Florence Young-the Queen of Comic Opera
Florence Maud Young was the daughter of Henry Henrard Young and Elizabeth, (nee Tonkin). Florence was born in 1871 on the corner of Exhibition and Collins Streets Melbourne. Her father was a jeweller. She had several brothers and sisters including Gladys and Fred who followed her into the theatrical profession.
Florence was a solidly built young woman with deep brown eyes and dark hair. She grew up in the city as a respectable middle class girl. However, Florence had ambitions that did not fit in with her father’s idea of respectability.
‘I was always fond of singing. My girlfriends were never done telling me
that I should be on the stage.’
One day in 1890 whilst her father was away, Florence approached Mr Plumpton the conductor of the George Musgrove-Nellie Stewart company. She had seen the company’s production of ‘Paul Jones’ at least fourteen times and asked to try out.
She sang a song from the musical at the conductor’s home. Mr Plumpton recommended that she perform for Nellie Stewart at the theatre. Being an audacious young woman, the nineteen year old sang one of Nellie’s favourite songs to her. Miss Stewart was magnanimous and Florence was hired. Paul Jones was to remain one of her favourite pieces.
Florence’s first appearance was in July 1890 as ‘Beatrice’ in Boccaccio. She appeared for three weeks. Then the company moved to Sydney leaving Florence behind.
Florence was a direct and forthright woman and she was determined to be a singer. In November 1890 she approached Mr Bracey of the famous J C Williamson Comic Opera Company. The company was performing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne.
‘Passing the theatre I saw Mr Bracy standing at the door.
I suppose there’s nothing for me today? I said.
Mr Garner was inside. Mr Bracy suggested that I should see him.
The result was that Mr Garner handed me the role of Casilda in ‘The Gondoliers".
Thus began the career of one of Australia’s most beloved comic opera singers. From that November 1890, Florence, known at this stage of her career as ‘Florrie’ became a regular performer with the Royal Comic Opera Company.
The company was the cream of Australian musical comedy. It included well known actresses such as Flora Graupner, and featured the finest singing talent in the country. They were the JC Williamson elite. The company constantly toured the colony in various guises for at least twenty years. It launched the careers of George Lauri, Carrie Moore and many others who became household names in Australia and overseas.
The life of a member of the company was strenuous and hectic. It involved constant travelling in addition to the continual rehearsal and study of new parts. In a later interview Florence described the daily life
You can imagine what this meant when I say that with a new piece every four,
five or six weeks, we had to rehearse daily from 10 in the morning till 5
in the afternoon, and then be at the theatre again, bright and fresh for every
By 1892, Florence was being noticed for her roles with the company. In July, The Referee noted that ‘Miss Florence Young has a prepossessing appearance and improves upon acquaintance.’ By September it was calling her ‘a charming Casilda’ and noting that her duet with Mr Sydney Deane had to be repeated.
The 1895 Royal Comic Opera season in Sydney was typical of the company’s busy schedule. In the last sixteen nights of their stay in the city, they played four different musicals. These included Mam’zelle Nitouche, An Arcadian Eve, Dorothy and Paul Jones. Florence played a part in each production. It was a routine designed to produce artists of stamina and versatility.
Florence showed both traits when her performances in musicals were complemented by performances in pantomime. In 1896 she appeared in tights as the prince in Djin Djin. The Referee said that
Miss Florence Young makes a handsome and dashing prince, whilst vocally she
scores again and again…Here we must mention that one of the best things
of the evening is a duet ‘Do not be angry’ between the Misses Young and Graupner.
Flora Graupner was the diva of the Royal Comic Opera Company, but Florence Young was quickly catching up to her in popularity.
By 1897 Florrie was well known in the Australian theatrical world. She was a popular and critical success in both Melbourne and Sydney. She was also recognised as one of Australia’s pre-eminent singers. In March that year she played in ‘Matsa’ the JC Williamson pantomime in Sydney. Joined by George Lauri, Florrie was a hit.
The ever popular Miss Florrie Young was heard to advantage in a ‘Patriotic Federation song’
which was rapturously redemanded.
