"Fashioning the image of an operatic child star: Elisabeth Feron in Leeds, 1809"
Sophie Horrocks, Durham University
Aiming to entice theatre goers in November 1809, the Leeds Intelligencer proudly advertised the recent engagement of “the English Catalani” for the city's theatre. The singer otherwise known as Elisabeth Feron was hired by director Mr Wilkinson as part of his nine-week season in Leeds. Feron starred in three performances, singing the heroines in two operas, Thomas Arne’s Love in a Village (1762) and Stephen Storace’s The Haunted Tower (1789), and in the musical farce The Prize by John Whitworth (1802). Feron was a singer who represented the trends of the capital, with local newspapers and Wilkinson’s theatre bills emphasising that she was London-trained, promising Leeds audiences a taste of the capital with Feron’s performance of songs from her recent appearances in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. There was no better way to keep up with the artistic tastes of the capital than by hiring the star of the moment - and in late 1809 this was Elisabeth Feron.
Image: Leeds Playbill advertising Miss Feron in 'Love in a Village' (source Leeds Museums)
Feron was not an established operatic veteran, but a child star. Newspapers reviewing her provincial tour around Britain in 1809 cite her age as 16, yet biographical sources suggest that she was most probably born in 1797, making her only 12 at the time of her Leeds performances. Child performers were not uncommon during this period when regulations regarding the exploitation of an underage workforce were not yet in place. Musical connoisseurs would have been familiar with tales of Mozart’s childhood tours across Europe in the eighteenth century, but not all child stars were associated with remarkable gifts. By the 1800s, child performers could be advertised as curiosity spectacles aiming to draw large crowds by the sheer strangeness of seeing small performers taking on pieces of art meant for fully-fledged adults, as we shall see in Feron’s performances as ‘The Great Catalani’.
Records of Feron’s biological family are unclear, but she appears to have been in the care of London violinist Charles Cobham from an early age. While her father, a French revolutionary refugee, does appear to be alive and working during her childhood, Feron may have been left to the care of Cobham to undertake a musical apprenticeship common to many trades in this period, especially if her biological family had fallen on hard times. Rather than receiving specialised vocal training, Feron was taught by Cobham through techniques adapted from his experience as a violinist, and this lack of formal vocal development would eventually cause problems in her later career. Perhaps recognising the financial potential of her talent, Cobham appears determined to establish her as a child star from an early age, promoting her identity as a child performer from 1806 (at age 9). He clearly wished to establish her as a national celebrity, booking appearances for her in popular London concerts such as Vauxhall Gardens and organising lengthy tours to towns across England.
Image: token from Vauxhall Gardens with caption: ‘An ivory admissions token to Vauxhall Gardens’ (1808) from the private collection of the late Sir Christopher Hogwood. Image taken from The Fine Art Sale, www.thesaleroom.com, auctioned by Cheffins, online notice for Lot 1018 (June 2015)
During their provincial tours to towns such as Leeds, Cobham actively crafted the image associated with Feron’s singing, as displayed in the advertisement in the Leeds Intelligencer. Alongside her roles in the operas by Arne and Storace, Feron performed a variety of well-known English songs including “The Soldier’s Tale”, “Crazy Jane”, “Said a Smile to a Tree”, “Fair Helen” and “Nanny wilt thou gang to me”. This well-known repertoire presented Feron as a national sweetheart, an impression solidified by reviews comparing her to Elizabeth Billington, a home-grown talent whose career was reaching an end around 1809, and whose Covent Garden debut was in Arne’s Love in the Village in the role which Feron performed during her tour (Rosetta). Comparisons to this great English singer were inevitable, yet in the advertising and programme choices of the other elements in her tour, Feron and her manager Cobham also appear to have made efforts to cultivate other distinctive artistic associations.
By naming her as the ‘English Catalani’, a title which appears in adverts and reviews from 1809, Feron’s vocal qualities were aligned with the famous Angelica Catalani, an Italian star soprano regularly engaged at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket (London). By establishing a lineage with Catalani, this title suggested that Feron’s singing was virtuosic in the Italian style, a marketing strategy that imparted authenticity to 12-year old’s performances of the operatic genre. As well as being considered to be the birth place of opera, the concept of the Italianate in music in the early nineteenth century embodied both a set of aesthetic characteristics and a business category within the operatic industry: repertoire which emphasised the agility, flexibility and range of the voice (which detractors called showy and artificial) and which was produced on specific Italian-opera stages in urban capitals such as London and Paris.
