Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The singing grocer of the Savoy operas ....


The Gilbert and Sullivan casts of the earliest years don’t, I think, hold more than one performer who turned professional vocalist after the age of forty. And here (by request!) is that one …

MONTELLI, T J  [HORNE, Thomas John] (b Westminster, London 23 February 1826, d Caterham 23 April 1912)

Montelli? Why on earth would an Englishman going into the music world change his name to Montelli?  Since the 1840s, the London and European concert and operatic scene had sported a Signor Montelli:  Camillo Montelli, ‘a third rate Italian singer’ from Naples, who had appeared as a baritone on the stage and the platform and made mostly ill-fated attempts at concert and opera management, from Sardinia to Paris to London. In 1850, he had toured Mme Montenegro and Sr Santiago (who married Signorina Montelli) round England with some success, in 1870 he had dreadful failures in London, and I have no idea what ultimately became of him.

But 1870 was just when our Mr Montelli appeared, I believe for the first time, under that name, and set us all sorts of identity problems. Hopefully now cleared up.

But who was he? In 1870, Thomas Horne was a 44 year-old grocer living in Hampstead. He’d been a grocer for over twenty years – in the footsteps of his father, Thomas, a tea-merchant in the Marylebone Road – for a while in the High Street at Richmond, where he had wed Richmond butcher’s daughter, Ann Paine (1856). The Horne business can be seen in the 1861 census to be employing 4 men in their Hampstead shop, and the first two (of six) children had already swelled the family.

However, Thomas the grocer had a hobby. He had a big bass voice, and he sang. I’ve actually spotted Mr T J Horne performing at the City of London Institution in Aldersgate as early as 1850 (26 July). The occasion was the debut of Clari Fraser, so there was no space for critical comment on the young amateur bass.

I don’t see him again for twenty years, until he surfaces, under the name of Montelli, in 1870, singing bass in the operatic selection, The Bohemian Girl, with the neophyte J W Turner and Charlotte Russell, at the Oxford Music Hall. It’s he, all right, because when ‘Signor Montelli’ turns up at St James’s Hall a few weeks later, the press found it necessary to say ‘Signor Montelli who sang ‘Largo al factotum’ at this concert is not the Signor Montelli whose capital singing and very fine voice may be heard every evening at the Oxford but a gentleman who was connected with the unfortunate operatic venture at the Lyceum which begun and ended with a single performance’.  Camillo.

His next engagement came in the autumn of 1871, when he was taken on as a replacement for Mr George Donnelly as bass with Louisa Pyne’s touring entertainment. He is billed, incredibly, as being ‘of the St James’s Hall and St George’s Hall Concerts, the Sacred Harmonic Society, the Royal Italian Opera and the Crystal Palace’! When? The Crystal Palace? Camillo gave his eternal ‘Largo al factotum’ there in 1863. And at St James’s Hall. But that’s all. No Thomas.

I have only one theory about those ‘credits’. Thomas may have been an amateur or semi-professional chorister while holding his day job at the grocery. 

This billing wouldn’t last very long (it was larger than Miss Pyne’s). As the little company wended its way from Portsmouth, Weymouth and Salisbury, to Glasgow, Hawick and Manningtree, it was varied by ‘pupil of Lablache’ (possible) and then just replaced by the very fine notices he was drawing. 
When he sang ‘The Yeoman’s Weddding’ at St John’s Wood in May, the press wrote ‘the best singing of the evening was that of Mr Montelli the basso, lately with Miss Louisa Pyne on her provincial tour … one of the finest bass voices we ever heard’.
When the company went out again, in later 1872, he went with them and when returning for a concert in London (‘The Friar’, ‘The Wolf’) he was described as ‘a basso profondo who has met with great success in the provinces’.
Engagements followed with similar parties: Grace Delafield’s St George’s Operetta and Concert Party, Thorpe Pede’s season at the Park Theatre, The Great Vance’s company billed now as ‘of the Bodda-Pyne company’ and ‘one of the greatest living basses’ and then with Henry Haigh’s Opera Recitals, singing everything from Ferrando in Il Trovatore to Mr Bundle and Louchard.
The Haigh engagement stretched into 1875, after which ‘Mr Montelli’ was hired to go to South Africa with old colleague J W Turner. They sang opera and oratorio around the diamond diggings (‘Mr Montelli the bass is spoken of in the most enthusiastic terms…’), and Thomas didn’t get home till April 1876. To find he was the father of a sixth child.

