SMYTHE, Arabella [SMITH, Arabella] (b 82 Warwick St, Toxteth Park, Liverpool 7 March 1841; d Marylebone Infirmary, Kensington c 24 March 1917)
In 1901, when the census man came round to the boarding house at 61 Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill, Mrs Arabella de Solla unblushingly lied that she was 51 years of age. She lied, in fact, by something like a whole decade.
Miss Arabella Smith was born in Toxteth Park in 1841, the most recent of the growing family (Margaret, James, Adam and now Arabella) of James Smith, tailor, and his Yorkshire-born wife Elizabeth née Skaife. As a young woman, she briefly (January-April 1865) attended the Royal Academy of Music (‘recommended by Mr A Chappell’), having, in 1864, been awarded the Westmorland Scholarship. However, my first sighting of her as a professional vocalist is a number of years earlier, in her home city of Liverpool.
In her teens, young Arabella was taught singing by Liverpool’s outstanding vocal teacher, Mary Scarisbrick, and it was under that lady’s very effective guidance that she made her first appearances in public, in Mrs Scarisbrick’s own particular fief, the Liverpool Saturday Evening concerts at the Concert Hall, Lord Nelson Street. She made them in the company of Mr Archibald Mann and of another, even younger, pupil of the Scarisbrick Academy who was also taking early steps in the music business and who would garner most of the superlatives of their young years: Miss Sarah Edith Wynne.
That first professional sighting of Miss Arabella Smith’ in the Liverpool Saturday Evenings, is on 27 November 1858 with Mr and Mrs Scarisbrick, Sarah Wynne, Frank Webbe and Archibald Mann, then on 2 December at the Scarisbricks’ annual concert. She appeared in further Liverpool Saturdays, with the same artists, duetting with Miss Wynne, and can be seen at the Chorley Mechanics Institute, Blackburn Town Hall (‘Home sweet home’. Donizetti’s ‘The Star of Life’, ‘There’s a path by the river’, ‘refined and pleasing’), the Bury Athenaeum and on 16 October 1862 and 17 September 1863 she presented concerts of her own.
In 1863, she visited Belfast for the Anacreontic Society (26 March) and, on 26 January 1864, gave a ‘Farewell Concert’ at Blackburn. The ‘Farewell’ seems to have been a fairly temporary one: in September, she moved firmly into the West End of London when she was cast by Samuel Phelps to play the part of Lady Mortimer – vice Miss Wynne -- in his production of Henry IV Part I (24 September 1864) at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Lady Mortimer’s role is, of course, a non-speaking one, but like Miss Wynne she delivered, instead, the song indicated. Harpist Frederick Chatterton had arranged one such for the occasion, and came along in person to play his instrument in accompaniment. It all worked so well that, on opening night, the song and its 23 year-old singer were encored.
She is briefly, thereafter, billed as being ‘from the Royal Conservatoire, Brussels’, so I daresay that is where she had been between times.. Maybe.
Over the next couple of years, following her stint at the Academy, Miss Smith or Smythe put in the odd appearance at the London concerts. I spot her in June 1865 singing the DerFreischütz scena (‘Softly sighs’) at Hanover Square Rooms with Chatterton, in July singing ‘Tell me, my heart’ at the concert given at Collard’s Room by the harpist Mlle Besse, and in 1866, at several of the at-homes given by pianist Maddalena Cronin, at Mrs Holman Andrews’s matinees, and at Willis’s Rooms at a Charity Bazaar. She put in continued and definitely appreciated visits to Belfast’s Ulster Hall (‘Nightingale’s Trill’, ‘Bel raggio’, ‘I cannot mind my wheel, mother’, ‘Casta Diva’, ‘On Mighty Pens’, ‘Tell me my heart’), and in November, Alfred Mellon included her in the final concerts of his Promenade series at Covent Garden (‘The beating of my own heart’, ‘Thee Only I Love’). Interestingly, she now advertises that ‘all communications as to her engagement for concerts, oratorio etc to be addressed to the abovementioned Mrs John Holman Andrews, 51 Bedford Square’. Mrs Andrews was a successful singing teacher. Another of Arabella’s?