For Leeds, Catalani was a reference point not only by her reputation but by her recent brilliant concert in York two years previous, reviewed by the Leeds Intelligencer which also published articles that positioned Catalani as an influence to current fashion trends, appraising her opera costumes as style pieces and advertising combs named after her. The programming of Feron’s tour repertoire and the crafting of her operatic image in 1809 thus attempts to mould the reception of her performances in Leeds within established Italian operatic practices that were both artistically legitimate, vocally virtuosic, and currently fashionable. It is likely that both manager and performer aimed to combat her lack of formal training and override the possibility of Feron being ridiculed as another curiosity show by designating what we would now call a singing ‘USP’ in audiences’ minds before she had even appeared onstage.
Feron was highly successful during her provincial tour, with reviews praising her “first rate taste”, “wonderful execution” and the “melody” of her voice, alongside her “excellent style of acting” in repertoire such as ‘Son regina’ from Portogallo’s Semiramide and ‘O Dolce Contento’, an Italian-language arrangement of Monastatos’s air from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, both known to be some of Catalani’s favourite pieces. Feron’s most famous number, though, was ‘The Romp, or the Great Catalani’, written especially for her concerts in Vauxhall Gardens in 1809 by composer William Parke – an autobiographical song in which a schoolgirl imitates the great singer. It was perhaps this piece which began her association with Catalani, or Parke may have composed it for her voice order to cement Feron’s reputation as a Catalani-esque singer.
Either way, the song was a great hit with provincial audiences including Leeds, with the publication of the lyrics to the song in women’s magazines such as Ipswich’s The Ladies Fashionable Repository suggesting that it became a household hit that amateurs might even attempt themselves. The song not only places Feron as Catalani’s successor, but also subverts the reputation of the famous singer through the word setting of the final musical phrases. These require the repetition of “The great Cat, the great Catalani” in order to fit the shape of the cadential phrase in the vocal line. This animal pun undermines the image of Catalani’s grandeur by associating her with a domestic animal whose sounds are often evoked to describe bad singing, implying that Feron triumphs over her imagined mentor, as well as no doubt provoking hilarity among audiences. Musical jokes like these are common to songs of this time written for entertainment spaces such as Vauxhall Gardens, and they demonstrate the dynamic interplay between the operatic and popular stages which were often closely linked during the nineteenth century.
Image: V&A Print of “The Romp”, with caption: Hand coloured engraving depicting Miss Feron singing 'The Romp; or the Great Catalani' at Vauxhall Gardens, 1809, with accompanying lyrics, curtesy of the V&A, S. 294-1997
In her performances in Leeds, Feron inserted “The Romp” and other popular songs into the operas Love in a Village and The Haunted Tower, a technique used commonly across Europe which allowed singers to interpolate arias to showcase their particular talents. In England, this was an established practiced called the pasticcio (Arne’s Love in a Village had been conceived in this way from its inception, featuring only five new numbers written by Arne), and in Italy the new insertions were called aria di baule, or suitcase arias. Performances of these insertion arias exemplify the powerful authorial and creative facility of the singer during this period, where adaptations to suit individual vocal needs were prioritised over the original composer’s music, as seen in London in early pasticchio productions in the 1780s, and later adaptations of Mozart and Rossini by Henry Bishop in the late 1810s. Thanks to these practices, 12 year old Feron is placed at the centre of the operatic experience in her Leeds performances, with many of musical elements determined by the agency of the performer (and, we can assume, her manager), rather than the authority of a score.
Throughout her performances in Halifax, Manchester and York (whose theatres were all owned by Wilkinson at this time), Feron inserted the same songs into her stage works, and so it is fair to assume that these formed her repertoire list for the entire tours of 1809-10. Provincial audiences in different towns would thus have had a common understanding of the performances of The Haunted Tower, The Prize and Love in a Village, demonstrating how, even without the authority of a score or ‘work concept’, shared standards of operatic experience and the dissemination of pieces on a national scale could be conditioned through the mobility of touring artists and their celebrity status.
Transitioning to the capital
Leeds was only one of the stops on Feron’s jam-packed tour of 1809-10 which included Manchester, Lancaster, Halifax, York, Ipswich, Bath, Deal and Dover. Provincial tours were an important part of the nineteenth-century operatic career path. For young singers such as Feron, the provincial circuit was widely considered as a practical alternative or addition to formal training, with appearances with new troupes and to new audiences across the country offering the perfect way to gain stage experience. Provincial performances made a real impact upon local audiences who did not have access to live theatre most nights of the week as in London.
