Poor, indeed ... a fine vocalist brought low ... read on
BURNS, Georgina (b 282 Pentonville Rd, London 31 July 1859; d Home for Incurables, London 24 May 1932)
‘Poor Georgina Burns’. One of the outstanding English opera prima donnas of the later part of the Victorian era, fourteen years of undiluted triumph from one corner of the British isles to the farthermost other, and when you Google her, in this day and age, you get ‘poor Georgina Burns’. Yes, she fell from the heights of stardom to decades of illness and privation, but the reason that her bad days are remembered rather than her glories is a casual, gossipy mention of her name in The Dubliners by Mr James Joyce. As ‘poor Georgina Burns’.
Georgina was the third and last daughter of George Burns, printer, and his wife [Eliza] Winifred née Clarke. ‘The granddaughter of the Rev J Burns’. She recounted, in her peak days, that she was largely self-taught as a vocalist, but J Parry Cole, who had given lessons to both her elder sisters, claimed credit for her musical education as well. In the same interview, she related that she had visited sister Cora, on tour with Carl Rosa, in 1877, and Cora persuaded her on to the theatre’s stage to ‘play prima donnas’. Georgina sang ‘Home Sweet Home’ to Cora’s accompaniment, and of course Mr Rosa was secreted in the next room, hired her … and off we go. Well, it’s a nice story, and it could even be true, for Georgina made her operatic debut, with Rosa, 11 February 1878, at the Adelphi Theatre, as Ann Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. She was voted delightful (‘charming simplicity and a sympathetic though not very strong voice’) and never looked back. During the season she was also seen as Ann Chute in The Lily of Killarney and, when the company went on the road, she added Marguerite de Valois in The Huguenots and Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro to her repertoire, soon followed by the title-role of Maritana (‘remarkably fine performance’) and Amina in La Sonnambula alongside Packard and Celli (‘It would be difficult to bestow too high praise on the singing and acting of the young prima donna’). When Guiraud’s Piccolino was given its first English performance, Georgina sang the Countess Elena.
The roles proliferated as the young singer progressed: in the London season of 1879 she played The Messenger of Peace in Rienzi, Paquita in Carmen, Marguerite in Huguenots, Maritana, The Bohemian Girl, Piccolino, The Lily of Killarney and Theresa in The Golden Cross (‘bright and graceful ... singing as pleasantly as usual’).
In the spring, she appeared in concert in London, making her St James’s Hall debut at a charity concert at which she sang ‘Softly Sighs’ and won particular praise for a Robert Franz song ‘Lo, he has come through the rain and the darkness’. She gave two other Franz songs at the Crystal Palace, ‘Deh vieni’ and her Ann Page aria (‘No, no, I will not break my plight’) with the New Philharmonic Society, appeared at Madame Puzzi’s concert and for Jenny Viard Louis and Ambrose Austin, before it was time to return to Carl Rosa and the operatic stage.
In this season, she played the two roles which she would repeat over and over during her career – Maritana and the flirtatious Filina of Mignon with its showpiece aria ‘Je suis Titania’. ‘A memorable interpretation’ acclaimed Edinburgh. Goetz’s The Taming of the Shrew was also produced and played at Her Majesty’s Theatre during the London part of the year, with Georgina as Bianca. In between the operatic seasons of 1880, Georgina again fulfilled concert dates, appearing at Liverpool with Halle, the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, at the Dublin Concerts, and with the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, in a rare oratorio appearance, with Trebelli, Maas and Santley in Samson.
The new opera season began, as usual, at Dublin, and Georgina was seen as Maritana and in Mignon, but as the tour moved on the new roles came rolling up. This year it was Lucia di Lammermoor and Martha, and a promotion to the title-role of Carmen, in 1881-2 it was Virginie in Le Cadi, Camilla in Zampa, Marguerite in Faust, and Venus in Tannhäuser and she also depped for Alwina Valleria in Moro.
The young singer was four years into her career, with an impressive list of credits and of dazzling reviews, and the critics were already noticing the development of her voice. The younger Clara Perry was now taking the lighter roles of the repertoire, and Georgina was rated up with such as Alwina Valleria as a full-blown prima donna. At 23 years of age. She was also now ‘Madame Georgina Burns’, the wife of baritone Frederick ka Leslie Crotty, a member of the Rosa company since her arrival and before.