She was travelling to London after the close of the show and it was a measure of her popularity with audience and cast that a benefit night was arranged for her.
Miss Florence Young, than whom there is not a more popular artiste on the Australian
stage is to be benefited.. prior to her departure to London.
Before ‘Matsa’s’ run in Sydney, Florrie had taken another major step in her life. She had married. The groom was Mr Robert Rivington, a man of independent means. The two married in Melbourne early in 1897.
After her marriage Florrie intended to settle into private life. She travelled to England. However her old friends, George Musgrove and Nellie Stewart lured her back to the stage. She appeared in the JC Williamson London venture, The Scarlet Feather. The show was produced at the Shaftesbury Theatre in December 1897. It was enthusiastically received on the first night and Florrie gained good reviews from the Australian critics.
The ever fresh and charming Miss Florence Young secured the first encore for her opening number
Her voice at its best, her enunciation crisp and clear as always, she won the sympathy and approval of the big house right away.
Unfortunately , The Scarlet Feather did not enjoy a long run. Yet Florence Young had regained her theatrical ambition and continued to perform overseas. In 1898 she travelled to South Africa with Lockwood and Levelley. She appeared in Capetown, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. One of her major roles in South Africa was as the doll in the musical La Poupee.
Florence then returned to England, where she played in pantomime and musical comedy. She played the principal boy in Dick Whittington and had success as the gypsy in ‘Falka’.
George Edwardes, famous English theatrical producer, told Florence that she had arrived in England at the wrong time. There were no good roles for her type of voice. However, he urged her to persist, as these roles would eventually return to favour.
Yet Florence, at the urging of Sydney impresario, Mark Foy, made her way to Paris . There she began voice training with Melba’s teacher, Madame Marchesi. According to Florence , Marchesi thought that her voice was suitable for grand opera. Florence studied in Paris for almost a year. Her studies were paid by an allowance of three pounds one shilling a month from her father in law, Mr Rivington.
Florence’s voice was apparently characterised by strong and clear enunciation.
Every word she sings can be distinctly heard all over the auditorium and the man
in the very back seat of the gallery can hear her as plain as if he were in the very
Florence maintained her voice by incessant practice and a great deal of care. Every morning she rose and ran over scales. That way she knew the state of her voice for the whole day. In her early career she was often reckless with her ‘instrument’ and sang despite ill health.
After ten months with Marchesi, Florence , running out of funds, returned to Australia. She was immediately welcomed back by JC Williamson and the Royal Comic Opera Company. ‘Florrie’ Young did not reappear in print. Instead she was replaced by Miss Florence Young, Australia’s queen of the comic opera stage.
The Florence Young that returned to Australia in 1901 was a lady of vitality and charisma. Her openness and honesty were much admired traits. Newspaper reports described Florence’s ‘unaffected cheeriness’, ‘good nature’ and optimistic outlook. They described her as ‘incapable of pettiness of mind’ and as having a directness of manner. She was a bustling, blunt, good-natured woman who was popular with press and public.
The gallery boys and girls called her ‘Flo’ and she was one of their favourites. The ‘gallery girl first nighters’ were big fans of Flo and she regretted that ‘the demands of my time do not permit of me talking to them as much as I would like.’ Perhaps it was her ability to reach the gallery with her clear voice that made her popular with the gods. Regardless she had a big following and she appreciated the kindness of her fans.
Florence was not a social woman. She was devoted heart and soul to the theatre. In her mind it was impossible to maintain an active social life with an active theatrical career. She needed to save her voice for the theatre rather than waste it in idle chit chat.
Unlike many of her contemporaries she was not superstitious. Green was often thought to be an unlucky colour amongst theatrical types. Florence often wore green on stage as if daring the fates. She declared openly, that’ I have no superstitions.’
This was the character who reappeared in Australia in 1901 to star in the comic opera production of San Toy. Except for a brief break in 1905, Florence would spend the rest of her life working for J C Williamson. She was once again on the incessant working schedule of the Comic Opera Company.
In 1905 she travelled to New York. There she saw several American plays that were not to her taste. Immediately upon her return she was playing the lead role of Winnie in The Girl from Kays.
