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Florence Austral
, c. 1930

by Howard Barron

oil on canvas (frame: 158.0 cm x 116.0 cm, support: 132.0 cm x 91.5 cm)

Florence Austral (1892–1968) operatic soprano, achieved international renown during the 1920s. Born Florence Wilson in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1892, she gave her first public performance as Florence Fawaz (her stepfather’s surname) in a Christmas pageant around 1910. Her stepfather was duly impressed and arranged for her to have tuition in piano and voice; in 1913, she won a number of prizes in the annual South Street Competitions in Ballarat. She studied under Madame Elise Weiderman at the Conservatorium of Music in Albert Street and then at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1919. She left Australia and, following a disappointing stint in the United States, made her London debut in early 1921 at the Albert Hall. Like her Richmond compatriot, Nellie Melba, she adopted a name honouring her homeland and as Florence Austral debuted at Covent Garden in May 1922, replacing another patriotically named soprano, Elsa Stralia, in the role of Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre. During the 1920s and 1930s she toured North America and Australia and made the first of many recordings. The quality and power of her voice lent itself to the Wagnerian roles which secured her reputation, but she also performed in operas by Verdi, Mozart, Puccini and others. By the end of the 1930s, however, Austral was increasingly afflicted by multiple sclerosis. With her husband, Australian flautist John Amadio, she returned to Australia after the war and in the 1950s took up a teaching position at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music in Newcastle. She retired in ill health in 1959 and was admitted to an aged care facility in Newcastle in the early 1960s. The Florence Austral Association paid for her care until her death in May 1968.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of the University of Newcastle, Australia 2007
Accession number: 2007.52