army captain, and his wife Anne, née Keightly. William was named after his uncle, sometime attorney-general for Ireland. After a severe illness in his early teens he went on a sea voyage and visited Sydney and Melbourne in 1842. Reputedly he was then sent to Calcutta to become an indigo planter but returned about a year later. In 1847 he served as a volunteer in the Kaffir war under Sir Harry Smith. About 1848 he went to America and in Boston joined a theatre company. In 1855 he went with William Walker, 'soldier of fortune', on his ill-fated expedition to Nicaragua. He fought in several battles as a captain but was in the United States on a recruiting tour when Walker's expedition collapsed.

In 1857 Lyster formed an opera troupe, with his brother Frederick as conductor and himself as musical director. The company had two prima donnas: Rosalie Durand who married Frederick; and Georgia Hodson, who had married first John Sharp, second John Robertson, and third William Lyster. In 1859 the company arrived in San Francisco. He engaged Lucy Escott and Henry Squires there and in 1861, with a full chorus and orchestra, the company travelled to Australia. On 25 March he opened at Melbourne's Theatre Royal with Lucia di Lammermoor, Maritana and Lurline. The company's repertoire was said to include over thirty operas. Despite good reviews the season ran at a loss, but encouraged by the brilliant success of the final nights Lyster returned for a second season in June. By the end of July Lyster's popularity was firmly established and after a month in Sydney he returned to Melbourne to make his headquarters. In the next six years he also toured the other colonies and New Zealand, presenting operas such as Maritana, Il Trovatore, Lucrezia Borgia, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, Roberto il Diavolo and Faust.

In 1868 Lyster decided to return with his troupe to the United States and on 29 August left for California in the Alexander Duthie. One of his tenors was E. A. Beaumont whom Lyster had accidentally shot in the face while hunting in 1867. The company was not successful in San Francisco. By 30 January their short season at the Metropolitan Theatre was closed and by March the troupe dispersed. Frederick Lyster joined the Metropolitan Theatre as musical director and conductor while William made arrangements with John Smith to form another company and then went on to Europe to engage singers. In Italy in September 1869 he engaged several singers including Lucia Baratti as prima donna, Lucy Chambers contralto, Mariano Neri tenor and Enrico Dondi bass. He bought music scores and the 'latest appliances, mechanical and otherwise' for his new productions. He returned to Melbourne on 20 January 1870 in the Avoca. Beaumont sailed from San Francisco to rejoin Lyster and the new company made its first appearance on 5 February with Ernani. In April the company went to Sydney for a short season. Lyster & Smith's contract with the Italian members of the company ended in January 1871 and most of them returned to Europe.

After the successes of 1870 Lyster had leased the Princess's Theatre in Melbourne for another three years and began rehearsals for Offenbach's comic opera, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. He came to an agreement with an Italian opera company which, led by Cagli and Pompei, came to Australia by way of India. In May 1871 the combined companies gave a series of Italian operas. Later that year Lyster's English company toured Tasmania and in 1872 Victorian country towns. When the company of Madame Agatha States arrived in Melbourne Lyster provided a supporting band and chorus.

In February 1873 Lyster and others organized a small proprietary association to manage the new Prince of Wales Theatre. Lyster was manager with a salary of £1000, and held a sixth of the shares, equal in worth to his properties valued at £5000. In the next months Italian opera alternated with seasons of opera sung in English, the latter being more profitable to produce although Lyster himself preferred Italian opera. In May 1873 Cagli returned to Italy to engage more singers. By September 1874 Lyster was managing an Italian opera company in Adelaide and an English company in Sandhurst as well as arranging concert appearances for visiting artists in the Melbourne Town Hall and planning a Christmas pantomime.

In August 1877 Lyster produced Wagnerian opera in Melbourne for the first time, opening with Lohengrin on 18 August. Aida was also performed but the season was not a financial success. Lyster's health was declining and in July 1878 he left Sydney for America and Europe, accompanied by his wife and Beaumont. In March 1879 he reopened in Melbourne with a new company but his health did not improve. He planned to retire but on 27 November 1880 died at the Melbourne home of his friend, William Dean, survived by his wife. They had no children. He was buried in the Anglican section of the Melbourne general cemetery.

Lyster was a good conversationalist and widely-read. He was tall, black-bearded and, according to a nephew, had 'a fearsome temper'. However, he was popular with the public and the press described him as 'a liberal, pushing, energetic business man, personally liked … and possessed of that valuable quality, tact'. In 1867 he had bought land near Fern Tree Gully in the Monbulk area, known as Lysterfield from the mid-1870s when Lyster donated two acres (.8 ha) for a school. At his home, Narre Warren Grange, he had a room acoustically fitted for the benefit of musical guests. He pioneered drainage improvements in the area and built up a prize-winning dairy stud. After his death friends commissioned his portrait by G. F. Folingsby and many tributes were paid to his part in establishing opera as a 'permanent institution' in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Cooper, The History of St Kilda … 1840 to 1930, vol 1 (Melb, 1931)
  • H. Coulson, Story of the Dandenongs, 1838-1958 (Melb, 1959)
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 30 Mar, 20 Apr, 27 July, 28 Sept 1861
  • Australasian, 2 Mar, 25 May 1867, 13 Mar, 10 Apr, 29 May, 25 Sept, 4, 25 Dec 1869, 11 Feb, 26 Aug 1871, 17 Feb 1872, 1, 15 Feb 1873, 19 Sept 1874, 25 Aug 1877, 4 Dec 1880
  • Bulletin, 12 June, 4, 18 Dec 1880
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1880, 26 Jan 1882
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 Dec 1880
  • Table Talk, 12 Aug 1926.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sally O'Neill and Thérèse Radic, 'Lyster, William Saurin (1828–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Saurin Lyster (1828-1880), by unknown engraver

William Saurin Lyster (1828-1880), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S04/12/80/324

Life Summary [details]


21 March, 1828
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


27 November, 1880 (aged 52)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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