Wednesday, August 31, 2016


There I was, at my desk, working away at the story of Jenny Busk, Batimore soprano, when ... Suddenly there was a crash, just east of my right elbow ..

What in the .... my heart was in my voicebox ... a dragon! Or something out of Jurassic Park. Sitting on top of Sevvy's cook book!

And .. oh dear! Just yesterday, after all my travels, I decided it was time I got myself a nice picture of Wendy, and a nice picture of Paul, to decorate my home. Some lovely yellow frames from Beachside Bargains, nice prints from Yamba Photographic, and last night they took their place on my desk.

And now they've been sent flying onto their faces by ... by a dragon.

I ran for help ... and a broom ...

These things DON'T run. They sit like statues for hours ...

I've got him on to the terrasse. He's alternating between scratching on the doors to get back in, or hurling himself against them (it's glass! don't dragons learn abour glass) and WADDLING like a top-speed dinasour round and round the balcony, scaring the mynah birds ...

Argh. Go away!

NOW where is he ...?


Friday, August 26, 2016

VANISHING ETHEL: or, New Zealand's first prima donna

Who will solve this mystery for me ....?

CORLETT[E], Ethel aka ZELDA, Adelina (b Raglan, New Zealand c 1866; d unknown).

‘New Zealand’s first homegrown prima donna’. Well, yes, I suppose so. I don't know of an earlier one. At that stage in time, people were coming to New Zealand, not leaving it. But Signorina Zelda would have been a ten-line article, had I not fallen for her mother.

The story of the Corlett family, or the part of its history I’ve managed to unfold, is colourful. It also has no beginning and no end. Yet.

In 1859, the ship Mermaid from Liverpool to Auckland included among its 357 passengers a Mr and Mrs Corlett. Who they were, and from whence they came, I have simply not been able to discover. The ‘evidence’ is dramatically conflicting. In the one census in which I find her, Mrs T[h]eresa J[osephine] Corlett claimed to have been born in Portugal. Her children, in later censi, say their father was born in Spain and their mother in the Isle of Man. Another time they are both ‘English’. The most likely comes in 1900 when three of them (oh! I don’t think it’s they) give their parents’ birthplaces as Isle of Man (where Corletts flourish) and Ireland (where Theresas do likewise). Alas, daughter Nellie, in the same census, opts for France and Portugal. What seems obvious, in sum, is that there was some sort of irregularity to hide.

 Mrs Corlett[e] became a notable from her arrival in Auckland. She was ‘a pupil of Garcia’, a ‘soprano of great compass and flexibility’ and a pianist, and on 22 February 1860, she gave a concert at Auckland’s Mechanics Hall. And then a second ‘As a vocalist Mrs Corlett is one of the most finished we have ever heard in Auckland ..’. The Auckland Choral Society snapped her up as star soprano (Israel in Egypt, ‘Softly Sighs’), she advertised for pupils from her Hobson Street home, and moved in no time into a premier position in Auckland’s musical world, promoting regular concerts (‘Miserere’, ‘The Convent Cell’, ‘Softly Sighs’, ‘Kathleen Mavourneen', 'Little Nell’, ‘Barney O’Hea etc).

And Mr Corlett? Mr Cellophane. You could be excused for thinking he didn’t exist. He must have, for Mrs C produced five children over the next decade plus, before she and they (but not he) headed for America, in 1875. You would have thought that in the local papers of the 1860s … but I find only one mention. In 1870. ‘Evening School, Ghuznee St, Te Aro, conducted by Mr and Mrs Corlett’. Raglan library, however, reported from some oral history that he was a bit of a dead loss ...

After having been queen of Auckland music for a year or so, however, Mrs C seems to have moved away. Husband’s job? I see her at Onehunga (‘I remember when I sat under the peach trees…’), Otahuhu, Thames, and then, more semi-permanently at Raglan, in the Waikato. And the history of Raglan tells us ‘The first Raglan school was a private one run by Mrs Corlett in a tent commencing in 1866.’ It was in Raglan that child number four, Ethel, was born. There was one more to come. Harry Moore Corlett. Seemingly in 1870. And then Mrs C moves to Wellington where she opens a Music Academy in Molesworth Street, not Ghuznee Street. In parallel, she opened another Academy teaching fancy work, wax flowers and ferns (she won many a prize for her wax flowers), leather work, Italian painting, ornamental needlework, gilding, promoted Mrs Corlett’s singing classes, taught at the Thorndon Private School, and under the thin pseudonym of ‘Silver Pen’ began writing sentimental verse and spiky political sketches in jolly doggerel for the Wellington Independent. She seems, in the process, to have made a few friends and the odd enemy in the corridors of petty pakeha power.