For the next few years, he played with varying opera companies – at Leicester (Kuno in Der Freischütz, Louchard), at the Aquarium in Deffel’s The Corsair, with Henri Corri and with Rose Hersee, at Cork for Christmas 1877 ...

 In 1879, already over 50, he was hired to play Bob Beckett in a 'special' production of HMS Pinafore at the Standard Theatre (‘sang his music carefully and acted with great spirit. We have heard Mr Montelli as principal basso in several operatic companies and were therefore not surprised at his efficiency’). He subsequently moved over to play the same piece at the Opera Comique, and he would remain a member of the company managed by R D’Oyly Carte for much of the next dozen years.

He played at the Alexandra Palace in the ‘last performance for three years’ of Pinafore,and in 1882 won considerable praise for his Father Tom in The Lily of Killarneyat the Crystal Palace, but largely he settled back into the role of chorus singer, which was probably where he had begun in his amateur days.

In 1890 he travelled to South America with Edwin Cleary’s Company, in 1893 he played Black Tom, ‘a Cowes fisherman’, in the Prince of Wales Theatre’s Poor Jonathan, and finally Grandfather West in the Lyric Theatre The Little Squire (1894). In the 1901 census we see T J Montellie, a 75-year-old widower, still ‘vocalist’, in Totland, Isle of Wight, with a whole lot of young and unknown musicians. A concert party? I wouldn’t put it past him. By the 1911 census, living with his married daughter, Nancy, and the unmarried Annie, he finally admits to being a ‘retired singer’.

Three of his six children followed him – for a longer or shorter time -- into the world of light opera. 

The most successful was daughter Annie Elizabeth MONTELLI [HORNE] (1861-1930) who had a successful career as a comic opera singer (Isabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Nita in The Mountebanks, Arabella in Billee Taylor, Princess Irene in Glamour, Melissa in Princess Ida, Mad Margaret in Ruddigore,Pitti Sing in The Mikado, Lydia in Dorothy), and a comic actress (Patty in A Yorkshire Lass, Mrs Lappett in Dick Sheridan, Matilda Harriet Inkleby in Under the Mask of Truth, Belinda in Our Boys, Selina Snack in The Lightning’s Flash, Jenny Wibbles in The Work Girl, Kitty Perkins in Tommy Atkins, Margot in The Soldier’s Wife). In 1892 she toured her own little company in a triple bill, in 1895 she visited Belgium with a variety troupe and between times she ventured into pantomime as principal girl inThe Forty Thieves at Hull and Robinson Crusoe at Nottingham.
Latterly she played in pieces such as Sunny Florida (Netta) and I see her last playing a little part in the Islington panto of 1897.

The other two had very thin performing careers. Son Ernest (b Hampstead 1869; d Roch Avenue, Edgware 7 May 1946) is listed as a vocalist in the 1891 census (I see him in The Wonder Worker in 1900, and Winnie Brooke, Widow in 1904) but in 1901 he is a ‘commercial traveller’ while his wife works in a music shop. In 1915, he can be seen an inmate of the Constance Road Workhouse, Camberwell, brought in by the police as ‘allegedly insane’. Eldest daughter Nancy Kate (Mrs Jack Wilkes, b Oxford Street, 1859; d The Vineyard, Much Haddam 16 August 1932) is also said to have been a touring chorus singer prior to her marriage to a successful hay merchant.

NB: The web holds a surprising mis-fact, credited in Gasbagto the normally careful late Jane Stedman. Thomas was Thomas not Frederick, and Annie was his daughter, not his sister.

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