KURT GÄNZL explores the life and career of the English-born contralto Sara Flower who spent much of her all-too-short career in Australia.

FLOWER, Sara [Elizabeth] (b. Grays, Essex 1820 x. 29 December 1820; d. 137 Victoria Street, Woolloomooloo, Sydney 20 August 1865)

Madame Sara FlowerOne of the few likenesses of Sara Flower. The image was published in The Australian Star (Sydney), 19 April 1902, p.3.Sara Flower has been a good deal written about, down the years, partly because of the remarkable and novel effect made by her extremely deep contralto voice, and partly because of her curious decision to quit Britain at the height of her career to establish herself as a performer and a teacher in Australia. However, although she has been written about, she has been written about in a pretty shallow fashion, and not without some basic errors.

We do not have a date of birth for Sara Flower. I suppose it is somewhere, in an Essex parish register, but neither I, nor anyone else who might have looked, has found it. It was said, and has been duly (correctly) repeated, that she was ‘the third daughter of William Lewis Flower of Grays, Essex’. William Flower was a grocer, who lived for half a century in Grays Thurrock in Essex. He married one Ruth Green, and produced a goodly number of children of whom we know of Sara and her singing sister, Elizabeth, plus Ellen, Thomas and the youngest, Anna (d. June 1850) who are still at home with their parents in the 1841 census. Mr. Flower didn’t make it to another census, dying on 27 September 1847, and although mother Ruth is visible in the next two censi, the only bit of apparent information we get is that Elizabeth [Hannah] (b.c.1814; d.1866) married (1847) barrister Timms Augustine Sargood (1815–1880) of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Courts when she gave away singing. Mr. Sargood had, a few years earlier, been involved in ‘the extraordinary case of the abduction of Miss [Caroline] Wynne’, but that is another story.

Sara, I find not at all, and the only authority for guessing that she was born around 1822 is someone’s claim that, at her death in 1865, she was 43 years of age. I am pretty sure she was older, but, so far, haven’t found any way of proving it.

Brown and Stratton’s very iffy Dictionary of British Musicians claimed she was born in 1805.They then go on to say that our Flower sisters should not be confused with Sarah Fuller Flower (Mrs. William Bridges Adams), author of ‘Nearer my God, to thee’, and her musical sister, Eliza. Which, of course, is precisely what they have done. Mrs. Adams, born in 1805, died in 1848. And no-one could really confound her with Sara, the red-headed, raw-boned contralto, because, before Sara started her professional career, ‘Nearer my God’ Sarah was already not Miss Flower, but Mrs. Adams.

If Sara Flower was indeed born in 1822, she began singing at a very young age, for I am pretty sure that I spot her out on the concert platform as early as September 1836, at the London Choral Institute. I definitely spot ‘the Misses Flower’ on 20 October 1837 at the Aldersgate Institute, in a concert with Edwin Ransford, in 1838 at Uxbridge, illustrating a set of lectures by Charles Purday, and again with the Choral Harmonists. In a July concert, Sara is referred to as ‘Miss Flower of the extraordinary voice’.

Sara Flower would, when the time came for biogs and eulogies, be referred to as ‘a pupil of Crivelli and Mazzucato’ (she advertised herself as such), but neither of those gentlemen came into the picture for a good while yet (and the latter only briefly, anyway). Sara’s early teacher was the ubiquitous Tom Cooke, master, amongst others, in his time, of Sims Reeves, the Williams sisters and Miss Rainforth, and in her concerts, the ‘deep contralto … younger sister’ was billed as such. For, although the ‘Misses Flower’ appeared regularly as a pair, Sara was, on occasion, engaged alone. I notice her in 1839, singing at Miss Galbreath’s concert at the London Tavern and again at Charles Mangold’s on 10 June of the year. The sisters sang together, at the end of the year, when they made their ‘debut in Oxford’, but Sara also sang solo. And what did she sing? The baritone aria ‘Vi ravviso’ from La Sonnambula. Sara brought outVi ravviso’ on a number of occasions, but she could do better. In 1842, in a concert at Southampton, I note her singing no less a basso profondo classic than ‘Qui sdegno’ (Il flauto magico).

