Friday, September 2, 2016

MISS LA RUE! WHO ARE YOU? A Gilbert and Sullivan conundrum solved at last.

Lilian La Rue? Oh heavens, that name sounds like something out of a New Orleans drag show. Lily Street, maybe? But airy, fairy Lilian has been a serious mystery to, in particular, Gilbert and Sullivan scholars and students for over a century. Who was she? Should we ever know?

Miss La Rue arrived on the London theatre scene in 1879, and was promptly cast by D’Oyly Carte in the ‘Jessie Bond role’ of Hebe, in his second London touring company of HMS Pinafore, alongside that other (ex-) mystery Emilie Petrelli, as Josephine. In January 1880, she was brought in to the West End company, again playing Hebe and in the forepiece, In the Sulks. She was ‘sprightly and agreeable and sang the music with grace and refinement of style’. When The Pirates of Penzance was produced in London, Lilian was again allotted the mezzo-soprano ‘Jessie Bond role’ of Kate. Thus, her fascination for the G&S historians of today.

 Jessie Bond, as history relates, returned to claim her own, but Lilian was otherwise engaged. She was to join the Carl Rosa Opera Company. ‘Nineteen years old, American …’. Why? Admittedly, Rosa had done, and was still doing, extremely well with American singers – Packard, Julia Gaylord, Josephine Yorke .. but a teenager? Why was she not in Italy ‘perfecting her studies’? Or back in America learning her trade on home ground?

Lilian made her first appearance with the company at Manchester in September 1880, as Mercedes to the Carmen of prima donna Georgina Burns, and progressed to play Frederic in Mignon (‘sang carefully and pleasingly’ ‘sang nicely’, ‘Her voice wants power but she sang spiritedly and with intelligence’) and Fatima in The Cadi (‘makes the best of a not particularly strong or brilliant voice …looks pretty’). Her next role was Lazarillo in Maritana, habitually played by Miss Yorke, the first contralto of the troupe (‘sang well and made a good impression’), but there was more dramatic to come. She was then given the star role of Carmen, originally the property, like Frederic, of the sizzling Selina Dolaro and of such as Zélie Trebelli. Julia Gaylord had played Carmen, and Georgina Burns, and both were still with the company. Why was Lilian being given this plum, rather than those experienced leading ladies?

Her first try was equivocal. ‘Her voice is of peculiar quality … [but] no one can doubt her earnestness of intention’ .. ‘it is not the Carmen of Selina Dolaro, or of Emily Soldene, or even of Julia Gaylord…’. She had weeks in the provinces to work it in, before the Rosas opened (14 January 1882) at London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. On night four, Lilian was introduced as Lazarillo, alongside Miss Burns, Leslie Crotty and J W Turner, and the London critics got to dissect her. ‘She has a good voice, somewhat alloyed in its purity by a faulty production, as well as by needless use of the tremolo, which renders it doubtful at times to determine the exact note she intends to deliver ..’. But they made allowance for first-night nerves and declared her to be by far the best actress or actor in the cast.

Next up was Mignon and her Frederic went down much better, before, 26 January, Miss La Rue brought forth her Carmen. It was a decidedly transatlantic cast: Fred Packard sang Jose and Julia Gaylord, so often the representative of Carmen, was Micaela. The result was quite surprising. She was hailed for ‘a very remarkable performance … an ideal Carmen ...’ ‘Fresh … new … young … different’. But it was her acting that caught them. Her singing was dismissed, at the end of most reviews, as fair enough, at best ‘a mezzo-soprano voice of pleasing quality and a considerable degree of dramatic power’.
‘A refined Carmen of the most fascinating kind; a coquettish, wilful, passionate, vain, captivating little witch, utterly irresistible …’ claimed one paper. Another, disagreeing, felt she played it like a comic opera soubrette. And her singing was just all right. Another preferred her Frederic: ‘Frederic was taken by Miss Lilian La Rue, a debutante, who charmed by her fresh voice and pleasing stage presence, and who afterwards in the more exacting part of Carmen partially retained the good opinion she had won’.
After the London season, the company played at the Crystal Palace and those performances were Lilian’s last with Rosa. Strange? After all the pains taken to establish her as an attraction.

Lilian returned for a while to America, but in October 1883 she was back in London, at the Avenue Theatre, featured in a production based loosely on La Vie Parisienne and a semi-pasticcio Offenbach score.  She played Christine de Gondremarck, now, for ‘proper’ England, the Baron’s daughter rather than his wife. ‘A voice of charming quality … she acts agreeably and has a ladylike appearance’. Not quite the visceral performance of Carmen. ‘No beauty and less voice’ snarled another critic. She played the role through till December, when the show was condensed and Florence St John, ‘the queen of comic opera’ brought in to replace her. Why?