In 1875, ‘She broke up her home in Wellington despite the remonstrances of [Hon Dr Grace], and with her 5 children started for New South Wales and from there to San Francisco determined to earn a living and a name by the exercise of her brains’. Grace smiled that she had ‘sixteen drops of the devil’s blood in her’, which sounds about right.

On 17 May they left on the Edwin Fox, then the Ravenstonedale, destination America. In August, they stopped at Hawaii, which welcomed ‘a lady of culture and accomplishments .. with much skill as a vocalist’. On 21 August she and eldest daughter, Theresa jr (b Auckland 8 March 1863), ‘under the patronge of the King', gave a ‘Musical Concert and Recitation', at Honolulu Theatre.

21 January 1876 the two ladies gave ‘an evening of poetry and song’ at San Francisco’s Pacific Hall, in no time the two of them were manufacturing wax flowers, and … oh, no! At last! A series of concerts were announced to be directed by Mrs J S Corlett! Aha! are those initials for real? Mrs Corlett can be seen reading her poetry at the Temperance League, exhibiting her wax creations at the Mechanic Institute Fair, at the same time as writing newspaper copy for the local press and a column in the vein of Emily Soldene’s ‘London Week by Week’ for the New Zealand Herald. And, of course, preparing her three daughters for a career. In 1879, Theresa took the part of Hebe in a West Coast Pinafore and Nellie debuted as Desdemona at a local carnival.

Neither Theresa nor Nellie had a prominent career in the theatre. Theresa married in 1885, Edward Batchelder Thompson, and died at the age of 38. Nellie was still ‘Helen Corlette, actress’ in 1900. Herbert de Wilton (!) Corlette (‘dog handler’) and Harry Moore Corlette (‘manager of the Electric Light and Gas Co’) didn’t go into the theatre. Or even wax flowers. Harry later made it big in property, then shot himself (1915) when he began having mental problems. All mother’s hopes were on Ethel. And Ethel was promising.

When W T Carleton paid one of his visits to San Francisco (Teresa had appeared locally with him before), Ethel sang for him and was cast in the chorus of his touring company, understudying Louise Paullin as Nanon and Yum-Yum. And in Boston, Miss Paullin was off. And Miss Corlette was on. And she did splendidly, so the press (ie mother) reported. She appeared in several musical comedy companies (Donnelly and Girard’s Natural Gas, Harrigan’s Pete), and in December 1890 Theresa decided to take her to Europe. Apparently to study (although mama went into print to deny that her daughter had any other teacher but herself) and hopefully to work. The ship list registers Miss Ethel Corlett 21 single and Mrs Helen Corlett 51 married. So mama is Helen now? And … married? I see them (still ‘Helen’, or is this Nellie?) travelling back to America in 1891. Ethel, mama reports to the News Letter, has been taking lessons with Anna Lagrange in Paris. While she was at home, I see her singing Agathe in Der Freischütz at the San Francisco Grand.

And then it was back to Italy. And a change of name. Her teacher (but surely that was mama?) christened her ‘Adelina Zelda’. Mlle Zelda started to appear on Italian stage, it seems, in 1894. There are undated reports of her at Bassano, in the Vicenza press, and making a debut at Malta as ‘the star of an Italian opera company’ in Lucia di Lammermoor and Faust. The press paras, which had nothing of the puff about them (mother knew better), were undoubtedly sent by Theresa. The Malta engagement, we are told by other sources, was for five nights. San Francisco said six months. Mother records that she had sung Filina, Dinorah, Amina and Rosina (somewhere) but oddly doesn’t mention Lucia and Marguerite.  Anyway, I guess she had now won her spurs as New Zealand’s first prima donna.
The next job was a jump-in, at Pavia, alongside the well-known tenor Oxilia. ‘The part of Lucia was assumed, without rehearsal, by the young diva, Adeline Zelda, who so often obtained ovations at the Royal Theater, Malta, in the same opera and in Faust. ‘To a pleasing and elegant appearance [she] joins a flexible and velvety voice and a most finished method of singing. She pronounces Italian perfectly and has extraordinary dramatic intuition’. ‘Signorina Zelda, in addition to an aristocratic figure, has a voice that is perfect in all the registers … her vocal agility is extraordinary and she has the true dramatic sensitiveness.’ Doubtless, mother again, but these were quotes.

And then utter disaster struck. Theresa Josephine Corlett caught cold and died, 17 December 1895, in Milan.