On 25 March 1840, the Misses Flower presented their own concert, at the Store Street Music Hall, with the Misses Woodyatt, Lanza and Bassano and Messrs Bennett, A. Giubilei, Purday and Stretton as the attractions. All that I can find related is that they sang a notturno by Blangini ‘nicely’.

But Miss Flower was beginning to attract serious attention. Oxford reckoned on a second hearing that Sara ‘bids fair to be, with strict cultivation, one of the finest voices of the day’ whilst a critic who attended a concert at the Western Institute, where the Misses Flower gave ‘I know a bank’, wrote ‘One of the young ladies possesses a sweet soprano voice the other a fine full contralto and both are extremely well schooled’.

By this stage, a good half dozen year since that first sighting at the Choral Institute, Sara Flower had become a student at the Royal Academy of Music, where she moved to the tuition of Crivelli. She would stay at the Academy through until 1844, by which time her career was well and truly under way.

Sara Flower was brought out on the operatic stage at the alleged age of twenty-two, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in a hacked-around version of La gazza ladra (7 January 1843), playing Pippo to the Annetta of another debutante, Sabilla Novello, alongside Phillips, Stretton and Allen. Her exploits in concert had evidently gone unnoticed by the opera-house patrons, and ‘she completely astonished the audience by the depth of her voice’. ‘One of the finest contralto voices with which we are acquainted’, cried the Musical World, whilst The Times went on at greater length and with a little less emotion: ‘The young lady who played Pippo acted with such ease, confidence and smartness, that we looked twice at the announcement that it was her first appearance on any stage before we could believe our eyes. The only test that was given her musical powers was the celebrated duet with Annette in the last act of the opera. In the few introductory notes of recitative her notes were so exceedingly full and rich, her articulation so admirable, rare qualities in an English singer of recitative, that the audience were literally taken by surprise and uttered loud and continuous applause, which was frequently reiterated as the very superior quality of her voice was exhibited in the course of the duet. Her voice is a mezzo-soprano of singular volume, with some excellent contralto notes, which she touches with firmness. She was not always just in tune, but with an organ of such good natural quality she must be looked upon as a vocalist of considerable promise’.

Miss Flower moved promptly to a different level in the concert world, and on 3 April 1843 she was billed, with Miss Rainforth, at the concert of the Philharmonic Society. The two women gave ‘Ebben a te ferisci’, Sara sang ‘The Lord is mindful’ (St Paul), and the press followed up ‘With more cultivation than she has at present, Miss Flower may take a very high position as a vocalist. She has a full, clear voice which is completely unrivalled, being in fact a kind of female tenor’. The Musical World modified its original rapture ‘[Miss Flower] is improving, if she will just refine her style, her splendid voice will work its own triumph without forcing…’

A fortnight later, Sara Flower came out in a new ‘debut’, this time at the Princess’s Theatre. The opera selected was Tancredi, and the result was not perfect. ‘Miss S. Flower with her magnificent contralto voice, with her extraordinary depth, has not yet acquired sufficient facility of execution to make a satisfactory Tancredi. In her song at the Philharmonic concert, when the power of the voice was more called for than the skill of the artist, the impression she made was most unequivocal, but in Tancredi, where so much depends on a high degree of cultivation, the case is widely different. Her fine deep notes, full and rich and clear as they are, told whenever they were uttered as they always must, but the performance as a whole was unequal and crude, and the encore of ‘Di tanti palpiti’ was not instigated by the soundest judgment. It is to be hoped that Miss Flower, with that superb voice, which should raise her to a high position in the profession, will not run the risk of missing that position by an attempt to take it too soon. The audience, we should record, testified their approbation by two or three large bouquets, which they flung towards the young vocalist…’

Since the new tenorino, Belton, was not a success, and Miss Turpin was a deputy as Amenaide, the Princess’s Theatre Tancredi left something to be desired, and thing went better when the bill was switched to La gazza ladra with Sara playing opposite Emma Albertazzi.

The interest provoked by Sara’s voice meant that plenty of concert engagements were forthcoming, but although many of them were for her alone, the ‘Misses Flower’ duet act was still on wheels. The sisters made their annual visit to Oxford together, duetted ‘We come to thee, Savoy’, like every other set of singing sisters, at the Bridge Tavern, performed at Ransford’s concert at Covent Garden, and in a performance of The Messiah at Rochester in February 1844, they took the soprano and contralto solos respectively.