And that was the last that the theatre public, on either side of the pond, saw of Miss Lilian La Rue. Her career had lasted some three years, and left behind nothing but a row of question marks.

Who was Lilian La Rue? Well, of course, I’m going to tell you. Her identity was never revealed in the press, as far as I know, but I found a way round that. What did we know of her? American. Everyone was firm about that. Nineteen (well, maybe a bit more). Where was the Carl Rosa company advertised to sing on census night 1881? Birmingham. Yes, there they were – the Gaylords, Josie Yorke, Georgina Burns, G H Snazelle -- in digs in Bath Street et al. So I simply went through the whole census for Birmingham looking for young American ladies who weren’t servants or daughters. And soon all was explained.

There was only one lady who fitted the bill. She was 25 and not 19 but everything else fitted. And she was actually sharing those digs in Bath Street with Josie and Georgina. Miss Frances Alice Jones, born Ohio. Younger sister of Miss Josie Jones ka Yorke. So that was how she had crossed the ocean, that was how she had swanned into the Carl Rosa, that was why Miss Yorke had given up to her the role of Lazarillo. The prima donna contralto’s little sister. Miss Jones, fourth daughter of the soap manufacturer from Cincinnati.

And the other end of the story? Well, the girls returned to America where Josie had been contracted to the Mapleson company. They made the papers when they got robbed in a New York hotel. Josie would go back to England and more career, but not Fanny.

Frances Alice Jones died in Cincinnati, aged 30, in 1885.

So, there’s one more Gilbert and Sullivan ‘mystery’ solved. We can now write:
LA RUE, Lillian [JONES, Frances Alice] (b Cincinnati, Ohio c 1855; d Cincinnati 22 June 1885)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


There I was, at my desk, working away at the story of Jenny Busk, Batimore soprano, when ... Suddenly there was a crash, just east of my right elbow ..

What in the .... my heart was in my voicebox ... a dragon! Or something out of Jurassic Park. Sitting on top of Sevvy's cook book!

And .. oh dear! Just yesterday, after all my travels, I decided it was time I got myself a nice picture of Wendy, and a nice picture of Paul, to decorate my home. Some lovely yellow frames from Beachside Bargains, nice prints from Yamba Photographic,
and last night they took their place on my desk.

And now they've been sent flying onto their faces by ... by a dragon.

I ran for help ... and a broom ...

These things DON'T run. They sit like statues for hours ...

I've got him on to the terrasse. He's alternating between scratching on the doors to get back in, or hurling himself against them (it's glass! don't dragons learn abour glass) and WADDLING like a top-speed dinasour round and round the balcony, scaring the mynah birds ...

Argh. Go away!

NOW where is he ...?


Friday, August 26, 2016

VANISHING ETHEL: or, New Zealand's first prima donna

Who will solve this mystery for me ....?

CORLETT[E], Ethel aka ZELDA, Adelina (b Raglan, New Zealand c 1866; d unknown).

‘New Zealand’s first homegrown prima donna’. Well, yes, I suppose so. At that stage in time, people were coming to New Zealand, not leaving it. But Signora Zelda would have been a ten-line article, had I not fallen for her mother.

The story of the Corlett family, or the part of its history I’ve managed to unfold, is colourful. It also has no beginning and no end. Yet.

In 1859, the ship Mermaid from Liverpool to Auckland included among its 357 passengers a Mr and Mrs Corlett. Who they were, and from whence they came, I have simply not been able to discover. The ‘evidence’ is dramatically conflicting. In the one census in which I find her, Mrs T[h]eresa J[osephine] Corlett claimed to have been born in Portugal. Her children, in later censi, say their father was born in Spain and their mother in the Isle of Man. Another time they are both ‘English’. The most likely comes in 1900 when three of them (oh! I don’t think it’s they) give their parents’ birthplaces as Isle of Man (where Corletts flourish) and Ireland (where Theresas do likewise). Alas, daughter Nellie, in the same census, opts for France and Portugal. What seems obvious, is that there was some sort of irregularity to hide.

