Opera Scotland

John Ward

Posted 21 Dec

Peter Fraser of OperaScotland interviewed John Ward, a long serving member of the Carl Rosa Trust, and heard about some key issues and personalities in researching opera history.

John has for many years been constructing profiles of artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly those who performed for Carl Rosa Opera. Many of these singers, initially unknown to John, have come now to seem like old friends. Their stories now hold prominent places on the website of the Carl Rosa Trust.

John, how did your interest in Carl Rosa Opera begin?

Well, I became interested in music in general. I was influenced partly by the brass band tradition. It’s not so strong nowadays, but it’s still there. And of course, in the 19th century, this was mostly operatic music they played. That's how my interest in this began - to try to satisfy my own curiosity and clarify all these things, these questions that I think were important. Very few people then seemed to be asking them.

So where did you begin your research?

In Manchester Central Library. They have a vast theatrical collection. I looked at the newspapers and the playbills of course. Then I followed the trail of Carl Rosa Opera. After that first season in Manchester, they went up to Bradford and of course I could easily get to Bradford and then Leeds to look at their newspapers. Research is much easier now because there’s so much on the web.

Eventually I had to go to London and go through newspapers at [the British Library at] Colindale, sometimes four or five days a week. The singers I'd never heard of, I realise now that, were really quite important nationally. They perhaps weren't perhaps international celebrities although one or two of them were on the verge of that. But they would have been - when many people say from this part of the world you know from the northern heartlands this was Rosa’s home ground in some ways - these singers when they heard the operas, they made the great operas - these were the singers they would hear… I mean, the Italian companies, they’d come to Manchester - occasionally Blackburn and occasionally Bolton, but Italian Opera was more expensive. But many of these singers were household names.

One that comes to mind is the tenor Barton McGuckin… Others included Rose Hersee and people like Burns and Crotty. 

I’ve got [a photograph] of McGuckin. I found it of all places in London in David Drummond’s shop, you know in Cecil Court. And it's in costume and it went for a fiver...

The postcard I have of McGuckin is interesting because it's an Edwardian postcard. And yet his career was virtually over by then. He died in 1912 and I think he may have sung as late as 1904 or 1905. He may have gone on to sing with the Turner opera company [J W Turner’s English Opera Company] and that, you know - I don't know about this - only had two or three performances actually in Scotland. I guess it was covering for somebody.

We’ve got a programme for the Turner company in 1903.

J W Turner. Oh, yeah. He was a tenor. Yes. That's Dennis Foreman/Denis Forman's company. Yeah, guys, he's written him up. Okay. Yeah. And have you got his book by the way that is there Foreman/Forman's book about Turner… There was only about a handful done not been a mass printing.

So, yes. So it's harder to get photographs - if we can, do, yes. I mean, you can get some - used to buy some on eBay. And you can come up for auction you can sometimes get a bargain, sometimes not. And as you say, it is the women who mainly crop up, Marie Roze, there's loads of photographs of her. And one singer whom there isn't many photographs of is Georgina Burns. I know that because I've been looking for one. There is one on the web, which is not very, very good. She's wearing a very elaborate hat. It's like a garden growing out of her head. And you can hardly see her for the hat. And what I have done, and I've got a lot of these line engravings from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News - they have a set in Manchester and I got a photograph of a lot of those and got them on here. Okay. They will serve, as in some respects might be better than photographs.

Because the definition is good, good for that for that period. They’re all from photographs in the first place…

It's interesting, sometimes just trying to find out where these people are finally buried. In the case of Valentine Smith, he's buried at Elmers End Cemetery in Anerley in London. And I found that out from the parish priest actually - for the last 10 years or so, probably more - [Valentine Smith] was choirmaster in the church down there. And so I emailed him. He was astonished to find that he was their former choirmaster, a local celebrity who had sung all over the place. And he said, yeah, he told me where he was buried and the date.

I understand you have some of Rosa’s letters?

They’re mainly copies but I've got one letter which I got in America. This is about the 1869 National Peace Jubilee in Boston. [Rosa] played amongst the violins. And apparently, and when he did get out they were giving out the thanks to all the people who were there and so he wasn't mentioned. Actually I suspect this is correct. I suspect Parepa told him to protest. But the reason why he wasn't thanked publicly was I think [it was a huge orchestra and] he only turned up at the last minute and somebody shoved him into the front row. That was why but he was getting these letters, reminding them that he had been there. Apart from that the letters I've seen, as you said, they've been simply business letters. The memoirs of Joseph Bennett are up there – he has some letters from Rosa that are quoted. But he was a critic - he also did the libretto of one or two operas - he knew Rosa quite well…

[Rosa] was a good businessman, because he was a musician as well. But I mean, he kept his head above water. He already knew how to do it. If he didn't always make money, he didn't actually overall lose any.  I think part of the Rosa problem was his premature death. If Carl Rosa hadn't have died, I don't think they would have had the financial problems they had in the 1890s later on, but he would possibly have cut his cloth… he would have known how turn things round. He was a canny operator, was Rosa.

There is one letter to Upton the Chicago music critic in the 1880s. Rosa was contemplating going to tour America, but he never got a guarantee so he didn’t do it.

in this clip, John explains how in the 1990s he first get involved with the Trust and his experiences in research...

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