The Gilbert and Sullivan Newsletter Archive


No 39 -- Winter 1992–3     Edited by Michael Walters


by Michael Walters

In common with most London Theatres of the day, the Savoy was effectively a stock company. Many Victorian theatres became associated with a particular style or type of entertainment to attract a regular public which would return to that theatre to see whatever was performed – just as today some listeners remain permanently tuned to a particular radio or TV channel. Similarly, many actors remained at a particular theatre for long periods of time, and their presence, together with the need to provide them with suitable parts to play, often dictated the choice of repertoire. Indeed, it may very well be that the literary poverty of a great deal of nineteenth century theatre writing was at least partly due to the restrictions placed upon authors in being required to write parts that would show off the talents of particular actors and actresses. Plays were in effect the equivalent of episodes of sit–coms or soap operas. Against this background, the achievement of Gilbert and Sullivan in producing something that was not only of popular appeal, but also of lasting value, is the more remarkable. To what extent were the performers of Gilbert's company responsible for the form which the operas took? I think their influence has been greatly underrated. There are certain casting ingredients which are present in all the full length G&S operas. There is always a patter–baritone, a heavier comic baritone, a heavy contralto, a soprano (heroine) and a tenor (usually, but not always, young and romantic), and in the earlier operas, a straight dramatic bass–baritone. This category of part disappeared after The Yeomen of the Guard when Richard Temple left the company. All this was of course partly dictated by what audiences had come to expect, but also, I believe, to a great extent by the talents of the members of the company. It is noteworthy that Trial by Jury, written before the permanent company was established, contains few of the elements mentioned above. It has a tenor and soprano of course, but so do virtually all operas, and the roles of the Judge and Usher do not equate exactly (in my view) with any of the baritone roles found in later operas. It is also worth noting that none of the original cast of Trial by Jury created roles in any subsequent opera, though it is probable that Frederic Sullivan (the Judge) would have done so had he lived.

Several myths surrounding the casting of the operas need to be exploded. One is that Gilbert used only inexperienced players that he could mould to his own ideas. This is true in a number of cases, but many of the Savoy performers had considerable experience, and there is no evidence that Gilbert found them intractable, or that their presence had a bad effect on the play. Examination only of an actor's career at the Savoy can and has led some researchers astray. For instance, Cox–Ife, in W.S. GilbertStage Director, examined the cast of The Sorcerer in some detail, and suggested that Giulia Warwick, who created Constance, appeared no more at the Savoy because Gilbert probably found her difficult to handle. This is not so. Her reasons for leaving, as for joining, were financial.

Gilbert's tyranny regarding stage business and ad libbing has been exaggerated. Comparison of the first night texts with the final versions and Gilbert's prompt books in the British Library indicates the addition of many lines, frequently of an interjectory nature, to the original text. The prompt books contain many that never made it into a published text, but were neverthless quite obviously in use in Gilbert's lifetime. It seems probable that many of these were suggested by the actors themselves (and of course agreed to by Gilbert); support for this is that in some instances the original is better from a purely literary point of view, but probably less effective in performance.

Alice May, who created Aline in The Sorcerer, was said to be Australian but also claimed to be English. She arrived in London the previous year after some publicity; the Illustrated London News of 29 April 1876 announced:

Alice May, the young English prima donna, who has appeared with success at Madras and elsewhere, is about to return to London to make her debut here.

This was slightly premature, however, for less than a month later the Musical World of 20 May reported that she had been detained in India. The launch taking her wardrobe (worth a thousand pounds) ashore from the steamer "Patri" sank! She played the role of Aline for less than two months, after which she left the cast and never appeared again under D'Oyly Carte management. She is usually considered to be one of the D'Oyly Carte Company's "failures". The inference from the rather mixed press reports is that she was indeed a prima donna. Photographs of her in the role suggest that she was not pretty, but that she was a large buxom girl with a large buxom face and very probably with a large buxom voice. This is hardly the picture of the virginal Aline that emerges from Gilbert's text.

