This Thursday is National Women’s Day, so here is the story of the remarkable operatic achievements 100 years ago of a Boro lass who became known as 'the Nightingale of South Bank'

O mio babbino caro,
mi piace è bello, bello;
vo'andare in Porta Rossa
a comperar l'anello!

ONE hundred years ago, Giacomo Puccini’s newest opera, Gianni Schicchi, was rapturously received on its world premiere at the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

One critic hailed it as an “uproarious delight” while another said that "the undoubted pearl of the evening" was the female lead, Lauretta, singing the aria O Mio Babbino Caro.

A studio recording of Florence Easton singing O Mio Babbino Caro in 1918

That pearl was the Nightingale of South Bank, the songbird of Slaggy Island, Florence Easton, who a centenary ago was the biggest female opera star on the planet.

As this Thursday is International Women’s Day, when the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women are celebrated, it can never have been more appropriate to tell of Flossie’s extraordinary rise from the steelworking and shipbuilding settlement on the south bank of the Tees, especially as later this year selections from her extensive repertoire will once again be heard in her hometown of Middlesbrough.

She was born in Napier Street in 1882, a street name that lives on although Flossie would recognise none of it. Today from the A66, the tower of St Peter’s Church is a landmark, but it was built in 1903 on the site of the 1874 Catholic church which was near Flossie’s home at No 52. All the surrounding houses and streets appear to have been replaced in the 1970s.

Flossie’s father, John, did not work in South Bank’s traditional industries which revolved around Bolckow and Vaughan’s steelworks – the place’s nickname of Slaggy Island came about because it was surrounded by slagheaps. The Cleveland Chemical Works, which distilled tar, added a bit of variety to the industrial scene, and from 1907, Smiths Dock made South Bank its shipbuilding headquarters.

Instead, John was a newspaperman, working as a reporter for the North Star and the Middlesbrough Exchange. Both were Conservative newspapers which competed against the Liberal papers of The Northern Echo and the Teesside Gazette. The Star was published in Darlington’s Crown Street, in what is now a fruit and veg shop, just a few yards from the Echo’s headquarters.

Flossie seems to have inherited the musical talents of her mother, Isabella, who was a soprano singer, although the only record of her performing says that she fainted on the stage at South Bank Town Hall.

When Flossie was five, the family escaped Slaggy Island by emigrating to Canada, where the young girl began appearing as a pianist. But she also become “violently ill” and after an operation ended up in a body splint. The splint was removed when she was 16 and she taught herself to walk again, although her piano studies were hampered because she couldn’t use the pedals. Throughout her life, she was “slightly crippled”, although her disability was hidden from her legions of fans.

In 1899, Isabella died, and Flossie returned with her father to South Bank, where his father still had a wholesale fruit merchants. She quickly became the apple of the eye of the local community which raised enough money to send her to the Royal Academy of Music in London.

However, on the day she was due to enrol, she mislaid her fees and her father had to bail her out again.

Then in 1902, he died, and her grandmother summoned her back to South Bank from Paris, where she was studying.

Flossie later said: "My grandparents had good old-fashioned ideas that a woman's place to sing was in the home, and discouraged my efforts. They even selected a husband for me. When this point had been reached, I quietly disappeared, and once more went back to my vocal work."

She joined the Moody Manners Opera Company, made her debut in Newcastle as a shepherd boy in Wagner’s Tannhauser, and also appeared at the Middlesbrough Opera House before heading to Covent Garden. She took her first lead role in 1905, in The Bohemian Girl, and married an American opera singer, Francis MacLennan. Together they toured north America where the critics hailed her as the "voice of girlish romance".

Her big break came in 1906 when she was asked to play the lead in the US premiere of Puccini's Madame Butterfly – she held the world record for playing Cio-Cio-San more than 300 times, and it was her favourite role.

She and Francis returned to Europe to sing at the Berlin Royal Opera, where Kaiser Wilhelm immediately became her biggest fan. When the First World War broke out, he personally ensured her safety, but in 1915 she fled with her husband to Chicago.

Her dalliance with the enemy did not harm her reputation. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, she was paid $900-a-performance (that, according to our rough conversions, is worth £11,500 today), and her career peaked 100 years ago with the premiere in New York of O Mio Babbino Caro (My Beloved Papa).

It is one of Puccini's best loved arias. Even the untuned ear will recognise it, and it became her signature tune. In the verse above, she’s telling her dear father that, despite his disapproval, she’s so desperate to marry her boyfriend that she’s dashing off to Porta Rossa to buy a wedding ring.

Amazingly, you can still hear her singing it beautifully in a scratchy 1918 recording on YouTube although, apparently, her Italian pronunciation is appalling.

Flossie was now at the peak of her professional career – although, tragically, her daughter Wilhelmina died in 1919 during the post-war influenza epidemic which led to the break-up of her marriage.

The Nightingale of South Bank was a global star. She had a wonderfully light voice and an amazing musical memory. Her co-star, Enrico Caruso, said of her: “Her head is like a music box. She takes off the lid, takes out one record and puts in another.”

The Northern Echo said: “She had her greatest triumphs in the opera houses of Germany and America. Her repertoire was exceptional and she sang in four languages.”

She retired from New York and life performances in 1943, and settled with her second husband in Montreal where she died, aged 72, in 1955.

In its obituary, the Echo said: “She was one of the most outstanding and versatile singers of her generation.”

  • On Friday, December 7, professional soprano Helena Leonard returns to Middlesbrough with her tribute to Florence Easton. Helena sings some of Flossie’s favourite numbers at the Town Hall. Tickets will soon be on sale through the Middlesbrough Town Hall website.