Archive for May, 2016


The Pirates of Penzance backstage remarks

May 25, 2016

Pirates PosterA number of people have asked for a copy of my backstage remarks to the cast before our opening of The Pirates of Penzance at the Suzanne Roberts in Philadelphia in May 2016. Here they are:

Maybe you’ve had the experience of going to a museum and seeing a painting or an artifact related to a famous genius. You are struck by the wonder of being close to something that was in the hands of this person who accomplished so much, or who thought of something extraordinary, or was simply a fascinating and unusual person. I can recall going through some papers of Victor Herbert at the Library of Congress while researching a score I was restoring, when suddenly I turned over a document and found a letter of Dvorak to Herbert in his hand. It was something trifling Dvorak was saying to Herbert, but the fact that the piece of paper had been in the hands of both of these amazing men was awe inspiring. Works of art or artifacts are like that. They inspire awe. Not only did these men and women live, but the things they touched are still here. It makes you remember that amazing things can still happen.

Theatre and Music are different than a painting or an artifact, because the writer didn’t leave the finished product for us to examine. The writer or composer has only left a set of detailed instructions for others to carry out. The score or the play is an unfinished torso until the performer follows the instructions and brings the piece to life. So while you can sit in front of a painting or read a book at your own pace or examine a sculpture by walking around it, Music and Theatre exist temporally and draw the listener in to experience what it has to say in a fixed and demarcated period of time. In this sense, we who perform these pieces are quite literally the canvas of the artist for as long as we are making the music, and not a moment longer. So when we perform The Pirates of Penzance today, on Sullivan’s birthday, we are collectively opening a window for this audience right here, right now, to experience a great artwork the way the authors intended it to be seen: live, and for a brief and beautiful time. We are the painting, the theatre is the gallery; the performance opens the portal to experience it, and when we bow, the portal closes again and the piece disappears into instructions again.

This is magic.

We live in a time where we have unprecedented access to culture from now and from all the way into the distant past. It is, of course, marvelous! No longer do we need to be wealthy enough to buy an enormous library to get to these great and terrible and beautiful thoughts. But that availability is not without its cost. I can use google images and pull up very quickly an image of every really important painting almost instantly. I can admire its composition and even think about what the artist might have meant when she planned and executed the work. But seeing a tiny digital picture of a thing is not the same as seeing a painting in person. Perhaps like me, you’ve been in an art museum, turned a corner, and seen a painting you knew, only it’s the original. It’s always a surprise. The painting is bigger than you thought, or smaller. The colors don’t look the same. You can perhaps see the brush strokes with impasto effects, or maybe you can’t see any brush strokes at all. When you move to the left, the light hits the surface of the canvas a certain way, and you notice a detail you never saw before. A really great painting asks you to sit in front of it and think. A picture of a painting, however well duplicated, is not the same as the real thing. This audience may know The Pirates of Penzance. Maybe they saw the movie. Maybe they have a recording. Maybe they are aware of Poor Wandering One and the Modern Major General patter song. But tonight we provide the gallery in which they can see this work of art as it was meant to be seen. For about 2 hours, we open the gallery, and we are the painting. And even those people who have seen the piece before have only seen it for 2 hours at a time, no more. Tonight we bring them another chance to see it.

Why is this important? Why does Gilbert and Sullivan matter to us? Their work, and this work in particular, has stood the test of time and spoken to generations of people all over the world because Gilbert holds up the things we must take most seriously: love, duty, family, respect for one’s elders, youth, class, position, the law, and with gentle hilarity points out that they’re all ridiculous. Essential, yes, but very silly. And Sullivan, with his wit and his lyricism adds that they’re also unbearably beautiful. And surely for every one of us, and for everyone in our audience, life generally proves to be ridiculous and beautiful, in equal and ever increasing parts. As our tastes change and our cultural values shift, some of the things Gilbert and Sullivan were writing about come in and out of fashion. But the human experience is essentially universal, so the beautiful lunacy of Gilbert and Sullivan will always find a hearing among people who allow it to speak to them.

