William Saurin Lyster 1828-1880

William Saurin Lyster

William Saurin Lyster

William Saurin Lyster was an Irishman, the son of an army captain. He was born in Dublin on 21 March 1828.

In September 1854 he appeared in The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret, the opening attraction at the new Boston Theatre.

 

The grand opera man

In 1878 the usually acerbic Melbourne critic J.F. Neild described the operatic impresario
William Saurin Lyster as ‘part of the musical history of the colony… and when this record shall be set forth, he will occupy a principal place in it.’

There are many reasons to remember the year 1861. In the United States, Lincoln became president, the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and the notorious Lola Montez died in poverty in New York; in Britain, Queen Victoria mourned the death of her consort, Prince Albert; in France, cinema pioneer Georges Méliès was born; and, in Australia, Robert O’Hara Burke perished in the desert, Charles Sturt set out to cross the country from south to north, the first bridge over the Murray was built, gold was found in Forbes, Archer won the first Melbourne Cup, we welcomed the first visiting English cricket team, and Nellie Melba was born. And, at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 25 March, the curtain rose on Lucia di Lammermoor. It was the Australian debut of William Saurin Lyster’s Royal English and Italian Opera Company, and it marked the start of the two decades in which this tall, bearded, charismatic Irishman dominated opera in the Australian colonies and in New Zealand.

Tall, dark, splendidly bearded and charismatic, William Saurin Lyster was an Irishman, the son of an army captain. He was born in Dublin on 21 March 1828. Weakened from a severe illness, he was still in his teens when his parents sent him off on a whaling boat to regain his health. It was during this voyage, in 1842, that he first visited Melbourne, then a fledgling settlement just seven years old. He returned to Dublin, only to set forth, at age 18, to become an indigo planter in India. Next he tried his luck in South Africa, fighting as a volunteer in the Kaffir war.

In 1848 he sailed for America with two of his brothers, Frederick and Mark; Mark fell overboard and drowned, and Frederick made his New York stage debut singing in Fra Diavolo. William, seeking something more adventurous, went to Nicaragua, where he and a group of mercenaries were successful in overthrowing the government, at least temporarily. His next job was similarly adventurous, though slightly less dangerous: he became an actor. In September 1854 he appeared in The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret, the opening attraction at the new Boston Theatre. In 1857 William and Frederick formed a touring opera company. Frederick was conductor and his wife, Rosalie Durand, was one of the sopranos; another member of the company was mezzo Georgia (or sometimes Georgina) Hodson, a sister of London actress Fanny Hodson.

Biographical references

Alison Gyger: Civilising the Colonies, Pellinor, 1999
Harold Love: James Edward Neild, Melbourne University Press, 1989
Harold Love: The Golden Age of Opera in Australia, Currency Press, 1981
Sally O'Neill, Thérèse Radic: ‘William Saurin Lyster’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 5, Melbourne University Press