Friday, May 11, 2018

Rose's Turn ... the life of a comic opera contralto


I don’t know why I’ve always been a little bit fascinated by ‘Rose Leighton’. I know I have a liking for the ‘komische Alte’ kind of lady performer (as opposed to the ageing ‘diva’) and Rose and her rich contralto were playing ‘Alte’ roles before she was out of her twenties. Also I am vastly tired of the facile quote ‘Rose Keene whose stage name was Rose Leighton …’ copied from one biographical note on her husband to a hundred webbed others without any knowledge of the lady at all. So I thought I’d take a day out and put her, as far as I can, to rights.

Yes, ‘Rose Leighton’ was born Keene. Rosina Keene to be precise. The event took place in Shepherd’s Bush, London 21 August 1852. Her father was a medical doctor and surgeon by name Richard Keene (d 53 Bridge Avenue, Hammersmith 30 November 1880) who was in his turn the son of a pubkeeper of the same name (d 17 April 1843) and of Mary Martha née Mercer. Her mother was the former Susan Baker from Ringland, Norfolk. There was an elder brother named Ronald, and a younger sister, Lillie: Dr Richard did not breed as extravagantly as some others of his family.

Rosina was set to music. In 1868, a Mrs E Darvell, a small-time pianist, was mentioned as her singing teacher, later she would claim ‘Signor Gilardoni’. The Signor was Giovanni Febeo Alfeo Gilardoni, a modest, working musician, who around 1869 was teaching singing at the London Academy of Music. Did Rose attend the school?

I have vague ancient memories of seeing her name in the odd concert, but today, looking again, I can’t find them. Anyway, in the 1871 census they are all in Hammersmith (although Ronald later said he was ‘educated in France’) – along with a 22 year-old sailor from Adelaide, Australia – and life seems to be ticking along normally. But not for long. 1875 would be the family explode. Ronald took off for Australia, and Rose went on the stage. Her version of the tale is that her parents wouldn’t but her a dress that she wanted, so she determined to go out and make money of her own. And she did. She said later that it was through Fred Stanislaus which sounds reasonable as he was the conductor at the Criterion Theatre for Mrs Liston’s hit production of Lecocq’s Les Pres Saint-Gervais, star Pauline Rita. The part of the flowergirl, Friquette, had been played for the first hundred nights by Catherine Lewis, then Camille Dubois: now Rose took over. And with fine results: ‘her debut may be pronounced satisfactory … for she was encored in each of her songs’. At the beginning of May, Les Pres Saint-Germain was succeeded by Giroflé-Giroflà with Miss Rita in the title-roles, and Rose supporting as the boy, Pedro. Julia Mathews took over from the star, and played until July when, after some performances of a ‘version’ of Barbe-bleue, and while Mrs Liston took her production, with Catherine Lewis, to the provinces, it was announced that Mr Samuel Colville had hired Miss Mathews and others of her troupe to take their shows to Wallack’s Theatre, New York. 

The Bohemian Girl
San Francisco, so what rôle is this ...?

The team arrived in New York 8 August 1875, and eleven days later opened at Wallack’s in Barbe-bleue. Rose was Fleurette to the Saphir of light baritone William Forrester. Through September, followed La Grande-Duchesse, Gioroflé-Giroflà and Les Pres Saint-Gervais, before the company left for Brooklyn … and imploded. Most of the company returned to England, but Rose, Millie Cook, Forrester and star comedian G H McDermott stayed, and played the comedy Brough to Book at Washington, and then gave New York its first ever taste of Trial by Jury (Eagle Theatre, 8 November 1875). When that fizzled out, Rose and Forrester took up singing duets at the downmarket Parisian Varieties (‘Miss Rosie Keene’ No!, Cat Duet, ‘operatic duets’). They weren’t going home. Because they were already a ‘number’. And back in Liverpool ‘William Forrester’ (real name: Jennings) had a wife, the actress daughter of a Sligo house-painter, and two children.

But then the Parisian Varieties had to stop. And Rose and William did go home. Susan Keene had died. ‘I spent a year with my father’ related Rose … scuttlebutt also credits her with giving birth to a little Forrester. But we can’t know. But as soon as she could, she – they – returned to America. And Rose became ‘Rose Leighton’. Well, she had to. Someone else had pinched her name while she was away!

I spot her first back with Colville playing the Governess (character roles already!) in The Babes in the Wood, or Who Killed Cock Robin?with the vastly successful ‘Folly Company’ including such memorable performers as Willie Edouin and Alice Atherton, Willie Gill, Kate Everleigh and featuring the manager’s wife, ‘Eme Roseau’. When she was ‘off’, and had to be deputised by Mrs Gill, it was again reported than she was in New York having a ‘Forrester’ baby. Who knows?

Anyway, the relationship with Jennings-Forrester (oh, by the way, they had actually been bigamously married back in England in 1877) was almost at its end … was it because Colville’s company suddenly acquired, in 1880, a chorine by name Miss Helen Hudson? -- and Rose was going on from here to be a very superior komische Alte. William was heading for an unfortunate early death.