Mother was obviously the driving force of the family. Ethel brought her ashes back to California and …. and there, seemingly, ends the story of New Zealand’s first prima donna. There were murmurs of her her still in the European press in 1897, she was going to sing at Reims, the Opéra-Comique ... did she? Is she the 'Mlle Zelda of Covent Garden' singing in concert at La Rochelle in 1898?

I wonder what became of her. Maybe I’ll find out, one day. And mama … who WAS she, that rather remarkable woman, singer and suffragette, writer, poet, political satirist, mother, teacher … there’s the stuff of a whole book in ‘Mrs Corlett’…

Postscriptum: when I posted this wee article on Blogger, in 2016, stats told me that an amazing 570 people read it. But nobody came up with the answer. I don't know what prompted me to re-post it in winter 2018, but this time ...  not all the answers, but some. Courtesy of champion researcher, Colin Perry, on the other side of the world.
Mr Corlett (sic) was named James. And he was indeed hopeless.

"Bankruptcy Gazette. In the matter of James Corlett, of the City of Wellington, schoolmaster, a bankrupt. notice is hereby given that by order dated the 16th day of May, 1870, the above-named James Corlett was adjudicated a bankrupt, and Monday, the 23rd day of May, 1870, at 11 o'clock in the forenoon, in the Grand Jury Room, Supreme Court House, Lambton Quay, Wellington, appointed for the first meeting of his creditors and the choice of a trustee and supervisors of his estate. J. G. Allan, solicitor for the Bankrupt. 18th May, 1870."
And then it started:
 "in the Magistrate's Court this morning... James Corlett, charged with being drunk and disorderly, was fined 5s, or in default, committed for 24 hours."
Colonist, 26 August 1873: 'The Wellington Post of August 21st states: "Early yesterday morning a man named James Corlett was found by the police helplessly intoxicated in Willis-street. He was conveyed to the lock-up, and by the evening, recovered his senses, and spoke sensibly to the man in charge. This morning, he seemed to be stupid, and had stripped off his clothes. These were put on him, and he was left until he could be brought before the Bench. A few minutes before 10, he was again found to have divested himself of clothing, and one of the police were sent into the cell to help him to dress. The appearance of Corlett at this time was such that the policeman deemed it necessary to call assistance. He left the cell for a couple of minutes for this purpose, and on his return with help, Corlett was found dead on the floor. There is little doubt that death resulted from an effusion of serum on the brain - the result of long-continued habits of intemperance."

He was buried, so the Findagrave website tells, in a public plot at Bolton Street Cemetery, Karori ... just down the hill from my birthplace. James Corlett 1827-1873. So we know why he didn't go to San Francisco. And Theresa's description of 'widow' in the California directories was nothing but the truth. If she had ever been married, of course.  Which needs to be proven!

So, one more piece of the jigsaw in place. Plenty more to find!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Not so very many years ago, two young students, already laurelled, each one, with considerable success, entered the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, Australia. 
Paul from Grafton, NSW (piano) and Fiora from Launceston, Tasmania (soprano) quickly became best buddies, which meant, of course, being musicians, they made much beautiful music together. 

Everything from ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ to the songs of Copland …

And for a change from Strauss or Copland, they manufactured their own material

And it so happened that both of them, separately, moved out into the big wide musical world … and just happened to end up in the same place. Berlin, Germany.

Which is where I come in. On my second day in Berlin (ever, the first was Das Vetter aus dingsda), Dr Kevin Clarke took me to a concert at the Bar Jeder Vernunft. Australians? I come to Berlin to hear Australians? Paul in a new guise as singer-songwriter ‘Montmorensy’, Fiora backing him with stratospheric sopranoisms. 

I was blown away, and I rushed into print ...

Montmorensy went on to record a CD (Writ in Water), which became the joy of the cognoscenti, and then quietly slipped away to turn himself back into the pianist and composer, Paul Hankinson.

Fiora stepped out from the ooh-aah desk and up into the limelight, touring the world as the featured vocalist with DJ Armin van Buuren to hordes of screaming fans …

And when she wasn’t touring, and he wasn’t away playing Haydn, Beethoven, Britten et al, and premiering his piano quintet (To Cross the Bay) in Australia…

the pair coincidentally both ended up in the Hochstrasse, Berlin. Living across a courtyard from each other. It wasn’t long before the string and a tin can were in operation. And the result? A few years on from ‘Pierrot’. Another song together. ‘Human Race’. Out this week, and already heading for the Top 100 in Russia!