Sara was a feature of the West End concert scene over the next two seasons, appearing in dozens and dozens of concerts—from those, large and fashionable, of Julius Benedict, Josef Staudigl, Louis Lavenu, Madame Dulcken or Theodore Giubilei, or the Concerts of Ancient Music to those of young artists such as Moriatt O’Connor, the Misses Lyon, Miss Spence or Miss Steele, writers including Brinley Richards and W.T. Wrighton, and the brigade of Italianate concertisers—Magghioni, Cittadini or the Signor Gallinardi who billed himself, anguishingly large, as ‘the nephew of Rubini’. Her repertoire was not always of the most conventional—at Madame Dulcken’s she sang ‘Ah! Perfido’ in a boldly transposed down version—but her voice was now well enough known and understood that ballad writers were able to write to order for her, as Brinley Richards did with the glooming ‘Lost Hope’.

The last months of 1845, Sara Flower spent in Milan, and I assume this was when she added Signor Mazzucato to the tableau de chasse of her singing teachers, but she was unwell during a good part of her Italian sojourn and, on 10 January 1846, she returned home to number 57 Welbeck Street, before heading off to Dublin for her first concerts of the year. She spent the early part of the year singing in the London concerts, before in October opening a new operatic season at the Princess’s Theatre. The feature of that season was a new opera composed by Edward Loder, based on the story of Giselle, and entitled The Night Dancers. Emma Albertazzi was cast as Giselle, Allen as her hero, and Sara was cast as Bertha, the Queen of the Night Dancers, equipped with a rolling aria ‘Peace to the Dead’. The Musical World enthused: ‘We doubt if a more perfect contralto exists at the moment’.

The Night Dancers was a considerable success, and would be the keystone of the Princess’s season, but the other offerings of the season were not all negligible. On 19 December, a piece entitled The Seven Maids of Munich, or The Ghost’s Tower, with a score by Rodwell, was produced and Sara was cast as the heroine of the piece with an aria descriptive of ‘Yon ruined tower’. It was not The Night Dancers, but it did for a while. Much more substantial and suitable was a production of Anne Boleyn (January 1847) with Sara cast as Smeaton alongside the operatic debut of Louisa Bassano in the title-role.

On 3 March, the theatre put up The Merry Wives of Windsor in which Sara Flower played Mistress Page, and more The Night Dancers were scheduled, with the young Anne Romer taking the part created by Albertazzi. Miss Romer was also featured in a production of an Auber piece (April 1847) entitled Barcarolle in which Sara played ephemerally, and when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was given, Sara was Oberon to Miss Romer’s Titania. Miss Romer and Miss Flower, Allen and Bodda, then headed the Princess’s company out on the road to repeat the successes of the season plus, in Dublin, The Barber of Seville (Rosina).

During her operatic season, Sara Flower continued to sing in concert – on occasion alongside ‘her pupil Miss L. Marshall’, who was also a player in the Princess’s company—but, oddly, when she sang at the Adelaide Gallery, with the Pyreneean Singers, in December 1847 she was billed as being ‘of the Nobility’s Concerts’, as if ‘of the Princess’s Theatre’ was a secondary consideration.

Sara returned to the Princess’s Theatre once more, in February 1848, to play alongside Anna Thillon as Donna Olympia in The Young Guard (‘You chide me well’, ‘I’ll try to think with thee’), but the other items of Thillon’s repertoire apparently held no roles for her, and The Young Guard was her last role at the theatre where she had confirmed her place as a valuable member of the London English operatic corps. It would also be her last appearance on the London stage.

Through 1848 and into 1849, Sara Flower appeared only in concert. Perhaps her novelty value had waned a little, but these concerts were, I think, not quite of the level of the best in which she had been featured up till now. Then, in April 1849, she visited Liverpool for a ‘short operatic campaign’ under the management of Howard Glover. She played Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville and the Gipsy Queen in The Bohemian Girl, alongside Anne Romer and Delevanti, and was said to be preparing to create Glover’s opera Aminta, which had originally been scheduled for the Princess’s with Abertazzi in the title-role. But Miss Flower became ‘indisposed’, and Aminta was again abandoned. It would, finally, be created three years down the line by Louisa Pyne, and made little effect.