As we perform this piece tonight, we will be trying to carry out as best we can the instructions these flawed but brilliant men gave us. We will not be perfectly successful. But savor this moment as you open the window into their world. It is the closest thing to magic you may experience in your everyday life.


The Original (American) Cast of The Pirates Of Penzance

May 20, 2016

This post will be the first of several about The Pirates of Penzance, and is an expansion of a note I wrote for the 2016 Savoy Company production in Philadelphia.

Most G&S enthusiasts know that The Pirates of Penzance was written for a U.S. audience, and despite a perfunctory performance in England to secure copyright there, the first true production, the premiere that counts, was here in New York. America has a strange relationship with Opera and Operetta, one that remains complicated to this day. 19th century American culture was drawn to the glamour and pedigree of Opera, and Americans loved Operatic music. But American singers needed to disguise themselves as Europeans in order to be taken seriously, and American composers were up against an insurmountable wall. Even if they received a European education, they were not given a fair hearing. Americans were primarily interested in importing the very best of the European variety of any kind of culture. Similar things were happening in other places outside central Europe, as Bohemian, Scandinavian, and Russian composers went to Germany for their education, singers went to Italy, and then upon completion of their studies, these musicians would return to their homelands to try and forge a national school of opera that reflected their heritage. But the United States, separated from Europe as it was by such a vast ocean, was also a free-for-all of speculation, charlatanry, puffery, and pageantry. (just as it is today) The stories of many of the original cast demonstrate this wild-west culture.

When Gilbert and Sullivan boarded the Steamship Bothnia on October 25, 1879, they had with them a full cast of English performers, and also two extraordinary American Singers who, as it happened were also journalists. Sullivan wrote to his mother that the cast were “the best who have ever been got together for the immortal Pinafore.” One of the English performers became an American mainstay and lived in New Rochelle. Another moved to California. A few went back to England and became important parts of the Gilbert and Sullivan legacy. Almost all of them went on to tour all over the world.

Blanche Roosevelt (1853-1898) would become the first Mabel. She was 26, and on the cusp of what by all indications might be a sensational career. She was born in Sandusky, Ohio. Her mother, from whom she took her last name, was related to Theodore Roosevelt. Blanche studied in Paris, and then in Milan where she worked with Francesco Lamperti, (Lamperti taught among other celebrated students Teresa Stoltz, who created roles for Verdi). Blanche began a European career as a singer with a side gig as a journalist covering culture for American papers. A debut at Covent Garden in 1876 as Violetta in La Traviata followed, where she was the first American to sing Italian Opera there. She shared the role with Adelina Patti, whom Verdi described as perhaps the finest singer who ever lived (and who, coincidentally had spent part of her youth in the Bronx). Blanche followed the custom of her time and Italicized her name as Rosavilla. Later she married Signor Machetta, a wealthy Italian Aristocrat. He would become the Marquis d’Alligri. In 1879 while on Holiday in the South of France, Sullivan heard her sing and she was engaged to perform in September as Josephine in the D’Oyly Carte HMS Pinafore. A month later she was aboard the boat to America. I suspect Ms. Roosevelt’s extensive background in Verdi accounts in part for the Traviata quote in Poor Wand’ring One.

She left Pirates in March the following year, having played the part for less than three months, and started an opera company with Alfred Cellier, who had conducted the Pirates production and written the Overture. That company failed, but through the enterprise, she became friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She returned to literature and journalism, eventually covering important milestones like the premiere of Verdi’s Otello. She became the mistress of Guy De Maupassant in 1884, writing a book the same year entitled Stage Struck: She Would Be An Opera Singer, in which she attempted to dissuade young American singers from going to Italy to learn opera, advocating instead the establishment of a national conservatory. She also wrote important books about Longfellow and Gustave Dore.

