BROCOLINI, Signor [CLARK, John] (b Cork, Ireland ? 26 September ?1842; d 323 Greene Avenue, Brooklyn, USA 7 June 1906).
Whilst the life and career of many a truly great musical and/or theatrical artist has been largely forgotten, and nobody has been inspired to reconstruct the said life and career for posterity, a number of rather more modest performers have inspired detailed and sometimes even diligent research and writings. There is usually a reason. Lofty or scandalous relationships is a good one, another is … having had anything to do with the works of Messrs/Sirs Gilbert and Sullivan. Into this last category falls the gentleman who became ‘Signor Brocolini’ (or, when he or the press forgot, ‘Broccolini’).
Signor Brocolini has a remarkably detailed entry in the world-wide web’s Wikipedia, an entry which includes a number of details which I myself have not been able to find, nor to source, and rather less mistakes (which I have been able to find) than is usual. But the Signor actually does not owe this careful biographising to his connection with the Savoy Operas, he owes it to baseball. For six-foot-two Mr John Clark, before he became Signor Brocolini, apparently, whilst living for a few years in Detroit, played baseball at a considerable level. And the historians of baseball, it appears, are even more minutious than those of Gilbert and Sullivan, and almost as minutious as I.
The pre-eminent historian of baseball in Michigan is Peter Morris (http://www.petermorrisbooks.comBaseball Fever, But Didn’t We Have Fun?, Level Playing Fields, Catcher etc), and Mr Morris’s admirable work on John Clark (From First Baseman to Primo Basso: The Odd Saga of the Original Pirate King (Tra La!)) has been loaded holus bolus into Wikipedia, where I came upon it some years ago and checked it against the results of my own diggings. We don’t always agree, but I have to concede that if all the details that are, there, included are the result of primary source research, then I’m impressed.
So, where do we start. Name, John Clark. Plain John Clark. Place of birth (in spite of the occasional temptation to belong to other nations), Ireland. Apparently County Cork. Date of birth … ah, now there comes my first query. Wikipedia says 26 September 1841. How do they know? Has someone been into the Corkian archives? I’m just a little surprised. In 1851 he was censused as seven, in mid-1852 as ten, in 1860 as eighteen. On a fair average, I’d have expected 1842 or even 1843, but if there’s proof… Is there?
Family? Wikipedia goes for ‘native Scots John and Lillian Clark’. I go for John P Clark of Glasgow (d Brooklyn 10 December 1874) and his wife Lilias (sic) probably née Morison from (?) Linton in Perthshire. You can see them registered in the 1851 census living in 3 Killermont Street, Glasgow, with their large family: Jane 21, Robert M 20, Elizabeth 15, John 7 and William H aged 3. Father is a printer, and at least three children are missing. Mary, who comes between Elizabeth and John is staying with married sister Isabella (Mrs William Stewart), and Henry who comes after John, simply seems to have gone astray.
Anyway, in 1851 they are in Scotland, and their earlier children also were born in Scotland, but John and Mary (covering the latest 1830s and earliest 1840s) were born in Ireland. After that, the Clarks evidently returned to Scotland. So, their stay in Ireland, in Cork maybe, seems to have been of only a few years duration. Which makes it odd that Wikipedia’s next statement is that they ‘fled the potato famine’ ‘about 1853’ to settle in America. Was there a potato famine in Scotland?
Well, ‘about’ is right, anyway. John Clark apparently went on ahead to the United States, and Lilias and the seven children followed, on the Wacousta, setting foot in America on 17 July 1852. The 1860 census of Brooklyn shows John and Lilias with a rather depleted family. But young John is there ‘aged 18’ and a printer, along with Mary ‘seamstress’ and William aged twelve. Henry seems to have vanished again.
Father John took employment with Brooklyn print firm, Harper Brothers. I imagine that brother Robert, also a printer and proof-reader, started there too before moving on, and maybe the young John (‘journeyman printer’) as well. After all, Harper Brothers boasted an employees’ baseball team. But the young Mr Clark had other interests than baseball. ‘As a boy, he was taught to read music in Public School No 14 by Mr C W Wolcott [the principal]’ and, according, to his own say-so, he began singing at the age of nineteen, and took lessons successively from Charles Guilmette (2 years), Antonio Bagioli (one year) and Dr Jacob W Gröschel of Brooklyn.