1906 was another typically busy year for Florence. She played in Veronique in February in Sydney. Her ‘excellent vocalisation’ was a highlight of the disappointing production. In 1907 she appeared in the pantomime, Mother Goose. She played the principal boy. In July that year she played a leading role in The Spring Chicken and in August she played in Dorothy. In the revival of Dorothy, she was said to ‘have never done better’. She also appeared in ‘La Mascotte in Sydney that year.
During the run of these productions, Florence was sent a menacing letter. It was a list of nine prayers with a threat that if she did not copy one daily and send it to a friend, something dreadful would happen to her. Unfortunately many of Florence’s fellow players were more superstitious than she was.
‘Every day as she appeared at the theatre, inquiries met her whether she had done her prayers
and anxious eyes followed her to see that the threatened calamity did not overtake her.
Florence refused to be intimidated and the nine days passed without incident.
In 1908 Florence continued her hectic schedule. She appeared in that years most popular musical, "The Merry Widow’. It starred Carrie Moore as the widow. Whilst Carrie was applauded for her strong starring role, The Referee said that ‘Miss Young musically was the success of the piece.’ Her duets with Reginald Roberts were singled out for praise. The Merry Widow had a long run in both Sydney and Melbourne.
Another major appearance that year was in ‘The Lady Dandies,’ a Royal Comic Opera production. It starred Florence, Fanny Dango, Claude Bantock and Edmund Sherras.
Miss Florence Young who met with a most cordial welcome, was decidedly imposing
as Ladoiska…and some tuneful songs demonstrated that her voice has by no means
One song , ‘A Woman’s Way’ was written especially for Florence by Charles Keningham. Her fame was such that it was a privilege to compose for her.
1909 was another frantic year for Australia’s queen of comic opera. In February, Florence appeared in the Duchess of Dantzic in Sydney. In early March she played in The Dairymaids and was praised for her ‘charming singing of a ‘A Wild Rose’. It was a mere two months after the passing of George Lauri who had been a much loved member of the company. It was a mark of the company’s professionalism that they could continue to perform so successfully despite the tragedy. Within a week of "The Dairymaids’ the company produced ‘Havana’.
The quick rotation of three musicals in two months was indicative of the fast paced production style of the Royal Comic Opera Company. It was a style that had not changed since the 1890s. In a 1907 interview, Florence dispelled the notion that the life of the company’s members was glamorous.
They say we have easy times of it and that people in the profession do not have a great deal
to exercise their physical and mental reserves. I do not complain that our record of an average
of one opera in less than a month has been too much for me because I love the profession, and
have great capacity for work, being in vigorous health; but it cannot be gainsaid that to
commit the words and music and actions of the principal parts in such a large number of operatic
productions has a wearing effect on the nerves, and is calculated to make a person who is not
robust, nervous and weary.
Often members of the company could not take the strain. George Lauri’s fragile health cracked partly due to this pace. In 1908 during the run of The Dairymaids, Fanny Dango was replaced by Ivy Scott. The reason given was ‘the former lady being too fatigued to appear on account of arduous rehearsals of ‘The Lady Dandies."
In general the Royal Comic Opera Company had a high turnover rate. It was a prestigious company, yet one which required absolute dedication and hard work. Florence’s longevity was a testament to the lady’s talent and her stamina.
By 1909, Florence had many personal connections to the J C Williamson company These may have contributed to her long association with the firm. Her sister Amelia was married to JC Williamson director George Tallis. Sister Gladys was appearing with the Royal Comics and her brother Fred was acting as stage manager for them.. Fred’s son was working on the theatrical staff of Her Majesty’s Melbourne and Mr George Young and his wife Miss Erickson were working for another JC Williamson production. The Melbourne family of a jeweller had become established members of the theatrical community.
Florence’s career continued into the next decade. In 1910 she appeared in The Orchid. According to The Referee, ‘Miss Florence Young had the most cordial reception of the night."
1912 was an important year for Florence. In that year she obtained a friendly divorce from Robert Rivington. Flo was appearing in "The Girl on the Train,’ when served with the petition in Melbourne.