She died as a result of injuries sustained in a carriage accident in 1897 in Monte Carlo at the age of 45. She had been in 10 such accidents over the course of her life. In one of these incidents, she had been pinned into her seat by a pole and the carriage had to be dismantled to get her out. Her friends were said to be so unnerved by her poor luck in carriages that they would not ride with her. She lived a few months after this final crash, but did not recover.

The other American aboard the Bothnia was Signor Brocolini (1841-1906) who would be the first Pirate King. His real name was John Clark, and he was born in Ireland, but his family fled the potato famine and settled in New York when he was 12. The Italianesque name he would give himself would be styled after his new home, Brooklyn. His passions were baseball and journalism. In 1865, after the Civil War, Clark spent time in journalism and baseball in Detroit, getting married, writing editorials, playing first base for the Detroit Baseball Club and becoming its manager. In 1868 he went back to Brooklyn, where he kept up his journalism career and started singing professionally.  7 years later, he had become such a well liked performer that his newspaper friends were able to raise $5,500 in 3 hours to send him to Milan to study.

After his time with a Signor San Giovanni, he, like Blanche Roosevelt, was also singing in Covent Garden. Like Ms. Roosevelt, Clark (or Brocolini) joined D’Oyly Carte in October 1879, as Dick Deadeye in a touring company. In the authorized Pinafore production that preceded Pirates, Brocolini played Captain Corcoran. After his great success as the Pirate King, Brocolini would spend another decade playing operetta in the U.S., most often by G&S. Like Roosevelt, he too would try his hand at running his own opera company and fail.
His performing career was ended by rheumatism, and he returned to journalism, composing, conducting a choir that bore his name, and managing an opera company, which in America back then was surely not all that different from managing a Baseball team in Detroit.

Hugh Talbot (c. 1845-1899) has the dubious distinction of being the first Frederick and being almost universally disliked in the role. Like John Clark, he was born in Ireland, and like the others, he went to Milan to learn to sing, styling himself Ugo Talbo upon completion of his studies. Like his castmates, he also went to England and sang Opera, singing Don Jose in the English premiere of Carmen. Response to him during that time seems to have been mixed. A review from The Musical World in 1877 mentions that he had to repeat Questa O Quella because audience response was so positive. But they also wrote that “the impression left by his performance generally was that, though manifesting decided promise… Signor Talbo has much to learn, and can only be regarded at present as a first class amateur.” The following year another reviewer said, “Mr. Talbo has a nice voice, which he abuses by violence.”

He was the only member of the cast who had not yet sung in Pinafore or The Sorcerer, but he played Ralph Rackstraw in the Pinafore the company brought from England. He must have been going through some vocal trouble, because the Times noted that his voice “was not thoroughly under his control.” But whatever the issue was, it paled in comparison to his dreadful opening night performance as Frederick. He didn’t know his lines and was eviscerated in the opening night reviews. Talbot stayed with the company until March 6, when he got into an argument with Gilbert and was dismissed.

Blanche Roosevelt evidently thought enough of him to hire him for her company’s production of Cellier’s The Masque of Pandora the following year, but the opera was a failure, and Talbot embarked on a tour of the West, stopping in Dallas Texas in 1880 on his way to California.

When Talbot came to San Francisco in 1882, he was forced to cancel concerts due to poor attendance. The Musical Record and Review wrote: “Mr. Talbot has endeavored to furnish excellent programs, but the people do not seem to care for really good music. Light operas- and beer- have carried the field against all other entertainments.” In a later edition of the same paper, an editor wrote wrote: “Mr. Hugh Talbot, the English tenor, has a poor opinion of San Francisco’s appreciation of good music. I am sorry he has such good reasons for his opinion! Our public seems to prefer the very lightest of light operas- with beer accompaniment, at lowest prices, (twenty-five cents for the seats) and negro minstrels (witness the success of Haverly’s Mastadons) to concerts of an elevated order- None too much culture here, and yet, San Francisco is called a musical city!”