It was not long before ‘Mr Clark’ got his first professional engagements. The first one that I have found is with Messrs Bowers and Prendergast’s Minstrels in May 1864 (‘the unrivalled basso whose volume and compass of voice is the theme of universal admiration’), but his local papers indicate there were others: ‘he first appeared with Caroline Richings in musical dramas, previous to which he had achieved an extended reputation as a church and concert singer’. When? ‘He travelled through the United States with the Baker and Campbell and Castle opera companies, and afterwards with Miss Susan Galton’.
Baker I cannot find, but Campbell and Castle, yes. This was in November 1864 (so the rest must have been squeezed in in 1862-3) when I spot him as John Clark(e) ‘basso buffo’ singing alongside Fannie Stockton, Georgia Fowler, Sher Campbell, William Castle, Walter Birch and Warren White. The repertoire included Faust, Lurline, The Lily of Killarney, The Rose of Castille, La Sonnambula et al, and it seems Mr Clark(e) played whichever bass and baritone and buffo parts Campbell himself did not. I also note them in the first part of February 1865 playing Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Now, there is one further element that needs, in theory, to be slotted in to all this. Mr Clark, so some state, is said to have been ‘a reporter on the Brooklyn Eagle’. Evidently music was not yet a full time, professional employment. But then ‘in the spring of 1865 .. [he] moved to Detroit’ where he is said to have taken employment as a proof-reader on the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune. A proof-reader again, after having been a journalist?
This is also where Mr Morris moves into top gear and can tell us, authoritatively, that the young man also became first base-man, and subsequently club director, at the local baseball team. Yes, there he is, John Clark, first baseman in 1865. But not in 1866 or 1867. And then again in 1868. He also tells us that Clark began writing for the Advertiser and Tribune. And, again, that shortly after his arrival in town he married Miss Lizzie Fox, daughter of a blacksmith, and gave birth to a son.
What he doesn’t tell us is that the teenaged daughter of Robert Fox, blacksmith, ‘a voluptuously handsome girl, then well known in local musical circles’ also had musical and theatrical aspirations. But, apparently, she did, and she would later try her hand in the profession. Of the son, I can find no trace. And of a marriage …?
I don’t see Mr Clark on the operatic touring routes in 1866 – wife, son, Detroit and perhaps baseball must have for the meanwhile taken priority – but he does surface again in 1867, and he surfaces … back in Brooklyn. Yet, in theory, he is living and catching ball in Detroit. There he is, at Florence Rice Knox’s concert at the Academy of Music (1 February), at the First Baptist Church in concert (21 February), and he’s a permanent member of the choir at St Mary’s Church, Brooklyn. Curious. In December he’s at the Academy of Music again. Maybe it was the off-season for ball games.
It was in 1868-9 that ‘Mr Clark’ joined the little operetta company run by Susan Galton for its ‘western tour’ after a successful New York season. I spot him 20 April 1868 in Philadelphia, playing Farmer Barbaud to Miss Galton’s Fadette the Cricket, and later in Levey’s Punchinello. The Clippernoticed him too: ‘for the first time since his appearance here had an opportunity to display his fine bass voice; his powers are really remarkable but he has not yet acquired that ease of manner which will be necessary to ensure complete success as a public singer’. But he would.
Back in Brooklyn, he sang in concert and on 24 November 1870 ‘the very popular basso John Clark’ (as Viscount St Ange) joined tenor Walter Birch to support Minnie Conway in ‘an operatic military play’ entitled Léonie, with a score by local musician F W Peterschen. The next night they played La Fille du régimentin which Clark appeared as Sulpice.
In 1871 ‘the celebrated basso’ was seen in at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music playing Danny Mann in a musicalized The Colleen Bawn.He sang in Die erste Walpurgisnacht with Antoinette Sterling in May, and then set up a ‘Parlor Opera Troupe’ and took a brief lease on the Brooklyn Park Theatre with a company consisting of H Eugene Clarke (tenor), Frank Laurence-Dalion (baritone), E H Kellogg (comprimario), Mrs Sophie Mozart (soprano) and Monica Newman (contralto). They opened 3 June with Maritana.
Over the following two seasons he appeared in various productions at the Conways’ Brooklyn theatre, while pursuing his concert career. Mrs Conway acted for a while as his agent, and even employed his wife, but at the end of 1872, the manageress ended his contract, pretexting that she had no use for singers. She offered however to retain Mrs Clark if she was serious about making a career in the theatre. The affair ended up in court.