The company moved on to Edinburgh, where Lucia di Lammermoor was played, and Sara Flower spared the role of Edgardo by the manager, who went on and sang it himself.

Back in London, I spot Sara Flower one more time on the concert platform, duetting Donizetti’s ‘Nel tasso’ with Evelina Garcia at the Hanover Square Rooms.

And then she was gone.

It is said that the musician, Stephen Marsh, was the person who persuaded Sara Flower that there was a future for her in Australia. It seems surprising that she didn’t think there was one for her in England, but maybe she knew something we don’t. Maybe what looked like a lull in her rise through the musical ranks over the past couple of seasons was something more than a lull. Certainly, in Australia at the time, there was no contralto singer who could come near to matching Miss Flower in ability, and she could and would have the field—such as it was—unchallengedly to herself.

She arrived in Australia in February 1850, and made her first appearance at the Mechanics Institute in Melbourne on 28 February 1850, at a concert mounted by Thomas Reed (father of German Reed). She was immediately successful, and Reed presented her in a series of concerts at the Theatre Royal and at Geelong with a typical mixture of songs: ‘Thou Art Gone from my gaze’, ‘The deep, deep Sea’, ‘The Cavalier’, ‘By the Sad Sea Waves’, ‘Terence’s Farewell’, ‘The Wishing Gate’, ‘Jeannette and Jeannot’ but also the English bass classic ‘The Last Man’ and Henry Russell’s picturesque ‘The Maniac’, before she moved on, in April, to Sydney.

There the Marsh brothers mounted a rather more lavish concert at the Royal Hotel (3 May). Sara swapped her ballads for Mercadante’s ‘Nume che feci mai’ (Nitocri), Schubert’s ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Swiss Girl’ and the ‘Rataplan’ from Fille du régiment, on a bill with the Howson brothers and Mme Carandini, and the Australians, used to being fobbed off with vastly puffed, second-rate English singers, cheered that, this time, their hopes were ‘fully realised’.

Sara posted her shingle as a teacher in Sydney, and continued to give concerts in the city and environs, mostly with the same colleagues, delivering Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini, as well as ‘The Old Arm Chair’ or ‘Dermot Asthore’, and a flurry of new-to-Australia songs, which were printed and sold ‘as sung by Miss Sara Flower’.

On 1 May 1851, Sara took a Benefit at the Royal Victoria Theatre and made ‘her first appearance in the colonies in an operatic character’. She played Cinderella ‘with the whole of the music arranged by Mr. Gibbs’ and Emily in The Captain’s Not A-Miss. The Howsons supported, and Mr. Gibbs inserted ‘When a Little Farm We Keep’ for Sara and Frank Howson, ‘Tenor Trombone’ for John Howson, and loads of dances. And thus, presumably, left some Rossini out. But there was such a demand for tickets, that the Benefit had to be repeated the next night. And then again. And Sara was ‘engaged for the season’ at the Victoria.

On 29 May, she appeared as Lazarillo in Maritana alongside the Howsons and Mrs. Guerin, then in her role in The Night Dancers, as Stella in The Enchantress, as Diana Vernon in Rob Roy (with Carandini as Obaldistone), Rosetta in Love in a Village, Julia in Guy Mannering, Zelinda in The Slave, Pepino in The Devil’s Opera, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, and as the hero of The Daughter of the Regiment and of the burlesque of Don Giovanni, Hecate in Macbeth … Mr. Gibbs must have been kept busy transposing. She also appeared in concert giving such as the solos from La Sonnambula and ‘Bid me discourse’!

And on the 20 December 1851, Sara married the actor ‘Sam Howard’ (Samuel Howard Taylor).

She continued at the Victoria, without a pause, playing The Philosopher’s Stone and the favourite pieces of the previous year, and, on 16 February 1852, gave Australia’s first Norma, with Carandini as her Adalgisa. Norma became one of the most popular items of the theatre repertoire. For her Benefit she played the role of The Female Massaroni, and she also appeared in several plays.

