"Do you hear that?"
Hilary Oliver is listening to a 1928 live recording of dramatic soprano Florence Austral, as her voice soars in the Royal Opera House at London's Covent Garden.
"It's like 'ding!', like the tap of a bell, and it just rings out," Ms Oliver says. "When you hear this voice, it's absolutely incredible."
Hilary Oliver, herself a former opera singer, doesn't understand why that voice of Florence Austral hasn't reverberated through the years to be better known.
In the 1920s and 1930s, she sang in the great halls of Europe and the United States. She also made more than 100 recordings.
Fellow Melbourne-born singer and global conqueror of opera houses, Dame Nellie Melba, said of Austral, she has "one of the wonder voices of the world".
After returning to Australia and working in Melbourne, Austral moved to Newcastle in 1952 to become the first singing teacher at the city's new conservatorium.
When she arrived in what was an industrial city, the Newcastle Morning Herald reported "Madame Austral" was "recognised as Australia's greatest dramatic soprano".
"I want to be associated with such an organisation which is starting from scratch," Florence Austral reportedly told the newspaper.
Hilary Oliver says the move to Newcastle for Florence Austral would not have been easy, as she was confronting challenges in her life, including battling multiple sclerosis.
"I would imagine it was very hard, because by this stage, she was 60 years of age, she was unwell, she had no money, her marriage had failed ... and her voice was shot," Ms Oliver says. "It was gone."
Florence Austral taught at the conservatorium until 1959, lived in Merewether and died in 1968 in a nursing home at Mayfield.
"People should know this great, great artist lived in Newcastle," says Hilary Oliver. "Listen to that voice. It is glorious.
"I say she was the successor to Melba and the predecessor to Joan Sutherland."
Since following in Austral's footsteps and moving to Newcastle about six years ago, Hilary Oliver has been championing the diva.
Ms Oliver wants the city to honour Austral and the other original conservatorium teachers with a monument in Civic Park, where music was taught in an old military hut. She is also planning an exhibition for next year to highlight the life and singing of Florence Austral.
But before then, Ms Oliver is singing Florence Austral's praises, by holding a talk - and playing some of the diva's recordings - at the Newcastle University of the Third Age's 30th anniversary event.
Ms Oliver is one of 15 tutors involved in the three-week program. Titled "Learn, Laugh, Live", the talks are designed to celebrate 30 years of education for older people, or those in the "third age" of life, in Newcastle.
Hilary Oliver's presentation, to be delivered on November 19, is titled, "Florence Austral - Our Forgotten Diva".
The Newcastle's U3A's celebrations, which began this week, could have easily been lost as well in the face of a pandemic.
Program coordinator Elizabeth Elliott says more than a year of planning had gone into the 30th anniversary event, "but COVID put a great big hole through that".
"That we've got to this stage and can present at least part of what was planned is wonderful," Ms Elliott says.
Since March, the Newcastle U3A has been holding online courses, but the 30th anniversary program has seen the return of face-to-face presentations, in the digital library at the city council's new headquarters in Stewart Avenue. A number of the sessions are also being live streamed.
The presentations' subjects are diverse, ranging from Newcastle in the 1800s and 3D printing to Japanese culture and the impact of climate change on Australian agriculture.
And, as Elizabeth Elliott points out, there is an overarching theme running through the program, as everyone has dealt with COVID-19.
"You have to realise, no matter what, life has to go on, and to make life as normal as we can make it," she says.
Hilary Oliver has spent much of her time during the pandemic researching Florence Austral's life, and listening to old recordings of her singing. That voice has provided Ms Oliver with a panacea to deal with the COVID blues.
"If I'm feeling a bit, you know, you can just listen to this, and just be transported into the beauty of the voice," Hilary Oliver says.
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