During these years, John Clark appeared regularly in local concerts, and he also took part in further locally-composed works, such as Caryl Florio’s The Elements(7 May 1872) and John M Loretz and E F de Nyse’s The Pearl of Baghdad (April 1872), playing the role of Scarapoom alongside Emma Howson and Eugene Clarke. Loretz and Florio returned the compliment when they appeared at a ‘Testimonial Concert’ (18 December 1872) to Clark, at the Boston Athenaeum.
In 1873, something like a decade after his first ventures into touring opera, Clark joined up with a group managed by William Seguin and Siegfried Behrens, along with fellow Brooklynites Emma Howson and Eugene Clarke, soprano Rose Hersee and contralto Zelda Seguin. However, it was not a long engagement, and he was soon back in Brooklyn again, promoting his Parlor Opera group, singing in concert and now at New York’s Grace Church. In 1874 he undertook a further operatic tour with many of the same artists in a troupe under the management of Frederick Graves (Don Jose in Maritana, Bidethebent in Lucia di Lammermoor etc).
Now into his thirties, John Clark seemed to have settled into a life as a semi-professional vocalist of local fame, but it was not to be. He recounted later that his workmates at the Eaglegot together a subscription to send him to Italy to study and, after a heavily reported (in the Eagle) farewell banquet at Brooklyn’s Pierrepont House, Mr John Clark ‘vocalist, journalist and printer’ set sail, on 25 September 1875, for Milan, and singing lessons with the inexhaustible Signor Sangiovanni.
During his stay in Milan, he penned ‘Observations by a Brooklyn Student of Music’ which were published (January 1876) by the Brooklyn Eagle and ‘exposed the impositions practiced on [American] music students by the Italian professors of music’…
The Milanese singing lessons seem to have lasted only a few months, for -- so the tale goes – Mr Clark was heard by Mr Mapleson, during one of his talent-spotting tours to Italy, and within six months of quitting Brooklyn, he was on his way to London, under contract to the Italian opera at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He had also metamorphosed into ‘Signor Broccolini’. Yes, initially with two ‘c’s. Actually, very initially apparently ‘Clari Broccolins’! When the prospectus for the Italian opera season was published in April, his name appeared (‘his first appearance’) alongside the Herren Behrens and Rokitansky, and the Signore Romani and Fiorini, as one of the principal basses of the company.
Quite when he made his first appearance on the stage of Drury Lane, I am not sure. He was wont to say he had ‘made his debut’ as Ferrando, but Il Trovatore was not sung that season.And Mr Clark, or rather Signor Broccolini, was (in spite of later publicity as ‘primo basso of the Italian opera, London’) engaged as the most comprimario of comprimarios. I spot him in May cast as ‘Un prêtre’ in Robert le diablealongside the Isabella of the American soprano ‘Mlle von Elsner’ (who had not yet Italianised into ‘Litta’) and the Bertram of Behrens, but when Don Giovanniwas staged it was Rokitansky who was Leporello, Behrens the Commendatore and Fiorini Masetto. Signor Broccolini was at the bottom of the pecking order, and his appearances during the season seem to have been confined to a handful of Mapleson concerts.
However, when the company went on the road, opportunities began to come, and the new recruit was given the opportunity to appear as Ferrando in Il Trovatore, Oroe in Semiramideand, apparently, a very large Masetto in Don Giovanni. He was also placed in the subsequent concert party tour, featuring the Gounod Messe Solennelle, with Titiens, Alwina Valleria, Agnes Bonn, George Bentham, del Puente and the buffo Borella, and for several months gave his long-time party piece ‘Rocked in the cradle of the deep’, ‘Down deep within the cellar’, ‘Nasce al bosco’, ‘Honour and arms’, Sullivan’s ‘Looking Back’ and other depth-plumbing favourites in the concert rooms of the provinces. When he essayed ‘The Heart bowed down’ the Dublin press found ‘neither his voice or vocalism is light and bright enough’, but after ‘Qui sdegno’ they also grumbled that he ‘was not very much at ease in the abysmal depths’. Elsewhere it was said ‘he has a voice which can growl down to a lower note than would be needed to telephone to the nether regions. ...’