You start off with ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ and you end up on the Russian hit parades, and itunes, and Spotify, and soundcloud and all those places I’ve never been …  

Music, music, music ...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A day in the lovely life ....

We had breakfast with the birds (‘Martha, put your tongue in, the next bit of bread is MINE’)

 We went walking out on the breakwater, where the critturs live and the waves swirl and the sunshine glitters

And where sometimes you catch a blackfish

 We looked over the blue waters, back at home ..

 And the birds flew and the sea shone

And we came home and dipped into the complete works of Sevtap Yüce and …

 No ‘we’ this time! Paulie made the most delicious Seve-Turkish dinner. I just poured the wine …

 Good night, sweet world …

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suffering Sopranos! … or, Where did my aria go?

In the umpteen years that I’ve been working in the 19th-century music world, I’ve encountered endless names which were new and unexplained (duly, since, explored) and a great deal of music which was naught but a title to me. I’ve explored some of that too, with the help of youtube, but alas, that excellent teaching aid has some sad and, in some ways surprising, lacunae. Huge hits of the C19th are not there. I suppose no one has recorded them, their day of glory was in the years before recording was invented. So, I have to fall back on sheet music. But in one notable case, that too had left me bereft. Story.

In the early decades of the Victorian era there was one number, above all, which star sopranos, prime donne … and little girls at their pianos … put on show if they wanted to exhibit the then fashionable ‘elasticity’ and ‘flexibility’ of their voices. You know, like Cecilia Bartoli in her ‘Agitata da due venti’. It was not the Queen of the Night, not even ‘Bid me Discourse’, ‘Cease your funning’, ‘Non piu mesta’ or chunks of Proch and Pucitta. The piece was known as ‘Rode’s Air and Variations’. Must have a look at this, I thought.

Brick Wall. Youtube rendered up a piano version. How odd, a piano version of something so widespread, yet not a vocal one. Well, as I know now, the piece went by several different titles and appeared in a multitude of different arrangements. And I’m still not wholly certain which is which.

Pierre Rode was a French violinist, considered, with Viotti (his teacher) and Kreutzer, as one of the best players of, and writers for, the instrument around the turn of the C18th. He operated variously in France, Russia and Germany, was sometime named violinist to Napoléon and the King of all the Russias, and in the last years of the C18th early years of the C19th turned out some highly popular concertos for violin. But the most popular, it seems, was our ‘Air Varié’. Written in G major. When? Where? When was it first performed? Well, I have scrabbled through yards of old German script, and I have no precise answer.

The following Vienna sheet-music has to be very early 1800s, when Napoléon was still ‘premier consul’ of France rather than Emperor..

So it seems it was premiered (?) while he was in France.

Alas, Rode’s worklist is annoyingly muddled. Even the Bibliothèque Nationale de France doesn’t seem to have things ordered and dated. There is strange inconsistency in opus numbers. The 12 concertos (most, like his Caprices and Études, recorded in our day) are numbered 1-12, but the rest? Our Air Varié was published as opus 10 in Vienna (above) and France. Elsewhere it seems to be opus 12. One text says it was written circa 1794, which can’t be right. Opus 9 (the 7th concerto) seems to have been be premiered in 1803. And Opus 11 in 1804. When he was in Russia…

But I think I see our Opus 10 (?) already published in France in December 1802. I find it, by 1805, called the ‘bekannten Variationen von Rode’ in Leipzig (Einert) and Hamburg (Seidler). By 1812 they’re ‘die himmelschen Variationen von Rode’, and being played not only by the masters but by a 13 year-old amateur, a blind man from Munich, arranged as an organ solo … and I see versions (undated) for flute, for clarinet, for piano, for harp, for cornet, for concertina. In 1818 the ‘cellist Wranitzky is playing it …

So when did the vocal version happen. Well, it seems to have been round about this time. The first reference is to Catalani singing it ‘exactly as written’ at the Paris Italiens in the 1817-8 season. Apparently with no words. Just as Madame Mara had done with a similar Italian piece the year before. I haven’t yet found this performance (which must have provoked some reaction!) but I pick her up in September 1818 in Prague and Dresden in November showcasing her new number 'mit unterlegtem Text' alongside her regular Pucitta (‘Deh frenate’, ‘Della tromba’), Paer (‘La placida campagna’), Guglielmi (‘Mio bene’), Portogallo (‘Vorrei frenar le lagrime’), Mozart ‘Done sono’ and the pasticcio ‘O dolce contento’), Handel (Messiah) and ‘God Save the King’ (of whichever country was appropriate, this time it was 'König Franz').