The power of Feron’s performance is shown in the heartfelt poetic responses to her performances printed in newspapers and written collections, for example the verses dedicated to her in the York Herald and the Bath musician John Ashley’s poem ‘On hearing Miss Feron sing’, both using angelic metaphors to convey her heavenly talent. By performing in these towns, Feron and her colleagues could establish a steadily-growing reputation, helped by the circulation of such reviews, hopefully enabling them to eventually leverage a debut at one of the London theatres.
Feron had previously gained success in London in popular singing arenas such as Vauxhall Gardens, but she had yet to ascend to the capital’s official operatic stages. Her reported successes on the provincial circuit, her youth and the fashioning of her image as the next operatic superstar likely contributed to her early debut at Covent Garden in October 1811 at the age of 14, singing the role of Floretta in The Cabinet by Thomas Dibdin (1802). Reactions to this debut were mixed, demonstrating the difficult nature of a singer’s transition from the provinces to the highest stages of the capital. As the critic for The Scourge wrote in November 1811:
“Her great defect is want of expression: she satisfies the judgement but never interests the feelings; she has too much of the actress and too little of the woman; and the spectator remembers her with as little sympathy as a paste-board puppet. […] Her voice is powerful without compass, and musical without sweetness […] She must not imagine that because the boors of Yorkshire were pleased to call her the English Catalani, she will ever be mistaken for anything better than a third-rate singer.”
The suggestion that Feron’s skills were suited to the provinces but not the capital underlines contemporary anxieties vocalised by writers about the relationship between the artistic practices of the capital and the provinces. This was often expressed in terms of the movement of performers, the tastes of audiences and the separations of so-called high and low art forms which distinguished London from other British centres. The critic for The Scourge reacts to Elisabeth in the same way that a defensive star of today’s Royal Opera House might grapple with the success of YouTube star: the writer attempts to distance Feron’s performance from true “taste, elegance or sensibility” by defining her talent as a “bustle” or “obtrusive brilliance” which only ignorant audiences such as pleasure-garden rabbles or “the obtuse sensation of the manufacturers of Birmingham” might enjoy.
A general fear of artists who had enjoyed success in the provinces overrunning the capital was a particular concern at the time of Feron’s debut, as shown in a fascinating satirical cartoon entitled “A Cart Load of Young Players on their Journey to London” (1811). This was published by William Holland and addressed to Kemble and Harris, the directors of Covent Garden, echoing complaints newspapers such as The Satirist over the engagement of several new performers from the provinces (including Feron) to replace famous actors in the capital. As this sketch and the reaction to Feron’s debut suggests, while provincial performances provided platforms from which to launch their careers, artists had to negotiate the complex relationship between theatrical values in London and cities such as Leeds in their quest to find fame, fortune and financial stability in the operatic marketplace.
The comparison of artistic standards between cities is something that persisted at least through the twentieth century as an important way through which many cities define their own theatrical legitimacy, not only in relation to the capital but often in comparison to their own regional competition, as seen in The Yorkshire Post’s assessment of “rotten Leeds” as the lowest of theatrical circles in 1912.
Image: “A Cart Load of Young Players” with the caption: William Holland, “A Cart Load of Young Players on their Journey to London” (1811), curtesy of the British Museum, BM Satires / Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (11771)
Despite her lack-lustre London debut, Feron forged a truly international career, appearing in major houses in Paris, Vienna and in cities throughout the German and Italian states, as well as performing in the United States in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Like many performers of this era, Feron was a global star between 1820-40, sometimes appearing under her married name Mrs Glossop. While her voice was praised as having “power and melody”, many critics commented that her performances were sometimes marred by obvious technical damage to her vocal chords, caused by her early exploits. In Britain, though, Feron never attained lasting celebrity, perhaps due to the vocal trauma of childhood operatic singing and the difficulties in transitioning between the provincial and capital’s stages in her teenage years.
The audiences of Leeds in 1809 evidently witnessed a rare and fleeting operatic phenomenon in the performances of Elisabeth Feron, an operatic phenomenon which, in its moulding of a child singer’s technical style and operatic image, was seemingly as destructive as it was brilliant.
Image: Elisabetta Feron with caption: Luigi Rados, Portrait of Elisabetta Feron (Italy), courtesy of the British Museum, Prints and Drawings
Newspapers: The Leeds Intelligencer, Wright’s Leeds Intelligencer, The Lancaster Gazette, The York Post, The Ladies Fashionable Repository, The Harmonicon, The Scourge (UK); I Teatri Giornale drammatico musicale e coregrafico (Italy)
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