Signor Brocolini (who now seemed to have dropped one c) was, however, making considerable progress in the Maplesonian opera, and when he returned to London for the next Italian opera season, he was much more frequently and prominently featured than he had been the previous year. On the opening night of the season he sang Oroveso to the Normaof Titiens, and although he was still ‘Un prêtre’ un Roberto il diavoloand ‘Un medico’ in La Traviata, Petrucci inLucrezia Borgiaand so forth, he was Ferrando whenIl Trovatore was given, Bidethebent in Luciawhen Capponi didn’t do it, Sparafucile in Rigoletto, the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Walton in I Puritani and the orator in Il flauto magico. The press commented ‘he is a useful adjunct in subordinate parts’.
On tour and in the company’s short pre-Christmas season, he added Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and the Hermit in Der Freischütz to his credits, and it seemed that his usefulness was appreciated. But, in fact, that season marked the end of ‘Signor Brocolini”s career in opera. He had, so he later wrote, ‘a misunderstanding with Mr Mapleson’ and left the company.
During the 1878 season, the Signor was seen in concert at the Albert Hall (Pinsuti’s ‘I fear no foe’, Hatton and Harding’s ‘Down in the Deep’, Albert J Dye’s ‘The Lighthouse’ &c), with Henry Leslie’s Choir at Crystal Palace, at Oxford in Fridolin with Emma Thursby, Georg Henschel and the local Philharmonic Society, and later in the year and in the early part of 1879 he took part in Gatti’s Covent Garden promenade concerts (conductors: Messrs Sullivan and Cellier), in the concerts and operatic recitals at the Aquarium, in the St James’s Hall Saturday Evening concerts (’The Diver’, The Toreador’s Song etc), and provincial concerts from Liverpool to Truro (where he gave a rare Messiah), from Hull (Woman of Samaria) to Lytham, Blackpool’s North Pier and Tring with his basso profondo repertoire.
In June 1879 (having previously announced that Signor B ‘of Mapleson’s London Opera Company is to visit USA to do concert, oratorio etc in the main centres’), he joined Blanche Cole’s opera and concert group at the Alexandra Palace, and there gave his last performances in opera. But they were his last performances simply because Signor Brocolini was about terminally to change genre.
In October 1879, he arrived in Liverpool to appear at the Prince of Wales Theatre, under the management of Mr D’Oyly Carte, as Captain Corcoran in the soi-disant provincial touring company of HMS Pinafore. However, the company as constituted at Liverpool was preparing an altogether different tour. The next date after Liverpool was New York.
Mr ‘John Clark Brocolini’ arrived on the Gallia,in the company of Mr Richard D’Oyly Carte, Mr Hugh Talbot Brennan (another ex-Maplesonian), Mr John H Ryley, Mr William White, Mr Frederic Clifton and the ladies of the company on 11 November, and on 1 December 1879 America’s definitive edition of HMS Pinafore opened at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.
However, the principal reason for this trans-Atlantic voyage, was to produce HMS Pinafore’s successor, The Pirates of Penzance, and after a month of performances of the older piece, the new one opened on 31 December, with John C Brocolini in the role of the Pirate King, with his soon to be famous song ‘Oh better far to live or die..’. The eagerly-awaited piece was of much more interest to the press and public than were the players, and the critics devoted most of the columns to the details of plot and music, but the cast was deemed (with the exception of poor Talbot) judged ‘almost perfect’, though Signor Brocolini was judged by The Dramatic Mirror to have ‘sung the part of the pirate king, Richard, vigorously, although the acting requirements of the character are beyond his grasp’.
But Signor Brocolini’s place in the history of the musical theatre was assured.
Through 1880 and into 1881, Brocolini played the Pirate King before switching to Carte and E E Rice’s Billee Taylor company, in the role of Christopher Crab. There was a slight kerfuffle when, in defiance of his contract with Carte, he accepted the role of Joseph Jessup in the local comic opera Deseret, but all was ‘amicably settled’ and Deseretwas, in any case, not successful.
In 1881 (2 July) he took the role of Dr Kindergarten in Nat Goodwin’s Dr Syntaxat the Boston Museum, and in October of the same year he took up management again, launching the Paine-Brocolini Opera Company which boasted ‘two great stars’, himself and the former London semi-professional Matilda Scott, playing Fadette, or the Days of Robespierre and The Rose of the Auvergne in smaller dates. The musical director of the troupe was younger brother, William H Clark.