During this period, she also became principal soprano at the Spanish Chapel.
‘Miss Arabella Smythe, principal soprano at the Spanish Chapel, and who has sung with great success in Ireland and some of the provincial towns, made her debut at one of Mr Alfred Mellon's Concerts and was most favourably received. Her success was unquestionable. On the last night of the season, at Mr Mellon's benefit, she was re-engaged, and encored in a song by Balfe. Miss Arabella Smythe possesses a fine voice and good method, and will, no doubt, make her way …’
In 1867, Arabella Smythe took two major steps forward in her career. She made her debut as a leading soprano on the London oratorio platform, and she made her debut as a leading lady in comic opera. The oratorio came first. On 15 April, Arabella appeared at Exeter Hall, for G W Martin’s National Choral Society, singing the second soprano part alongside Mrs Suchet Champion, Lucy Franklein, Leigh Wilson and Santley in Elijah. The experiment was clearly a success, for when the society gave Elijah again, in November, Arabella was brought back to share the soprano music, this time, with Mme Rudersdorff. Before too long she would, herself, be singing the principal oratorio solos with Martin’s choir.
It was in December that Miss Arabella Smythe made her first appearance on any kind of an operatic stage. The opera in question was a comic one, and the producer was Thomas German Reed, already famous for the opera di camera productions at the Gallery of Illustration and the Entertainments which he had produced over years past with his celebrated wife. Reed had decided to launch himself into the production of comic opera on a larger scale than heretofore, and had taken a lease on St George’s Hall in Langham Place, which he had transformed into St George’s Opera House. His opening attraction was to be a new comic opera by F C Burnand and Arthur Sullivan entitled The Contrabandista, followed by an English version of Auber’s L’Ambassadrice, with two little Offenbach pieces, La Chatte metamorphosée en femme and the already well-tried Ching Chow Hi as support pieces. Luiza Liebhart, the experienced Hungarian soprano was hired to be ‘The Ambassadress’, but in typical style, Reed went largely for young and theatrically inexperienced players for the English piece. J A Shaw, a veteran of the Gallery’s productions and many another operatic company was cast in the chief comic role, supported by the vastly experienced Tom Aynsley Cook, but he took the unknown Edward Hargrave from the minor concerts to be his tenor-hero and for the two main ladies’ roles, the damsel in distress and the burlesque gipsy queen, he hired the two young soloists of Martin’s Exeter Hall oratorio season: Miss Arabella Smythe (soprano) and Miss Lucy Franklein (contralto). Arabella’s role of the imprisoned-by-bandits Rita was a fairly one-dimensional one, but it did contain some charming music, and the young soprano delivered it in a fashion which so delighted the composer that an extra number, ‘My love, we’ll meet again’, was composed expressly for her and added to the score. In L’Ambassadrice, Arabella was cast as the Countess de Valberg and, in the shadow of Liebhart’s prima donna performance, ‘her pleasing voice was heard to considerable effect’.
The German Reed season finished at the end of March, and Arabella Smythe set off on the concert routes, back to Ireland where she had already won considerable popularity, taking with her another new Sullivan song ‘The Maiden’s Story’. She was, however, back in London for Easter and on Good Friday she was heard at St James’s Hall, sharing the soprano music of the Rossini Stabat Mater with Mme Liebhart, and delivering Mendelssohn’s ‘Jerusalem’.