 Mrs Corlett[e] became a notable from her arrival in Auckland. She was ‘a pupil of Garcia’, a ‘soprano of great compass and flexibility’ and a pianist, and on 22 February 1860, she gave a concert at Auckland’s Mechanics Hall. And then a second ‘As a vocalist Mrs Corlett is one of the most finished we have ever heard in Auckland ..’. The Auckland Choral Society snapped her up as star soprano (Israel in Egypt, ‘Softly Sighs’), she advertised for pupils from her Hobson Street home, and moved in no time into a premier position in Auckland’s musical world, promoting regular concerts (‘Miserere’, ‘The Convent Cell’, ‘Softly Sighs’, ‘Kathleen Mavourneen, Little Nell’, ‘Barney O’Hea etc).

And Mr Corlett? Mr Cellophane. You could be excused for thinking he didn’t exist. He must have, for Mrs C produced five children over the next decade plus, before she and they (but not he) headed for America, in 1875. You would have thought that in the local papers of the 1860s … but I find only one mention. In 1870. ‘Evening School, Ghuznee St, Te Aro, conducted by Mr and Mrs Corlett’.

So he did exist. But who was he? There are two prominent Mr C’s around (Mr Benjamin and Mr Claude), but both of them have wives, so … I guess he was rather less than prominent.

After having been queen of Auckland music for a year or so, however, Mrs C seems to have moved away. Husband’s job? I see her at Onehunga (‘I remember when I sat under the peach trees…’), Otahuhu, Thames, and then, more semi-permanently at Raglan, in the Waikato. And the history of Raglan tells us ‘The first Raglan school was a private one run by Mrs Corlett in a tent commencing in 1866.’ It was in Raglan that child nuber four, Ethel, was born. There was one more to come. Harry Moore Corlett. Seemingly in 1870. And then Mrs C moves to Wellington. With or without husband? Dead or otherwise disposed of. Anyway, she opens a Music Academy in Molesworth Street, not Ghuznee Street. In parallel, she opened another Academy teaching fancy work, wax flowers and ferns (she won many a prize for her wax flowers), leather work, Italian painting, ornamental needlework, gilding, promoted Mrs Corlett’s singing classes, taught at the Thorndon Private School, and under the thin pseudonym of ‘Silver Pen’ began writing sentimental verse and spiky political sketches in jolly doggerel for the Wellington Independent. She seems, in the process, to have made a few friends and the odd enemy in the corridors of petty pakeha power.

In 1875, ‘She broke up her home in Wellington despite the remonstrances of [Hon Dr Grace], and with her 5 children started for New South Wales and from there to San Francisco determined to earn a living and a name by the exercise of her brains’. Grace smiled that she had ‘sixteen drops of the devil’s blood in her’, which sounds about right.

On 17 May they left on the Edwin Fox, then the Ravenstonedale, destination America. In August, they stopped at Hawaii, which welcomed ‘a lady of culture and accomplishments .. with much skill as a vocalist’. On 21 August she and eldest daughter, Theresa jr (b Auckland 8 March 1863), ‘under the patronge of the King', gave a ‘Musical Concert and Recitation', at Honolulu Theatre.

21 January 1876 the two ladies gave ‘an evening of poetry and song’ at San Francisco’s Pacific Hall, in no time the two of them were manufacturing wax flowers, and … oh, no! At last! A series of concerts were announced to be directed by Mrs J S Corlett! Are those initials for real? Mrs Corlett can be seen reading her poetry at the Temperance League, exhibiting her wax creations at the Mechanic Institute Fair, at the same time as writing newspaper copy for the local press and a column in the vein of Emily Soldene’s ‘London Week by Week’ for the New Zealand Herald. And, of course, preparing her three daughters for a career. In 1879, Theresa took the part of Hebe in a West Coast Pinafore and Nellie debuted as Desdemona at a local carnival.

Neither Theresa nor Nellie had a prominent career in the theatre. Theresa married in 1885 Edward Batchelder Thompson, and died at the age of 38. Nellie was still ‘Helen Corlette, actress’ in 1900. Herbert (‘dog handler’) and Harry (‘manager of the Electric Light and Gas Co’) didn’t go into the theatre. Or even wax flowers. All mother’s hopes were on Ethel. And Ethel was promising.

When W T Carleton paid one of his visits to San Francisco (Teresa had appeared locally with him before), Ethel sang for him and was cast in the chorus of his touring company, understudying Louise Paullin as Nanon and Yum-Yum. And in Boston, Miss Paullin was off. And Miss Corlette was on. And she did splendidly, so the press (ie mother) reported. She appeared in several musical comedy companies (Donnelly and Girard’s Natural Gas, Harrigan’s Pete), and in December 1890 Theresa decided to take her to Europe. Apparently to study (although mama went into print to deny that her daughter had any other teacher but herself) and hopefully to work. The ship list registers Miss Ethel Corlett 21 single and Mrs Helen Corlett 51 married. So mama is Helen now? And … married? I see them (still ‘Helen’, or is this Nellie?) travelling back to America in 1891. Ethel, mama reports to the News Letter, has been taking lessons with Anna Lagrange in Paris. While she was at home, I see her singing Agathe in Der Freischütz at the San Francisco Grand.