He would return regularly to comic opera – Billee Taylor (Crab), Virginia (as De Ville), the Boston musical Pounce and Co (19 April 1883) – and most especiallythe Gilbert and Sullivan canon, taking over the role of Bunthorne in Patience, and later playing Strephon in Iolanthe, Skir Marmaduke in The Sorcerer, and King Hildebrand in Princess Ida (11 February 1884) back at the Fifth Avenue Theatre where his greatest success had been achieved.
However, in 1884 his name appeared in the American papers not in the theatrical columns, nor even in the sporting ones (for he had apparently kept up his sporting activities), but in the gossip columns.
A long and excessively colourful tale was published about his marital situation, which had recently ended in divorce, and the tale certainly did not reflect well on the Signor. The article was patently incorrect in some of its details, but the end of it all was that, after divorcing, Lizzie had wed the tenorish-baritone Carlos Florentine, whom the Clarks had known in London. Florentine had lost his voice and had ended up working in an office, and the two of them had become adepts of the Salvation Army. The final picture had them ensconced in the dingy and devoted rooms of the Army, whilst Brocolini lorded it on the stage, a mile away, in glitter and glamour. Well, I’ve looked for the Florentines in the American records, but I’ve found nothing. But I do know that ‘Carlos’ was indeed in London in the mid-1870s… however the ‘lost voice’? he was singing in 1882 with Haverly’s Mastodons, Colonel Calverly on tour in Patience in 1883, and I spot him taking a Benefit at the Grand Opera House in 1884. He was still working as a church musician -- which had always been his bread and scraping of butter – in 1888 …
After his engagement in Princess Ida, Brocolini joined W S Rising in managing a comic opera company in Montreal, and at the end of the year he got even further away from America: he took an engagement with the Australian producers, Williamson, Garner and Musgrove, and during 1885 appeared in La Petite Mademoiselle (Manicamp), Iolanthe(Strephon) et al, for several months, down under. By the end of the year, however, he was back in Boston, playing Pooh Bah in The Mikado.
His press was a bit better now. He got paragraphed – as he had, years ago, in London, when he had sung at the opera alongside the diminutive tenor Carrion – for his tall Pooh Bah alongside the very tiny Yum-Yum of Ida Mülle. He got paragraphed for ‘visiting his mother in Brooklyn’ and ‘having a cruising yacht built’. And he worked steadily on in comic opera – more Princess Ida (Hildebrand),Rice’sThe Corsair (Seyd Pasha), The Yeomen of the Guard, Ruddigore (Sir Despard), and The Gondoliers with Rice and with John Stetson’s companies.
As late as 1892, I spot him singing the bass solos in The Creationat Brooklyn. For John Clark Brocolini came to rest in his ‘native’ Brooklyn. He was obliged to give up the stage because of rheumatic problems, but he still sang in public – and it was still ‘Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep’ -- and in church.
In his theatrical retirement he conducted and wrote choral music – notably a collection of anthems (‘recognised as one of the foremost authorities on church music in New York’)and wrote lavishly for the local press on topics musical and theatrical. One series of six articles of reminiscences included the story (true? I doubt it) of the last-minute writing of the Pirate King’s famous song in The Pirates of Penzance – allegedly because he didn’t like the original song allotted to him.
He also remarried, in 1897, his new wife being Miss Sarah C Bradley (b Connecticut, c 1856), the daughter of former confectioner and fruiterer, George D Bradley of Brooklyn, and a member of the choir of St Peter’s Protestant Episcopal Church.
Increasingly limited in his activities by his rheumatism, John Clark ultimately died of liver disease at his home in Brooklyn in 1906.
Sister Elizabeth married Mr George McGibbon, a clerk in a dry goods store. The McGibbons had at least five children, one of whom was christened John Clark McGibbon for his uncle. They can all be seen in the 1880 census, in Brooklyn, housing the aged Lilias. Lilias died in 1892 and her will is preserved on the internet. John executed the will and inherited one gold watch, one silver spoon, one silver snuffbox and the residuary estate of $300. Her daughters are Lizzie McGibbon, Mary McCleave. Jane (Mrs Joseph) Mackie, Isabella Fairley Stewart of Edinburgh (d 12 April 1897) and there is a granddaughter named Mary Lown. William is listed as ‘address unknown’ (‘he is an itinerant musician in the west’), the other sons seem to have gone. Oh, the sisters had loads of children, so there are lots of little broccoli sprouts running about the place, up to this very day …