One wee point. It wasn’t ‘exactly as written’. It had been transposed to E flat, so that the top note in the piece was theoretically B flat. But of course, Madame embellished the embellishments!

Other sopranos were on to it soon. I see Elizabeth Feron giving a very Catalani-esque programme, including the Rode, in Berlin as soon as 1819. And meanwhile the violinists and the clarinettists and the pianists (‘originally composed for the Violin, adapted for the Voice, and sung with extraordinary effect at Paris by Madame Catalani, and now arranged for the Piano Forte’) continued to give their G major variations.

In 1821, Catalani and the piece hit England. She gave two concerts in Birmingham and featured the piece both nights, she moved to London’s Argyll Rooms and out it came again. ‘The celebrated air by Rode with the variations as sung by Madame Catalani is published under her sanction …’. When Mary Ann Paton jumped on the bandwagon she stoutly announced her piece as ‘Rhode’s Violin Variations’.  And Skillern published it for harp. So did Bochsa. Lavenu published it ‘as sung by Mme Catalani’ for two pianos. The flautist Nicholson tried it and got a rapped knuckle: ‘If Mme Catalani will venture to sing a violin air, surely the flute-player may venture to blow it, but Madame C performs its most valourously note for note as M Rode plays it, while Mr Nicholson more prudently adapts it to the genius of his instrument’. And he added three extra variations.

Cheltenham muso Pio Cianchettini published what passed for an official Catalani arrangement, ‘which it would seem she deems to be the highest possible demonstration of her powers’. Later Levy made it over for cornet and Mr Purkis performed it on the Apollicon.

1822 seems to have been the year of issue of the most successful of the other ‘arrangement of the arrangement’. Carl Czerny had heard Catalani sing her version in Vienna the previous year and come up with his piano version (opus 33). That’s the one on youtube. Gloriously played by Horowitz...

But the vocal version was about to get another fillip. Henriette Sontag took it up, and not only gave it in concert but introduced it into the lesson scene of her performances of The Barber of Seville. First in London and then in Paris. It was for the nonce an accepted part of Rossini’s score. Cramers even published it as a pair with ‘Una voce poco fa’.

In the years to come, other stars took their turn at the piece. I see Grisi (1834, ‘surpasses any other performance we have heard of the same piece’), Cinti-Damoreau (1835), Charlott Ann Birch (1846), ‘the return of Sontag’ (1849), Louisa Pyne (1851), Castellan (1851), Sofie Cruvelli in Il Barbiere (1852), Marie Comte-Borchard (1853), Alboni in concert and Il Barbiere (1856-7), Helen Lemmens-Sherrington (1859), Artôt (1860), and others less or unknown to fame, singing the now famous melody. Julia Harland, Mesdames Gautrot and Testar (Australia), Mrs Emma G Bostwick (USA), Herta Westerstrand, Molina di Mendi, Annie Thirlwall, Guiseppina Finoli, Pauline Rita, Pauline Lewitzky, Amalia Colombo, Caroline Schmeroschi, Rose Hersee, Elvira Gambogi, Antoinette Trebelli ..

By the 1880s it was occasionally qualified as ‘sadly hackneyed’ or ‘that useful voice-training exercise’ and by the 20th century it had largely gone back to being a violin piece and the vocal version was surrounded by journalistic mythology: ‘Rode's Air and Variations [was] sung by Miss M Blanche Foulke. The vocal arrangement was originally written for Mme Sontag who, jealous it would seem, of the effect Rode could obtain from the violin in this exquisite creation, determined to emulate his efforts. In spite of his decidedly expressed…’.

So there is its history. Enough of a history, surely, for a copy – just one copy -- of the vocal version to have somewhere survived. But for many, many years, in spite of the aid of some of the world’s most knowledgeable music librarians. I couldn’t find one.

Well, this week I have. In Germany, Russia, England? Breitkopf & Hartel? Cramer? Nope. In the U S of A. In good old Virginia. I’ve sent the URL to a few soprani of my acquaintance, and Paulie is recording the piano accompaniment so we can all have a go…

The vanished vocalises are vanished no longer. Maybe I can get Madame Bartoli to have a crack at them (only B flat, dear!). Well, let’s see!

Nota bene. Pougin states categorically that our base piece is the second of Deux airs Variés (en sol majeur) avec accompagnement d’un second violon, alto et violoncello … Op 9 et 12. He is doubtless right. But why doesn’t he give a date? And what happened to Opus 10?

Virginia’s sheet is of the Sontag Barber of Seville version of circa 1829, published in ... Chicago!