But later that year while continuing his tour in Stockton, CA, Talbot reportedly stopped a runaway horse at great risk to himself and saved a woman’s life. This act of heroism seems to have endeared him to the area, because he stayed there, starting a choir in the local Episcopal church and teaching many of the choristers. He died on Halloween in 1899, and the local church members soon thereafter started a boy choir, having objected to Talbot’s inclusion of women singing in church.

While in California, Talbot taught the Irish American singer Dennis O’Sullivan.

The original Major General was a Mr. J.H. Ryley (1841-1922), an English singer who began his career in London with his first wife Marie Barnam. One of their routines was apparently famous enough to be parodied in Ruddigore.  He worked with both Gilbert and with Sullivan’s assistant Alfred Cellier before he appeared in a G&S show, finally playing John Wellington Wells and the Learned Judge in a double bill of Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer. This inaugurated a long career playing colorful G&S baritone roles. His voice was not, evidently, terribly strong, but his comic persona was terrific, and so he was well liked in these patter roles, It was based on his fine performance as Wells that Ryley was chosen to originate what would become the most famous English patter role in the repertory. After creating Major General Stanley, Ryley, with his common-law wife Madeleine Lucette (1858-1934) performed frequently in America, settling down in New Rochelle. (Lucette came to America to play Patience, and eventually became a very successful playwright and suffragist) Ryley was a mainstay in the New York D’Oyly Carte productions, appearing also in Chicago, and he worked in the United States until 1900, when he moved back to England with Lucette, whom he had married in 1890. Ryley appeared in 2 silent films, neither of which I can access, although this page gives you an image of him in Hamlet. A 72 year old Ryley is the gravedigger in the still shot on the page.

Alice Barnett (1846-1901) was the first Ruth. She came from a famous theatrical family, and after some early training she joined a touring company of H.M.S. Pinafore in 1879. She was a physically imposing woman, reported to be the tallest woman ever to appear on the English stage, an attribute she used to great advantage. Sullivan gave an interview to the New York Herald in the lead up to the new Pinafore and Pirates productions in which he mentioned that he was interested in the relative sizes of the ladies in the cast. “She is a large and imposing person… and she makes up the part [of Buttercup] rather picturesquely… Miss Jessie Bond is the greatest contrast, or the smallest contrast, rather, to Miss Barnett that can be imagined. She is petite, piquant. Mis Rosina Brandam [sic] is something between the two.” Alice was the first Lady Jane in Patience, and the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe. Gilbert wrote dialogue for her characters emphasizing her size, and critics and audiences greatly enjoyed her performances. She became ill during the run of Iolanthe, and was replaced as the leading contralto by Rosina Brandram. (see below) After she left D’Oyly Carte, she returned to America and toured in several comic operas. She then went to Australia and New Zealand, and spent three years playing the major G&S contralto roles there. After 6 more years in the UK, Barnett went to America a third time and finally finished her impressive career with a number of roles on the West End before her death of Bronchial pneumonia in 1901.

Rosina Brandram (1845-1907) was the original Kate. Before she went on the tour to America, she had understudied Lady Sangazure and was a minor figure in the G&S pantheon. After her return to England following the American production, she created principal contralto roles in every Sullivan Opera at the Savoy from 1884-1901. She was the only principal to do so, and the only principal to appear in every original Sullivan production at the Savoy Theatre. She created Lady Blanche in Princess Ida, Katisha in The Mikado, and Dame Hannah in Ruddigore. She was the first Carruthers in Yeoman, the first Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, the first Lady Sophy in Utopia (Limited), and the first Baroness von Krakenfeldt in The Grand Duke. When she was too ill to appear at a dinner in 1906, Gilbert said of her: “Rosina of the glorious voice that rolled out as full-bodied  Burgundy rolls down – Rosina whose dismal doom it was to represent undesirable old ladies of 65, but who, with all the resources of the perruquier and the make-up box, could never succeed in looking more than an attractive eight-and-twenty – it was her only failure.” For every person ever cast as Kate who wished they had a bigger part, Rosina Brandram stands as an inspiration. She must have done well.