The real name of Giulia Warwick (1857–1904) was Julia Ehrenberg, her stage name came from her birthplace, Warwick Street, Regent's Park! Her father was a Polish Jew, and she and her two sisters were very musical. Julia was originally intended to be a pianist, having appeared at the Hanover Rooms as early as 1869, when only 12 years of age. She then studied singing under Sainton Dolby and Maurice Garcia, after which, in 1876, she joined the Carl Rosa Company, taking such roles as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Arline in Balfe's The Bohemian Girl and the title role in Beethoven's Fidelio. "Her success was unquestionable" said the Era. Carte apparently offered her more money than Rosa so she was then engaged to play Constance in The Sorcerer, later succeeding Alice May as Aline. When this production terminated she returned to Carl Rosa because he offered her yet more money to continue singing in Carmen and other operas. She also appeared in Herold's Zampa with such singers as G.H. Snazelle, Henry Nordblom, Charles Lyall, Georgina Burns and Carl Rosa's second wife. Miss Warwick then played Ann Chute in Benedict's The Lily of Kilarney, and sang in an English adaptation of Ponchielli's I Promessi Sposi. On 7 February 1884 she created Jessamine in the English adaptation of Robert Planquette's Nell Gwynne at the Avenue Theatre. She then set off on a long provincial tour as the lead in Falka, and took over the role of Fraisette in The Old Guard from Marion Edgcumbe. Next came Etelka in Nadgy. She played Isadora in The Black Rover and in a number of other musical plays including Barbara in The Belle of Cairo. She retired from the stage to become a professor of music at the Guildhall School of Music, resigning from there at Christmas 1902 to found her own vocal school. She died on 13 (or 15, accounts differ) July 1904, aged 47, and was buried in Willesden Jewish Cemetery.

Emma Howson, who created Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore, had a grand opera background, and is alleged to have requested Sullivan to write "The hours creep on apace" so as to give her a quasi–grand operatic aria to sing. We cannot be sure that this claim is correct, but it is certain that no song in this style appears in any later opera, and it is likely that the particular qualities of Miss Howson's voice dictated the actual music. She did not appear with the D'Oyly Carte again. The next role, Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, was again created by a soprano (or rather two) who did not subsequently appear with the company – Marion Hood in London, and Blanche Roosevelt in New York. The music for this role is again unique, the florid coloratura music of "Poor wandering One" was not to occur again in G&S. But, much as one would like to believe that the role was written for one or other of these ladies, there is no supporting evidence. Reginald Allen (First Night Gilbert and Sullivan) stated fairly categorically that although Blanche Roosevelt claimed the role was written for her, this was not the case and in fact she was not particularly suited to it. It would be good to believe that it was written for Marion Hood, for she apparently was eminently suited to it, but alas, she was not engaged until after the role had been written!

Marion Hood (1853–1912) was a rather tragic figure, for she had a bitterly unhappy life though this was never reflected in her stage performances. Her real name was Marion Isaac and she made her debut in 1876 at the Alhambra Music Hall in her native city of Hull. When she was still very young she was obliged to sing on the halls to earn a living, and was married to Mr. Hunt, the proprietor of the Alhambra, apparently not entirely at her own wish. She then came to London to study at the Royal College of Music and it was while there that she happened to attend a rehearsal of The Pirates of Penzance, and was coincidentally introduced to Gilbert who was said to have been "taken by her girlish charm". So he asked her to sing, and she obliged with the Shadow Song "Ombra leggera" from Meyerbeer's Dinorah, an impressive piece of coloratura. On the strength of this he engaged her for the role of Mabel. Her marriage to Mr. Hunt must by now have been terminated, for shortly after The Pirates of Penzance she married a Mr. Hesseltine and temporarily retired from the stage. She resumed her career in 1881, appearing in Claude Duval at the Olympic Theatre. In 1883 she was at the Alhambra in The Golden Ring and the following year at the same theatre in Millcher's Der Bettelstudent.

The next few soprano roles were all created by Leonora Braham (for details of whose life, see Robert Binder's excellent series of articles in The Palace Peeper), and in all of these (with one exception) the music is gentler, more lyrical, more English–ballad style. The roles created by Miss Braham were Patience, Phyllis, Princess Ida, Yum–Yum and Rose Maybud. The exception referred to is Princess Ida, a rather spectacularly dramatic role which was written for the American soprano Lillian Russell, who, however, never played it. Miss Braham's successor was Geraldine Ulmar, another American.

Of the sopranos who created roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Geraldine Ulmar is one of the most enigmatic. Those who knew her spoke highly of her as a person, and she seems to have been popular with the public. On the other hand, some of the Press were not enthusiastic about her in Gilbert and Sullivan, the general impression seems to be that she had a large, but not excessively beautiful, voice. She was born in 1862 in Boston, USA, and was devoted to the study of music from early childhood. For six years, from the age of seventeen onwards, she was a member of the Boston Ideal Opera Company. Then in the autumn of 1885 she joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company which was playing The Mikado in New York. She came to England in 1886 with this company where she toured as Josephine and Yum–Yum, but in February 1887 returned to America to create Rose Maybud in the first American production of Ruddigore. She was brought back to London in May to take over the role at the Savoy. She then played Josephine, Mabel and Yum–Yum at revivals, and created Elsie Maynard and Gianetta. She left Savoy management after the production of The Gondoliers and went to the Lyric Theatre, where she played Marton in Audran's La Cigale, and created Teresa in The Mountebanks. She played the title role in Cigarette which she took over from Florence Bankhardt part way through the run, and was Guinevere Block in Little Christopher Columbus, again at the Lyric. She retired from the stage in the 1890s and devoted herself to teaching singing. She died in 1932, after a long illness.

