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Louisa Pyne, English soprano
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Louisa Pyne (1832-1904), Singer and Opera Promoter
For the first 60 odd years of the 19th century, there were only four outstanding English-born singers who performed in opera in England with any regularity; they were John Braham, Sims Reeves, Charles Santley, and Louisa Pyne (b ?27 Aug. 1832; d London, 20 March 1904). She was the daughter of the alto George Pyne (1790-1877), and niece of James Kendrick Pyne (d.1857), the Bath branch of the family. Pyne's career was initially that of any brilliant soprano. She appeared in London, around England and Europe, and in America to great acclaim, mastering both new and old repertoire with what appears to have been comparative ease. Her voice - so clear, so brilliant, and so flexible, that in America she was called the 'Skylark' - ranged at least from B flat to B flat, and as the surviving music shows, she had an easy virtuosity which thrilled audiences of all kinds. The 19th-century edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians recounts that her 'voice was a soprano of beautiful quality and great compass and flexibility; she sang with great taste and judgement, and excelled in the florid style, of which she was perfect mistress.'
However, at a time when there were few, if any, women managers, Pyne started promoting her own opera season as early as the late 1840s, when, with the tenor William Harrison (1813-1868), she promoted a season at Drury Lane. Again with Harrison, she then ran one opera company in the United States - the Pyne-Harrison Company - followed by another in Britain - The Royal English Opera Company. Her managerial skills can be appreciated best by her 'Rules for Performance' which were glued to the back of the contracts she issued, even to someone as distinguished as Charles Santley. And the advent of The Royal English Opera Company changed the circumstances of English opera and influenced the character of the compositions.
Louisa Pyne studied singing with Sir George Smart and made her début when only ten at the Queen's Concert Rooms, Hanover Square, with her sister Susannah. In 1847, she went on her first concert tour of Europe, and in 1849 made her stage début as Amina in Bellini's La sonnambula at Boulogne. In autumn of that year, she sang Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni and Amina at the Princess's Theatre, London, and created her first new role, that of Fanny in Charles Macfarren's Charles the Second on the 27th of October. Her success was such that she was dubbed the 'English Sontag.' In 1851, she appeared in an English opera season at the Haymarket, and was then called to the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, to replace Anna Zerr as Queen of Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute, where her performance 'in the difficult role quite eclipsed that of her predecessor'. Her voice was said to be beautiful and flexible, and the evening established a connection between Pyne and the Royal Family which led to a string of Royal engagements that lasted until her retirement. Such contacts were probably responsible for the invitation to sing at the opening of the Crystal Palace; her memoir re-counts her discussion with the Duke of Wellington on this occasion.
Her American period started in 1854 when, after a series of appearances in Liverpool, she left for New York, where she first appeared as Arline in The Bohemian Girl. In the same year, she and Harrison formed the Pyne-Harrison Opera Company, which was based in New York, but also maintained a punishing touring schedule that included towns north - Boston, Providence, and up to Montreal in Canada - and towns south - Philadelphia, Washington, and down to New Orleans in Louisiana. We also know from the manuscript diary kept by the Pyne-Harrison musical director Anton Rieff, that during a paddle-steamer voyage with the Company down the Mississippi to New Orleans during the freezing winter of 1856, Louisa gambled with the best of them, encountered a murder in the lawless Ohio river town of Cairo, and helped to defuse a fight between Rieff and another passenger; a disagreement over a seat that the unfortunate musical director had claimed in the dining room, had escalated to a challenge to duel.
Returning to England for appearances at the Lyceum and Drury Lane in 1857, she and Harrison then took a lease from Frederick Gye on the new Covent Garden Theatre; the Company appeared at Covent Garden each winter from 1859, until its closure in 1864. During this period she sang the leading soprano roles in the first performances of Balfe's Rose of Castille, Satanella, Bianca; or The Bravo's Bride, The Puritan's Daughter and The Armourer of Nantes, Wallace's Lurline, Benedict's Lily of Killarney and Glover's Ruy Blas. She was also a noted singer of oratorio.
Throughout this period, Pyne and Harrison were encouraged in their plans for an National opera company; her Royal connections ensured that she had the attention of both the Queen and the Prince Consort (they had been present at her debut in The Magic Flute) and Victoria saw her three times in Balfe's Satanella, once in Maritana, twice in Lurline, and once each in Bianca, the Bravo's Bride, Robin Hood, and The Amber Witch. It appears that the Prince Consort was in favour of a National Opera, and was prepared to support an approach to the Government for a subsidy. Sadly, as the conductor Luigi Arditti, commented, with the death of the Prince Consort, 'the web of powerful interest which inevitably folded itself round the opera nights' was no longer there. In 1864 she dissolved her partnership with Harrison and in 1868 married the baritone Frank Bodda (c1823-92), thereafter devoting herself to teaching. However, Pyne had purchased the rights to many of the operas she and Harrison had commissioned, and she was at the centre of a sale of the rights which took place at Puttick and Simpson's auction house on 12 February 1878; her earlier attempts to enforce the copyright of these were largely responsible for the 1882 Copyright (Musical Compositions) Act. She was granted a pension from the civil list in 1896.
It should be emphasised that the notion of the Royal English Opera Company differed from any other enterprise in the 19th century. Louisa Pyne set out to do two things. One was to present English versions of European works, such as Maritana, and Auber's The Black Diamond. The second, more importantly, was to establish a school of National opera, and in pursuit of this, she commissioned new operas from a number of composers, including Balfe. Other opera companies throughout this period, tried to give seasons of Continental operas in Continental languages; Louisa Pyne's activities meant that the number of new operas premiered at Covent Garden, instead of standing in single figures for the entire 19th century, is in double figures, and included 15 new English operas. This type of approach had characterised her American venture as well, where she showed that interest in new works; it was her Company that first produced Geogre F. Bristow's Rip Van Winkle, a work widely regarded as the first 'American' opera; she created the role of Alice in those performances.
Contemporary admiration for Louisa Pyne was widespread. While in America, she was honoured by the Louisa Pyne Polka, and her nickname 'The Skylark' came from a song written for her there, and which she became obliged to sing in many of her appearances. In company with the late Prince Consort, Abraham Lincoln, the Archbishop of York, Charles Kingsley, she appeared in The Drawing-Room Portrait Gallery of Eminent Persons for July to December 1861, one of only three women to do so. And most importantly, she was only the second woman to be awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's Beethoven Gold Medal.
(Kindly contributed by:
Dr Michael Burden
Dean; Reader in Music; Director, New Chamber Opera
New College, Oxford OX1 3BN, UK)