When Austral Sang: the Biography of Florence Austral (front cover)


When Austral Sang: the Biography of Florence Austral

by Michael Elphinstone and Wayne Hancock

A project that has taken more than 10 years to realise, When Austral Sang is not only a meticulously researched and annotated account of the life and career of one of Australia's most important singers but, in terms of its scope and content, it sets new precedents for future works of Australian biography. The 'standard' life story of Florence Austral is here scrutinised, corrected and amplified; in bringing to light new material on the soprano's family background, her relationship with flautist John Amadio, her début in professional opera, her recordings, her overseas tours and her medical history, the authors have answered the numerous questions inadvertently raised by Austral's previous biographers. Ample discussion is moreover devoted to the artistic circles in which Austral lived and worked, thus placing her musical activity in a wider socio-historical perspective. As might be expected of a volume its size (655 pages), When Austral Sang is generously illustrated. It also contains two appendices (one of them a complete discography of Austral's recordings for HMV together with details of LP reissues and transfers to CD), and an extensive bibliography.

What the critics say...

“a scholarly work devoted to establishing the facts of her career in opera and concert. This was no small task … behind the simplicity of approach there is an incredible amount of work which has gone into ferreting out information, checking one source against the other, and presenting the facts as far as they can be ascertained.  … The book also contains a wealth of biographical notes on the musicians Austral performed with, other singers especially, but also instrumentalists, conductors and composers. [It] has an excellent index. … The part devoted to Austral’s recording career is as scrupulously researched as the rest of the book. The importance of her records is underlined by the authors’ basic contention that her greatest claim to fame was – and still is - simply her voice.” (John Humbley, http://www.operanostalgia.be , January 2008)

"In writing When Austral Sang, Adelaide-trained musicologists Michael Elphinstone and Wayne Hancock were determined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth ... no source has been left unexplored in their quest. Although When Austral Sang is heavy going when read as a continuous narrative, it is well worth the effort ... there was room on the shelves for yet another book about Florence Austral. Her story needed to be set straight, and Elphinstone and Hancock have ironed out the kinks." (Elizabeth Silsbury, MCA Music Forum, Nov. 2007 - Jan. 2008)

"It is not easy to do justice to this huge book, which reconciles the demands of enthusiam, piety and archival research with imposing results ... [The authors'] researches have been formidable: no registry is left unexamined, no letter undeciphered, no press-cutting unscrutinized ... Among the book's virtues is the authors' frankness ... honesty and unstoppable zeal in ferreting out the truth." (Richard Law, Opera, March 2006)

"This shares with Dr [Michael] Henstock’s book on Fernando De Lucia (Duckworth 1990) the distinction of being the most thoroughly researched, meticulously scrutinised and objectively judged biography of any singer of the past known to me. It clears up many hitherto doubtful points and corrects several errors. In style, it makes no particular effort to hold the reader’s attention; all the more creditable that it does so by the merits of its clear presentation and thoroughness. ... It is a work of devoted and tireless research, and a model of its kind." (John Steane, Opera Now, January/February 2006)

"superbly researched biography ... money well spent ... The pages of endnotes make up a reference work in themselves and are an added bonus ... This is the real story of this fascinating woman written with commendable objectivity. ... When Austral Sang is the sort of book collectors wait for. It must rank amongst the best researched biographies of a singer ever written." (Michael F. Bott, The Record Collector, September 2005)

"up to now Austral has not been well served biographically ... This new book sets such a standard that there will not need to be another ... and this is much more than a simple biography. It gives a picture of musical life between the wars, and the lavish notes at the end of each chapter provide valuable information on other artists mentioned so that we end up with a virtual dictionary, full of information hard to find anywhere else. ... handsomely produced, with excellent photographs—[it] is a must for anyone interested in musical life in Britain or Australia." (Tully Potter, Classic Record Collector, Autumn 2005)

"exhaustively researched, particularly where detective work was required to sort out fact from fiction ... overwhelming" (Alison Jones, Opera Opera, August 2005)

When Austral Sang: the Biography of Florence Austral (back cover)Idolised by gramophone enthusiasts but an obscure figure to the public at large, Florence Austral (1892-1968) occupies an ambivalent place in the annals of Australian music. In actual fact, she was the successor to Dame Nellie Melba and the predecessor to Dame Joan Sutherland, and forms with them a triumvirate of truly great Australian sopranos the like of whom come along all too rarely. At first glance, a claim for Austral to be placed alongside two such supremely celebrated artists may appear tenuous, for neither her fame nor her musical achievements can even begin to approach theirs. And yet in terms of the magnificent quality of her voice at its peak, Austral was unsurpassed. She was a veritable vocal phenomenon held in awe by virtually all who heard her, and hailed time and time again as having one of the most impressive soprano voices in the world.

Austral was the leading dramatic soprano in Britain in the 1920s. She was a famous Brünnhilde, Isolde and Aida at Covent Garden, heavily in demand as a soloist at Wagner orchestral concerts, and equally as busy as an HMV recording artist in the early days of the gramophone. She was also a superb recitalist, often sharing the platform with her husband, Australian flute virtuoso John Amadio. The overseas tours she undertook from 1926 to 1937 saw her perform throughout North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Holland.

Unfortunately, Austral suffered from a high quota of personal and professional misfortune. Various hardships, coupled with a relatively early vocal decline, prevented the soprano from reaching the highest echelons of international stardom. Hers was a placid and genial personality, but she was beset with an underlying insecurity that compelled her to cloak isolated failures of her career in a shroud of anecdotal half-truths and outright lies. As a result, a distorted picture of Austral has been handed down to us, a distortion exacerbated by the biographical accounts of several recent writers who have blindly taken the singer at her word.

When Austral Sang, by Michael Elphinstone and Wayne Hancock, dispels once and for all, by means of documented evidence, the fabrications concerning Florence Austral that have long been held as fact. With the almost mythical Austral of yore finally put to rest, the soprano's art can once more be assessed entirely on its own merits.

When Austral Sang: the Biography of Florence Austral

Hyde Park Press, Richmond, South Australia

ISBN 0 646 44033 0

Price: $60.00 Aust. (hard cover edition) plus postage and handling

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When Austral Sang is available in the U.S. also from Norbeck, Peters & Ford, 59 Congress Street - Saint Albans, VT 05478, tel. (802) 524-7673, fax (802) 524-7685, http://www.norpete.com

For further information contact Wayne Hancock