During 1869-70, Arabella Smythe established herself thoroughly as an oratorio singer, appearing as principal soprano with the National Choral Society in Judas Maccabaeus, Elijah, The Messiah, the Erste Walpurgisnacht, the Lobgesang, Israel in Egypt and the Stabat Mater during the season,and returning for the Christmas Messiah, as the Society loomed into its latter days. In between the Exeter Hall engagements, she also appeared at St James’s Hall in The Creation, sharing the soprano part with Louisa Pyne, and in the concerts of the season, making her first appearance at the Crystal Palace on 19 August 1869, visiting Margate’s Assembly Rooms, and of course the provinces in both concert and in oratorio (St Paul in Aberdeen, Judas Maccabaeus in Lancaster, Lobgesang/Stabat Mater with Halle in Manchester &c).
But during the course of the 1870 season she made one more debut, and it was again at the Crystal Palace, where she had recently appeared in the Beethoven Festival. George Perren had, for a number of years, been presenting seasons of opera in English in Sydenham, most often with Blanche Cole as his prima donna. This time he spread the soprano roles among three ladies: Miss Cole, Sophia Mariani and Arabella Smythe. And thus, on the second day of the season, 13 October 1870, Miss Smythe made what seems to have been her operatic debut, singing the title-role in Wallace’s Lurline alongside Perren, George Fox, Edward Connell and Fanny Leng. Later in the season she also sang Agathe in Der Freischütz. It was a small enough start, but before long operatic engagements would make up the bulk of her work.
In January 1871, Arabella Smythe took part in the first two of the Boosey Ballad series of concerts (‘Cushla Machree’, ‘She wandered down the mountainside’, ‘We wandered in dreams’ with Cummings, ‘Where’er thou art is home to me’ by Henriette; ‘Tell me my heart’ ‘uncommonly well’, ‘Sweet spirit hear my prayer’), and at Easter she appeared in sacred music at the Standard Theatre giving ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ in ‘her bright and cheerful style’ and joining Ellen Horne and Bessie Palmer in the Athalie music. But just a few weeks later, she would turn up far from the West End of London, in a company that would change her career and life.
‘Wanted. Tenor choristers and a third bass, must be prepared to play in farces. Isidore de Solla, ‘Opera’, Canterbury’. ‘Wanted good first tenor choristers, Isidore de Solla, Dover’. Mr de Solla clearly opened his newest operatic tour a member or two short, but he was well stocked with prima donnas. He had two, to replace his last season’s Bessie Emmett and Sophia Mariani. One was a young, pretty lady who said she was Mlle Marietta Berthier and ‘prima donna of La Scala, Milan, the principal Italian opera houses, and those of India, China, Manilla’ and the other was Miss Arabella Smythe. It was a reasonably good touring opera company, with W H Tilla and Bessie Palmer back from the previous tour as tenor and contralto, the splendid Charles Durand as baritone and the Mr B Ryder Ellis, who was currently calling himself ‘Ledril Ryse’, as bass, and Benjamin de Solla, Jenny Beauclerc, Frank Burgess and a young, unbilled Henry Walsham in support. Isidore conducted. The mysterious ‘Mlle Berthier’ quickly found herself relegated to left overs: by the time they reached date three, Arabella (with the occasional visit from Mlle Mariani) was playing the lot. Leonora, Arline, Martha, Lucia, Adina, Maritana and so forth. ‘She is entirely new to our boards..’ reported the Leicester critic ‘her voice is clear and sweet, evidently unpractised to straining after effect and though carefully used it has the power to elicit applause of the most rapturous kind.’
Isidore de Solla’s opera company ran on – off and on – for several more seasons, and Arabella Smythe ran with it. Not unsurprisingly, for in 1872 Miss Arabella Smith married Isaac, known as Isidore, de Solla (b London 9 November 1845; d 400 Camden Road, May 1935), son of the well-known Netherlandish clockmaker, Jacob Cohen de Solla, and a member of a well-known musical family.
In between the touring dates of the de Solla company, Arabella still found time to fulfil other engagements. In 1871 she can be seen singing the principal soprano music in Elijah at the Albert Hall, in one of the fading G W Martin’s latter-day oratorio performances, and at St George’s Hall in the Stabat Mater, in 1872 she did sacred music at the Standard Theatre with the Christy Minstrels and took part in the Sunday Concerts for the People as well as singing in the season at Margate, and, in 1873, I see her singing at Richard Blagrove’s concert at the Beethoven Rooms.