In 1853 The Exile (Elizabeth), Inkle and Yarico (Narcisse), Joan of Arc (Florine), Cramond Brig (Marion), Family Jars (Emily, with songs), King Lear (Fool), Richard III (Lady Anne), A Winter’s Tale (Paulina), The Honeymoon (Zamora) were among the pieces played, and when not giving her Norma, her Lazarillo or her Stella, or performing as an actress, Madame Flower was nightly featured in ‘a favourite song’ between the pieces. For her husband’s Benefit, she appeared as Edward, the page, in Charles the Second and also sang ‘Casta Diva’.

In November 1853, Mr. and Mrs. Howard (‘the Australian Nightingale’!) visited Rowe’s Circus and the Theatre Royal (‘the Jenny Lind of the colony’) in Melbourne, proceeding to Geelong and Bendigo, and returning in mid-1854 to Sydney.

Catherine Hayes arrived in town, and Sara sang with her in concert, Miska Hauser arrived and Sara sang at his concerts, and 19 December 1854, the Royal Victoria began a new opera season. And they began it with The Night Dancers. Mrs. Guerin was again Giselle, Sara repeated her original role and ‘Peace to the Dead’, and a little English girl, Miss Julia Mathews, did a solo dance. The Waterman was given, and Sara played Tom Tug (‘with exquisite vocal powers’), and when the first Australia Lucia di Lammermoor was given (13 February 1855) she was Edgar to the Lucy of Mrs. Guerin.

Miss Hayes returned to Sydney in August and Sara was hired to support her. She gave Lisa in Sonnambula, Adalgisa to Catherine’s Norma (and stepped into the title-role when the star was ill) and the Gipsy Queen to her Bohemian Girl. And when the Irish lady left, she stepped back into her prima donna roles, until it was time to head for Melbourne and become seconda donna again. Or sometimes a primo uomo. Sara was cast as Edgar to Hayes’s Lucy, Pollio to her Norma, the Gipsy Queen, Polly in The Beggar’s Opera, Maffeo Orsini, Pierotto in Linda di Chamonix and even Theresa in La Sonnambula.

In the New Year Mr. and Mrs. Howard again went on the Bendigo-Geelong circuit, for an extended period, but 1857 found them back in Sydney, and Sara back in the opera. With Anna Bishop at the Princess’s, Melbourne. This time she was Adalgisa again, for Mrs. Bishop had engaged a tenor, Walter Sherwin. She gave her Maffeo Orsini, sang Isabelle to Bishop’s Alice in Robert the Devil, and when Ernani was given, she played the King! During her time in Melbourne, Mrs. Bishop also took part in the first Australian performance of Elijah at the Exhibition Building 24 June 1857. Sara sang the contralto part.

And then it was back to Sydney and the Royal Victoria Theatre. Mrs. Bishop had postponed her departure again, and was playing 18 performances in Sydney before quitting the colony. Sara gave her Orsini, Pierotto, Adalgisa, Lisa, Nancy in Martha, and took part in the concerts—which included the Stabat Mater and Mozart’s 12th Mass.

When Mrs. Bishop’s season ended, Sara returned to the Victoria to play Don Giovanni in the extravaganza The Ladykiller. But Mrs. Bishop still didn’t go, and next thing Sara was playing Ännchen to her Agnes in Der Freischütz (5 September). Then Adalgisa again. The Sydney Philharmonic Concerts … Then concerts in New South Wales and Victoria, and the title role in the burlesque The Invisible Prince and Queen Graciosa in The Yellow Dwarf at the Sydney Prince of Wales Theatre. When the house produced Macbeth, Sara was no longer Hecate: she was Lady Macbeth! When they did Rob Roy she was … Osbadistone. Her husband was Major Galbraith.

In June 1859, the Prince of Wales’s staged an opera season, and Sara got to play Azucena alongside Carandini and Sherwin.

In the 1860s, Madame Flower kept up her fervent schedule of concert appearances, singing much in oratorio, in festivals as well as in the concert hall, performing alongside such newer comers as Lucy Escott and Henry Squires. But nary a contralto to eclipse her. Mr. Marsh had been right. However, in these years she suffered much ill-health, and became increasingly unable to fulfil her engagements and her teaching duties.

She died ‘of rheumatism’ at her home in Sydney in 1865, at the stated age of 43. She was survived by her husband.

Sara Flowers tombMadame Sara Flower’s tomb. From Evening News (Sydney), 28 December 1895, p.1.