It is difficult to assess the next soprano, Nancy McIntosh, whose stage career was confined to appearances in operas written by Gilbert! She too, was American, being born in Cleveland, Ohio, but passed most of her early life in Pittsburg. She was described as an expert horsewoman, had won prizes in sculling matches, could shoot and fence, played baseball and cricket and enjoyed swimming and diving, clearly a recipe for the "English Girl" of Goldbury's song in Utopia Ltd. Her father was the president of a commercial company in New York, and she came to London to study music with George (later Sir George) Henschel with the idea of becoming a concert singer. He had introduced her to the London public at a symphony concert where she had sung in Beethoven's Choral Symphony and selections from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. At a party at Henschel's house Gilbert met and was at once struck by her, or, as some have implied, infatuated. He engaged her for the leading soprano role in Utopia Ltd., apparently completely redesigning the opera to accommodate her, and subsequently adopted her as his daughter and heir. She had a comparatively short stage career; the reasons for this have never been clear and have been the subject of speculations and unfounded comments in the G&S literature.

Gilbert planned his next opera, His Excellency, to be played at the Savoy, and in John Wolfson's opinion the reason it was not (in other words, the reason why Sullivan declined to set it) was because Gilbert insisted that Nancy McIntosh be given a part. A revival of The Mikado had been intended to follow Utopia Ltd. as a stop gap till the new opera was ready, but Gilbert would only consent to it being played if Miss McIntosh was permitted to play Yum–Yum. Sullivan refused; his refusal apparently occurring on 13 March 1894, as quoted by Miss McIntosh in her diary. Gilbert then approached George Henschel to set His Excellency but this proposal also fell through. Eventually the opera was composed by Osmund Carr. A pre–publication copy of the libretto in the British Library contains a number of extra scenes involving Christina, the character played by Miss McIntosh. These were dropped from the final version of the opera. Many years later Miss McIntosh was to create a permanent rift between Gilbert and C.H. Workman. The former wrote the chief role in his last opera, Fallen Fairies, for her; and Edward German the composer allegedly approved of the casting. Workman was business manager for the production as well as playing the leading male role. Apparently at the insistence of a backer, Workman defied the wishes of Gilbert and tried to engage Elsie Spain for the role. Gilbert was furious. Workman dithered and then agreed, but after the piece had been open for a week he sacked Nancy and recast the role with Amy Evans. Miss McIntosh never appeared on stage again. After Gilbert's death she lived in Kensington until her death in the early 1950s, apparently still living on her memories, a curious anachronism who continued to do her shopping dressed in black Victorian costume.

Other sopranos who appeared at the Savoy included Leonore Snyder (yet another American) who was panned by the critics when she created the soprano leads in The Vicar of Bray and The Nautch Girl; and Lucille Hill, a fine but now forgotten singer who played Dorothy Vernon in Haddon Hall. She had previously sung such roles as Micaela in Carmen and Nedda in Pagliacci. No less an authority than the conductor Sir Henry Wood spoke glowingly in his autobiography of her "warm, rich, soprano voice" (Alas, it was never committed to disc). Then there was Florence St. John, who saved the inferior opera Mirette (by the French composer Messager) with her excellent performance; the two previous incumbents of the role, Maude Ellicott and Kate Rolla, having been disasters. Florence St. John remained to create Rita in The Chieftain, and was brought back some years later to play the title role in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, a part which requires a singer with virtually a full contralto and soprano range.

Meanwhile, the last Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Grand Duke brought another "guest" soprano to the Savoy, Madame Ilka Palmay, in a role absolutely tailor–made for her, as discussed by John Wolfson in Final Curtain. Ilka Palmay was born on 21 September 1864 in Kaschau. Her date of death is unknown. She is variously said to have been the daughter of an engineer called Palmay or to have been born Ilka Petrss, taking the stage name of Palmay because her father refused to allow her to use the family name. She appeared on several Hungarian stages in musical productions, notably in Kaschau, Budapest and Klausenburg, and from 1890, having learned German, was in Vienna at the Theatre an der Wien where she created roles in such operettas as Strauss's Frsten Ninetta and Zeller's Der Vogelhndler. It was at this time that she met the Austrian Count Eugen Kinsky with whom she contracted her second marriage – the first had been an unsuccessful one to an Hungarian actor–manager, Josef Szigheti. In 1893 she moved to the Unter den Linden Theater in Berlin, where Sullivan tried to prevent her from appearing as Nanki–Poo. After her marriage she settled down for some time with her husband on his estate at Althofen in Carinthia, but (presumably like any great artist) the desire to return to the stage was too great, in spite of spousal opposition. She accepted an invitation from the Duke of Koburg–Gotha to appear with his opera company in London in 1895. At the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she repeated her role of Christel in Der Vogelhndler. Other major roles of her career were the title roles in Offenbach's La Belle Helene and Herv's Mam'selle Nitouche.