Jessie Bond (1853-1942) was the first Edith. Born in London, she was an accomplished pianist and singer. She escaped a dreadful marriage with a predatory and abusive choral director and doggedly pursued her own path, training at the Royal Academy with the legendary singing teacher Manuel Garcia. Bond was already a trusted insider in the company, having created Cousin Hebe in H.M.S. Pinafore, taking over for another singer. She would play that part hundreds of times. After creating Edith, she had the ambition to petition Gilbert for larger roles, and he eventually obliged.  Like Miss Brandram, Bond would go on to create important roles in Iolanthe, The Mikado, Ruddigore, Yeoman, and The Gondoliers. Her second marriage was a happy one, and after her retirement, she wrote a very interesting memoir. She was a tremendous singer who overcame great personal difficulty and was not afraid to ask important people for better roles and better pay.

Billie “Minnie” Barlow (1862-1937) was the original Isabel. Gilbert had suggested she change her name to Billie after a topical character popular at the time.The part of Isabel is not a singing role, and one wonders why a competent singer was engaged for the role; perhaps it was also assumed she would cover another role if necessary. After Pirates, she returned to England and appeared in Patience, then came back to America with D’Oyly Carte in 1882. She toured America in various Operetta roles. She made it out to Reno Nevada by 1884. Billie returned to England and moved more in the direction of Music Hall performances, eventually touring Australia and South Africa. While in Australia in 1901, she sued a publisher for libel. The publisher claimed that her costume suggested that Miss Barlow was not merely ‘nude’ but had taken off her flesh and was “wandering about clothed in her naked soul”. The court papers clarify that statement: “…the plaintiff while acting in the said pantomime was wearing a costume which was indecent and that she was a woman possessed of an indecent and indelicate nature mind and disposition whereby etc. etc.” The jury in that case found for the defendant. Barlow appealed and asked for a new trial. The second jury was requested to see the production, but they applied to the court to bring their wives. Barlow’s counsel objected, but three of the jury brought their wives anyway, and discussed with them Miss Barlow’s costume during the production. Barlow also lost this second case, but I’m sure the legal proceedings didn’t hurt the box office for that production.

Fred Clifton
(1844-1903) was the original Sergeant of Police. having created the role of the Notary in The Sorcerer a few years earlier. I can discover almost nothing about him, except that he seems to have remained in America for the rest of his life, appearing in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, composing, and writing a Harmony text.





Furneaux Cook (1839-1903) 
was the original Samuel. He returned to England after the original tour and performed in Gilbert and Sullivan and works by Cellier until he retired in 1898.









Half of the cast remained in the U.S., and 7 of the 10 spent significant time touring America. 2 of them started opera companies, 2 became choral directors, 3 went on to create other important Gilbert and Sullivan roles.

I’ll give Blanche Roosevelt the final word. Less than 5 years after she was the first Mabel, in her preface to her novella Stage Struck, she writes:

“It is with the hope of strengthening this art- especially in relation to my own country- that I submit ‘Stage-Struck’ for public judgement. As the theatre is the finishing school for the drama, or the conservatory for musicians of every grade, so is the opera-house the true finishing school for the singer. An American is patriotic in everything but music. He will subscribe thousands to enable a speculating manager to pay fabulous amounts of money to Patti, but he will not pay units to establish a national opera-house, or a real ‘Academy of Music.’ I look forward to the day when our professors, instead of telling their pupils that they must go to Europe, will be in a position to say: ‘Now you are sufficiently advanced to go- not to Europe, but- round the corner to the finishing school that has been provided for you by your fathers, your brothers and your nation.’ It is the old story of every boy in the public schools fully expecting some day to be President of the United States. But we have our White House in America, and do not send him to Europe to hunt for it. The ambition of the Italian woman is to sing at La Scala, of the Austrian to sing at the Imperial Opera; of the French woman, at the Grand Opera, of the German, at the Royal Opera of Berlin, of the Spaniard, at Madrid, of the English woman; at Covent Garden: but of the American, as matters are at present- well, where she can!”