The couple had been separated for several years. According to the petition, Florence had left her husband’s home in St Kilda to stay at the Grand Hotel in Melbourne, after a few years of co habitation. She told him that she wanted to be close to the theatre for rehearsals. Five years later, upon being asked to return, Florence told her husband bluntly, that she was wedded to the stage. The divorce was an amiable one, Florence did not contest the charge of desertion.
Whilst she may have stayed at the Grand Hotel in Melbourne, Florence had another home in Sydney. Called St Malo, it was located at Darling Point. It had a wonderful view of the harbour and was so close that the actress could hear music on the ferries as they sailed past her balcony. She had a maid and a vegetable garden and she took some pride in her green peas.
By this time Florence had become more relaxed about her performances. Where once she would have performed despite ill health, she was now being careful about her voice.
I have come to the conclusion that to sing when your voice is not just as it should be
is like working a good horse to death.
At this stage Florence was interested in leisurely pursuits, stating that her favourite pastime was fishing. She admitted that she did not read a lot and preferred light fiction to serious work. Her favourite roles were those where she played a girl pretending to be boy such as in Paul Jones. That play seemed to be forever in her mind. By this time Theatre Magazine was calling her a ‘veritable queen’ adding that "Australia has never fully realised what a fine artiste and rare voice it possesses in Miss Young."
Although Florence appeared to be satisfied and enjoying her fame, she did not reduce her schedule. In 1914 she formed her own company to perform The Climax. It was a dramatic role and she excelled in it. Her training with the Royal Comic Opera Company had ensured her versatility. She rejoined the company in 1915 and appeared in one of her favourite roles, Paul Jones.
In 1916 she appeared in ‘Gypsy Love’ with the company. Upon arrival in Melbourne for the production she received a gracious gift from a group of gallery girls. They were waiting for her at the station with a beautiful bunch of flowers. Attached to the gift was a card. " To Florence-Young as ever! Welcome back." It was a delightful reminder of Flo’s never ceasing public appeal and a tribute to her personal charm.
Florence continued the hectic working pace up to 1920. She was planning retirement in that year. She told Theatre Magazine that
All going well I shall in November 1920 have seen thirty years of stage life since
beginning with JC Williamson Ltd. Of that period I have worked pretty well twenty
five years for the firm in question.
Florence did not know how many parts she had played for Williamson but estimated that in one year she had played thirty four different roles. She was forty nine years old in 1920 and the stress of performance was beginning to tell.
Florence passed away on November 11th 1920. She had attained thirty years of stage life as she had desired. According to her death certificate she died of a cerebral haemorrhage brought on by exhaustion. There is some suggestion that a car accident, weeks before, contributed to her passing.
Her death was mourned by the whole country. Naturally those in the theatrical profession were most affected. A two page tribute in Theatre Magazine contained the following poem by M Forrest..
The Last Call
Who should not rather go from the arms of Love and Laughter,
With the world’s applause in your ears, to the hush of the vast hereafter.
The curtain suddenly dropped and the lights ablaze on the boards,
Than be shelved with the worn out things to the measure that Age awards
But still by the world’s eye scanned, eagerly too, to the last,
Holding the hands of your friends, and the eyes of your public fast.
Dance and frolic and song…and the sudden call from the dark-
Never the dull grey ash...but the leap of the golden spark
Into the blue she went…as a rocket goes from the earth
And the light that was hers to the end is proof of the woman’s worth;
One note of her song yet lingers…one smile from her merry lips
As she blew to the world’s encores a kiss from her finger tips
She has played to her last ‘full house;’ she has signed for the final time
Footed her last gay dance, and pattered her last neat rhyme
Would she grieve for herself, whose boat in the path of the sun has sailed
With it’s flag still high at the masthead, an artist who never failed
Florence died with the sound of applause in her ears, it was the life she had wanted and she lived it to the full. Theatre Magazine summed it up aptly with a simple sentence
‘It can truthfully be said that in Miss Young, Australia has lost one of the finest , most magnetic musical comedy actresses the world has ever seen.’