And then it was back to Italy. And a change of name. Her teacher (but surely that was mama?) christened her ‘Adelina Zelda’. Mlle Zelda started to appear on Italian stage, it seems, in 1894. There are undated reports of her at Bassano, in the Vicenza press, and making a debut at Malta as ‘the star of an Italian opera company’ in Lucia di Lammermoor and Faust. The press paras, which had nothing of the puff about them (mother knew better), were undoubtedly sent by Theresa. The Malta engagement, we are told by other sources, was for five nights. San Francisco said six months. Mother records that she had sung Filina, Dinorah, Amina and Rosina (somewhere) but oddly doesn’t mention Lucia and Marguerite.  Anyway, I guess she had now won her spurs as New Zealand’s first prima donna.
The next job was a jump-in, at Pavia, alongside the well-known tenor Oxilia. ‘The part of Lucia was assumed, without rehearsal, by the young diva, Adeline Zelda, who so often obtained ovations at the Royal Theater, Malta, in the same opera and in Faust. ‘To a pleasing and elegant appearance [she] joins a flexible and velvety voice and a most finished method of singing. She pronounces Italian perfectly and has extraordinary dramatic intuition’. ‘Signorina Zelda, in addition to an aristocratic figure, has a voice that is perfect in all the registers … her vocal agility is extraordinary and she has the true dramatic sensitiveness.’ Doubtless, mother again, but these were quotes.

And then utter disaster struck. Theresa Josephine Corlett caught cold and died, 17 December 1895, in Milan.

Mother was obviously the driving force of the family. Ethel brought her ashes back to California and …. and there, seemingly, ends the story of New Zealand’s first prima donna.

I wonder what became of her. Maybe I’ll find out, one day. And mama … who WAS she, that rather remarkable woman, singer and suffragette, writer, poet, political satirist, mother, teacher … there’s the stuff of a whole book in ‘Mrs Corlett’…

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Not so very many years ago, two young students, already laurelled, each one, with considerable success, entered the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, Australia. 
Paul from Grafton, NSW (piano) and Fiora from Launceston, Tasmania (soprano) quickly became best buddies, which meant, of course, being musicians, they made much beautiful music together. 

Everything from ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ to the songs of Copland …

And for a change from Strauss or Copland, they manufactured their own material

And it so happened that both of them, separately, moved out into the big wide musical world … and just happened to end up in the same place. Berlin, Germany.

Which is where I come in. On my second day in Berlin (ever, the first was Das Vetter aus dingsda), Dr Kevin Clarke took me to a concert at the Bar Jeder Vernunft. Australians? I come to Berlin to hear Australians? Paul in a new guise as singer-songwriter ‘Montmorensy’, Fiora backing him with stratospheric sopranoisms. 

I was blown away, and I rushed into print ...

Montmorensy went on to record a CD (Writ in Water), which became the joy of the cognoscenti, and then quietly slipped away to turn himself back into the pianist and composer, Paul Hankinson.

Fiora stepped out from the ooh-aah desk and up into the limelight, touring the world as the featured vocalist with DJ Armin van Buuren to hordes of screaming fans …

And when she wasn’t touring, and he wasn’t away playing Haydn, Beethoven, Britten et al, and premiering his piano quintet (To Cross the Bay) in Australia…

the pair coincidentally both ended up in the Hochstrasse, Berlin. Living across a courtyard from each other. It wasn’t long before the string and a tin can were in operation. And the result? A few years on from ‘Pierrot’. Another song together. ‘Human Race’. Out this week, and already heading for the Top 100 in Russia!

You start off with ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ and you end up on the Russian hit parades, and itunes, and Spotify, and soundcloud and all those places I’ve never been …  

Music, music, music ...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A day in the lovely life ....

We had breakfast with the birds (‘Martha, put your tongue in, the next bit of bread is MINE’)

 We went walking out on the breakwater, where the critturs live and the waves swirl and the sunshine glitters

And where sometimes you catch a blackfish

 We looked over the blue waters, back at home ..

 And the birds flew and the sea shone

And we came home and dipped into the complete works of Sevtap Yüce and …

 No ‘we’ this time! Paulie made the most delicious Seve-Turkish dinner. I just poured the wine …

 Good night, sweet world …