In 1873 she took a little time out, early in the year, to give birth to Haidée Beatrice de Solla, at Rugby, but she was soon back to head the de Solla company until it first became de Solla, Lansmere and Gaynar’s company, with the baritone and tenor sharing with de Solla the responsibilities of paying the bills, and then melded with the company being run by that one time small-part tenor, Henry Walsham. After that, Arabella had to share the lead roles with Mrs Walsham, otherwise Ellie Tweddell, otherwise ‘Madame Telma’. When she wasn’t giving birth to her second daughter, Maria Blanche de Solla (b Wexford, 30 January 1874).
In 1875 she went out as prima donna of something called the New English Opera and Opéra-bouffe Company run by its conductor J T Haines and comedian Fred Dixon, but which doesn’t seem to have gone far beyond Tunstall, Sligo, Rochdale and Macclesfield, and she also turns up at the Standard Theatre and in Dublin in various operatic combinations of mostly short existence. In 1876 she can be seen covering for Blanche Cole at Norwich in a rather more appreciable company.
However, the following year she was again up on the stage in London. Opera seasons were organised at both the Alexandra Palace and at the Crystal Palace, and ‘Madame Isidore de Solla’ shared the prima donna duties on both sides of town with Rose Hersee and with Gertrude Cave-Ashton, playing notably Il Trovatore and Faust. In November of the year, de Solla took the main performers from the Palaces – Hersee, Richard Temple, George Fox, Bessie Palmer, Valentine Fabrini – to the Aquarium for some performances and the ‘de Solla Opera Company’ lived again awhile.
Arabella Smythe was not yet forty, but from here on she performed fairly intermittently. I have spotted her in Ireland with what is by that time Richard Temple’s company, she’s billed to tour with Auguste van Biene’s company in 1881, and the following year she catches the eye when she comes in and plays an emergency Valentine opposite Frederick Packard, Aynsley Cook and Temple in Les Huguenots with the Royal English Opera Company at Leeds. In 1883, she can be seen performing at several London concerts (Maddalena Cronin, Lillie Allbrecht &c) with a repertoire including several of her husband’s songs (‘The Old Violin’, ‘Who is Sylvia?’), and in 1884, the same scenario: she re-emerges to play Donna Anna, alongside Rose Hersee and George Fox, with J S Tanner’s touring opera company (conductor: I de Solla).
But, after that? Not much I think. My last sighting is in 1891, at Rivière’s Pier Concerts in Llandudno where she is singing Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’ as ‘Madame Isidore de Solla’ ‘in good voice and with good taste’.
I have yet to find out what became of Mr and Mrs de Solla thereafter. I have seen them listed in the 1901 census. She’s living in that boarding house in Elgin Crescent. He’s living in another boarding house in Endsleigh Street, St Pancras with daughter Haidee. I do hope the marriage hasn’t fallen apart. Because I have a feeling that Miss Arabella Smythe – the Arabella Smythe who was Sir Arthur Sullivan’s first comic-opera leading lady, the Arabella Smythe who was a leading soprano at Exeter Hall -- might have done better, in better places, in her career as a vocalist had she not become the endlessly touring Madame de Solla of the de Solla opera company.
Daughters Haidee and Blanche (d 1952) apparently both took to music. They can be seen in 1903 singing with Mr R Kennerly Rumford in concert at the Queen’s Hall, and Blanche turns up at St James’s Hall singing the Shadow Song and ‘With verdure clad’ later the same year. Haidee married farmer William Shatford James from Kettering in 1905 and seems to have emigrated to Canada.
And after that? Well, I simply don’t know what became of many of them, until Arabella’s entry in the 1911 census. She is still living in that boarding house in Notting Hill, ‘aged 58’. She died, in a Kensington nursing home, in 1917.