She turns up playing Hebe in an E E Rice HMS Pinafore in 1879 – Forrester was the Sir Joseph, Ralph and Buttercup were played in travesty – and continued doing the rounds with Colville and Rice through much of 1880 – Fairy Queen in The Magic Slipper, Fatima in Bluebeard, Gipsy Queen in Bohemian G’yurl, Inez in Ill-Treated Trovatore, before her new career began. She was hired to play with H B Mahn’s opera company, star Jennie Winston, playing not burlesque and extravaganza, but legitimate comic opera. And, at 28 years of age, the roles of Peronella in Boccaccio and Donna Olympia in Donna Juanita. However, when Mahn put on La Mascotte, it was Rose who was cast in the title-role as Bettina. 

In 1882, she joined C D Hess’s Acme Opera Company with Adelaide Randall (later Abbie Carrington) as prima donna, playing a repertoire including Maritana (Lazarillo), The Bohemian Girl (Gipsy Queen), Faust (Martha), Les Cloches de Corneville (Germaine), Fra Diavolo (Lady Allcash), La Mascotte (Bettina), Iolanthe (Fairy Queen ‘graceful and stately dignity and deep, highly cultivated and flexible voice’), taking time out for summer season in Baltimore (Lady Jane to the Grosvenor of Miss Winston, Peronella to her Boccaccio, La Périchole, La Grande-Duchesse &c), a date which she would repeat for several seasons.


 1883 saw her with John McCaull at New York’s Casino Theatre, joining his very superior company in the role of the Countess Palmatica in The Beggar Student, as well as playing at the Bijou Theatre (Lazarillo, Germaine etc) before getting mixed up in an unfortunate flop entitled Desirée featuring the young deWolf Hopper.

In January 1885, William Jennings alias Forrester died after a stage accident in Baltimore. Helen née Hudson wrote to the newspapers saying that Rose was not his wife, that she was, and she was going blind and had two children and, effectively, please send money to 74 Brainard St, The Brook, Liverpool.


 Rose was in New York, with McCaull’s companies, playing Mrs Partlett in The Sorcerer and Lady Angela in Patience … the roles of Sangazure and Jane being the property of another and even younger English duenna, Laura Joyce Bell. She was also, now, married (14 December 1884). This time legally and properly. Her husband was the young musician and composer Gustav Kerker, who had been conductor for the Mahn troupe.

In the years that followed, Rose travelled with most of the best of America’s comic opera companies from the Montague-Turner opera to John Duff’s fine outfits, while fulfilling her summer engagements at Baltimore. She was Katisha to The Mikadoof Fred Solomon, Inez in The Gondoliers, Thames Darrell to the Little Jack Sheppard of Loie Fuller and the Blueskin of Nat Goodwin, Mrs Privett in Dorothy with Harry Paulton and Lillian Russell, Catarina in The Queen’s Mate, the Gipsy Queen, Aurore in Giroflé-Giroflà, Buccametta in A Trip to Africa, Else then Artemisia in The Merry War, Lady Allcash et al).

She took part in Kerker’s comic opera Castles in the Air, appeared in the farce comedy U and I (Mrs Ungerblotz), repeated her Aurore at the Garden Theatre with Miss Russell, Hayden Coffin, W T Carleton, toured with Camille d’Arville in Madeleine, or the Magic Kiss, played Ramadamus in Kerker’s Kismet, Madame Hilarius to the La Poupée of Anna Held and one more Peronella alongside Attalie Claire and Raymond Hitchcock, all as part of a full career as one of America’s favourite comic opera duennas.

In 1895, she joined the repertoire company at New York’s Castle Square Gardens, playing everything from Katisha, the Fairy Queen, Buttercup, Palmatica, and Katrina in Rip van Winkle, to Lady Allcash, Inez in Il Trovatore and Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana …

After 1896, I see her no more. While her young husband was forwarding his career, Rose seems to have gone into retirement. Or something. In the 1900 census, he is living/staying with brother-in-law Henry Wolfsohn and family, sister Ida Kerker, actress niece Lulu Hesse, and listed as ‘married 15 years’. But there is no sign of Rose.

My next sighting of her is in the New York death registers. 14 March 1908. That’s all I know. The trade press, even, doesn’t seem to have noticed her passing. But the New York Times noted 'Kerker--At 115 Manhattan Av.  March 14.  Rose Kerker.  Funeral private'. Apparently 115 Manhattan Av was the Kerkers home address.

Gustav swiftly remarried a young chorus girl …

Ronald Keene had died in Australia in 1901, so only Lillie survived. I wonder if she knew the full story. And whether those putative children of Rose’s were real or journalism. She had married rate-collector Joseph Warton Henley in 1881, had half a dozen children, and survived to the age of ninety-seven … a rather different life to that of her sister.

As for Helen Hudson-Jennings-Forrester, she apparently didn’t go blind. She brought up her children, Henry Wilmot Jennings and Isabella Jennings, working as a dressmaker in Liverpool, and 30 August 1899 she married Thomas Parry at Kirkdale, Lancs, and disappears out of our story. 











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