Madame Burns accumulated the new roles with Carl Rosa: Elvira in The Rose of Castille, Anna in La Dame Blanche, Gilda in Rigoletto and then, on 26 March 1883, she created the star role in a new English Opera, Goring Thomas’s Notre Dame piece, Esmeralda. Esmeralda was a decided hit, and Madame Burns was voted as being even better than she had been in Mignon as the gipsy to her husband’s Quasimodo. Esmeralda would stay long and prominent in the Rosa repertoire.
She appeared as Laura in The Beggar Student, took up Valleria’s role in Nadeshda, teamed with Marie Roze and Julia Gaylord as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, sang Donna Elvira to the Anna of Blanche Cole and the Zerlina of Gaylord and the Don Giovanni of James Sauvage, she gave more Lucias (‘beyond the realm of criticism’) and Sonnambulas … and of course more repeats as Maritana and Filina ..
Then came a little stirring in Mr and Mrs Crotty’s relationship with Mr Rosa. With the new opera of Nordisa scheduled (star: Madame Burns), the Crottys announced that they were seceding from the company to start one of their own. Did they mean it, or was it a tactic? Two extra numbers were put into the prima donna role of Minna in Nordisa, the Crottys stayed, and Georgina created her second new English opera heroine, and introduced it to London at Drury Lane 4 May 1887. Nordisa was not as successful as Esmeralda had been, but it was not a failure and the Crottys were far from a failure in it.
They had announced, when doing their volte face, that they would start their own company on the road, under the direction of brother-in-law Tom Robertson, and the date was fixed for December. But December came and went, and it was another Rosa season. Isabella in Robert the Devil opposite Fanny Moody, Leonora in Il Trovatore with Crotty as Luna, The Star of the North … and in May 1889, Carl Rosa died. But the company he had created carried on, and the Crottys carried on with it. In Dublin, later in the year, Lurline was revived for Georgina, in 1890 she gave La Traviata, took over the leading role of The Lily of Killarney, then came The Talisman (Edith Plantaganet) and in 1891 she sang Valentine in a butchered version of Les Huguenots, Angela in The Black Domino, and the title-role in Aida … She had now renounced some of her old roles to singers such as Amanda Fabris, Zélie de Lussan and Alice Esty ... Valentine and Aida were now her style,
And then, finally, the Crottys committed the folly of their lives. They set up that opera company of their own. The ‘Georgina Burns Light Opera Company’ (later the Burns-Crotty company), playing a re-re-butchered version of Rossini’s Cinderella. Only. And cast with performers of a different level and type to those of the Carl Rosa company. The first tour began 14 August 1892, and the repertoire was finally enlarged to include The Daughter of the Regiment, Faust, The Bohemian Girl, Maritana and Cavalleria Rusticana. The company came to a grinding halt at the end of 1893. Georgina and her husband had lost all the money they had earned in their long years with the Carl Rosa.
They struggled on, through concert dates – Tom Barrett in Manchester was a loyal employer – and, in September 1895, they made what seems to have been their last stage appearance in Rob Roy and Guy Mannering at the Glasgow Princess’s. Soon after, Georgina took an engagement with Liverpool’s Alexandra Vaudeville Company (25 November 1895). She gave her ‘Jewel Song’ and finally subsided. ‘Nervous prostration’ said the bulletins.
In spite of regular hints in the press as to her ‘recovery’ and ‘return’, she never would. She subsided into what seems to have been a thorough nervous breakdown. Crotty subsided into the bottle, and died in 1903 at the age of fifty. Georgina seems to have been in and out of hospital for the last 40 years of her life, but she survived her husband by some 30 years. ‘Poor Georgina Burns’, indeed. If the couple had been satisfied to stay with the Rosa company, the end of this story might have been very different. ‘Never put money into theatrical productions’ as the caveat goes. The Burns-Crotty company cost its principals both health and money … a sad tale.
Sister Cora had a sad and widowed later life as well, but, as a beneficiary of the King George V Pensions, was not wholly bereft. Sister Mary, whose son, Stanley Dark, also partook of the theatrical profession (see his autobiography Not Such a Bad Life), rather than the family’s traditional cricket bat manufacturing, seems to have come out more or less all right.
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