As a result of this season she received offers of engagements from three London theatres. One of these was from the Savoy, where, she claimed in her memoirs that, "Sullivan and his librettist Gilbert" wished to write an opera specially for her, in which her foreign accent was utilised. Countess Kinsky made no mention of her subsequent roles in His Majesty and a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard, but she did indicate that it was proposed to present Sardou's opera Madame Sans–Gne at the Savoy with new music for her to play the title role. This was presumably for the 1897–8 season, but the Countess cried off, and The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein was given instead. She had been engaged by D'Oyly Carte for three years, and the failure of The Grand Duke had obliged the management to find other work for her, hence her appearances as Felice in His Majesty and Elsie in The Yeomen of the Guard. However, with her three–year contract still uncompleted, she left the cast of The Yeomen of the Guard in July 1897 and went home for a holiday, pleading ill–health as her reason for declining to return as she felt the role in Madame Sans–Gne would be too much hard work. However, she had in the meantime accepted an offer from Dr. Max Mrton to appear with the Buda Krecsny company in Budapest, and when the Savoy management heard about it they tried to sue her for breach of contract. She then retired from the stage to devote herself to her husband, but apparently this retirement too proved to be no more than temporary.

Although there were no more Gilbert and Sullivan operas, there were at least a couple more "guest" sopranos at the Savoy, brought in for specific roles. The American coloratura Ellen Beach Yaw had a voice that included the highest known notes in operatic history. Sullivan engaged her for the role of the Sultana in The Rose of Persia, his last completed opera, and the aria "Neath my lattice" contained in its original form an elaborate cadenza written especially for her voice. When she left the cast and was replaced by the lighter voiced Isabel Jay, a number of adjustments evidently had to be made to the music. These amendments were incorporated in the published vocal score, and their full extent will not be known until Sullivan scholars have the opportunity to study the autograph full score, which is held by a collector who insists on remaining anonymous. I would like to place on record my contempt for such people who buy up important historical documents and refuse to let anyone see them.

A couple of years before this, The Beauty Stone had brought the American soprano Pauline Joran to the Savoy. She was the daughter of Louis Grund Joran of Freeport, Illinois, though there were claims that she had been born in Australia. She appeared first with two sisters as a party of juvenile artists in San Francisco in 1885, and seems next to have been in London, for William Ganz (Memories of a Musician) says that while a member of the New Meistersinger's Club in St. James's Street, he arranged a number of musical soires, and for one of these Pauline Joran was recommended to him. She played some violin solos very well; a few days later Ganz auditioned her and discovered that she had a beautiful soprano voice, so he advised her to give up the violin and become an opera singer. On Ganz's recommendation she was engaged by Carl Rosa to play Beppo in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz in which she had to sing and play the violin at the same time. This English premiere took place at the Princes' Theatre, Manchester, on 24 September 1892. Pauline Joran did not entirely abandon the violin, however, for as late as 10 December 1896 she gave a concert as violinist and vocalist at St. James's Hall, London, and before that, in 1893, she had played Mendelssohn's G minor Violin Concerto in Liverpool.

Pauline Joran's stage career was a short one, she appeared at leading London opera houses between 1893 and 1899 as well as in various parts of Italy during 1895–6. She retired on her marriage to Baron William Ernest Bush which took place on 6 December 1899. Her husband was British Juror for Chemicals at Antwerp Exhibition in 1888 and was created Baron Freiherr von Bush of Coburg–Gotha by Duke Ernest II in ducal patents dated 25 December 1889. On 29 September 1896 he received the Royal License to use the title in the United Kingdom. Miss Joran thus became Baroness de Bush, but enjoyed an even shorter period in marital bliss than on the stage, for the Baron was killed on 24 July 1903 when he fell out of a railway carriage on the way to Scotland. They had one daughter, also called Pauline, and with the Baron's death the title became extinct. Although described as a soprano, Pauline Joran seems to have had a fairly wide range, for the details of her London stage career in the 1890s indicate that she sang both soprano and mezzo–soprano roles, apparently with ease.

Thus it can be seen that a number of the Savoy sopranos were brought in for particular roles, and often these roles were designed, musically or dramatically, or both, for their special talents.

Web page updated 11 Mar 2013