Many thanks to Emmanuelle Sayag Pesque for the information she supplied to make this article possible.
By: Agnes Selby ©  (Guest writer)

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, English theatre audiences did not possess the sophistication of their European counterparts . On any given night it was not unusual for warring factions to invade the stage and do battle there, damaging the scenery as well as their opponents in the process, while a favourite Italian castrato continued to belt out his aria.The late eighteenth century forefathers of today’s English soccer hooligans found English theatres a perfect venue, not only for their battles but also for warmth during the winter months. The King’s Theatre, although more snobbish than Covent Garden or Drury Lane, did not escape such invasion. The audience, when unable to understand the story line on stage, sung in a foreign language, proceeded to provide its own entertainment. The battling factions on stage received loud encouragement from their supporters in the two-penny gallery. On stage, the story line was not followed by the diva either, as the reigning custom allowed her to sing her favourite arias irrespective of the opera being performed. When members of the Royal family attended a performance, the audience would often turn their backs to the stage in order to watch visiting Royalty rather than the production. Admiring royalty and watching the nobility dressed to the hilt in elegant costumes was more interesting than the production on stage. The nobility in turn watched each other, this being part and parcel of their entertainment. Catcalls were frequent and on wintry nights, coughing and sneezing drowned out even the highest pitched efforts of the diva. The curtains on the boxes were often drawn during the performance while the ladies thus closeted entertained their paramours. Their maids were busy behind the curtains providing tasty morsels to the enamoured couples.The invading hordes climbed all over the stage causing singers to duck for cover or deal with the invasion in another way: “The stage of the Opera is so crowded that Madam Rosa, in throwing her fine muscular arm into a graceful attitude, inadvertently leveled three men of the first quality of a stroke.”(The Times 1798)Going to the Opera appears to have been a life-threatening experience as well. The Irish tenor, Michael Kelly in his autobiography, Reminiscences, describes an occasion when, during his tenure as manager at the King’s Theatre, the Royal family’s visit to the threatre created a stampede at the entry to the Opera House causing no fewer than sixteen people to be trampled to death. However, the show did go on and the Royal family heard nothing of the shocking incident until the following dayOn April 19, 1782, The Times reported “The death of Mrs. Fitzherbert,
relic of the late Rev. Mr. Fitzherbert of Northamptonshire. On Wednesday evening
before her death, this lady went to Drury-Lane Theatre in company with some friends, to see the Beggar’s Opera. On Mr. Bannister’s making his appearance in the character of Polly, the whole audience were thrown into an uproar of laughter, unfortunately the actor’s whimsical appearance had a fatal effect on Mrs. Fitzherbert.” It seems that Mrs. Fitzherbert “could not banish the figure from her memory, was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until Friday morning, when she expired.”

The King’s Theatre was the home of the Italian Opera. The Italian singers
guarded their domain against their English colleagues with tactics resembling those used by their Mafioso cousins of a later era. Sharp tongues were useful as weapons to destroy an English singer’s reputation and the hysterical outbursts of a reigning diva could keep the so-called undesirables from performing at the theatre.

William Taylor, the manager of the King’s Theatre, was known for not paying his bills. He rented a permanent apartment at the Debtors’ Prison from where he successfully ran the theatre and presided at popular and well attended parties. Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, was his next door neighbour, also with a permanent apartment at the Debtors’ Prison. When they gave their separate parties on the same night, their titled guests mingled with each other in perfect harmony. This did not help the singers at the King’s Theatre who were lucky to get half of their contractual salary. As for the composers who worked on a commission from the sale of tickets, they had very little income for their efforts. Pressed by his personnel for what was due to them, Taylor would retire in seeming despair to the Debtors’ Prison where he continued to live a life of luxury.

By 1787 the King’s Theatre was eighty years old. It was a large theatre seating 1300 and was the only theatre licensed to present fully sung operas. It was badly maintained and an Italian traveller observed that the “Englishmen of fashion were squeezed into holes lined with dirty old paper and the walls of it covered with crimson fluff.” The entry price was considerably higher than at the other two major theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, but all London theatres suffered from bad management and lack of funds.

On the night of 17 June, 1789 the King’s Theatre burned to the ground. There were a number of theories as to how this happened and accusations of arson were directed at the then manager, Gallini. Luckily no one was hurt and the St. James Chronicle observed “that the fire was a blessing in disguise.” The King’s Theatre was eventually rebuilt to greater glory with many more seats and more financial losses.

Two people emerged during this period with a considerable influence on the contemporary performances of English opera : Anna Selina (Nancy) Storace, the diva and her brother, Stephen Storace, the composer. Stephen Storace was a Pre-Raphaelite, dying before that era had even begun. He was a man of many talents. His friend and colleague, Michael Kelly in his autobiography, Reminiscences, speaks of Stephen Storace’s mathematical genius. Well regarded as a painter, Stephen Storace painted exquisite scenery for many of his own operas, but his paintings, like his operas, are lost to posterity.

Stephen Storace was overshadowed in life as in death by his sister Nancy, whose fame survives as the first Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She is also burdened by a reputation as Mozart’s mistress. Reputable scholars have insisted on linking her romantically with Mozart, a liaison for which there is absolutely no evidence. She is said to have introduced Mozart’s operas to English audiences but throughout her career on the English stage, she never sang in a complete Mozart opera. In fact, not a single Mozart opera was performed in London until well after Nancy Storace’s retirement. Contrary to her description as a beautiful English rose, she had inherited her dark, earthy looks from her Neapolitan father, Stefano and not from her English mother, Elizabeth Trusler, considered to have been a fair-skinned and blue-eyed beauty by her contemporaries.

As exceptionally talented as the Storace children were, they were the product of their father’s ambition. He had watched with great interest the machinations of Leopold Mozart, during that family’s visit to London in 1764 -1765. Father Mozart made goodly sums of money from his precocious children’s performances and this, coupled with the fame that followed, proved to be an irresistibly intoxicating incentive for Stefano Storace’s own paternal ambitions.

Storace pere had come to England from Italy, having graduated as a violinist from the prestigious Conservatorium in Naples where he had prominent family connections, his uncle being the Bishop of Naples. He arrived in Dublin with these strong credentials and began a life-long friendship with Thomas Sheridan, father of the English dramatist and parliamentarian, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, famous for his masterpiece, The School for Scandal. There were too many Italian violinists in Dublin so the ever inventive Stefano changed his instrument to the double bass. After two years in Dublin, Stefano moved to London where he married Elizabeth Truslerand became an influential member of the musical fraternity.

During his early teens, Stephen was sent to his uncle, the Bishop of Naples, to study at his father’s Alma Mater, the Naples Conservatorium. It is there that he rebelled against the privileges imposed upon him by his father and joined a group of English painters on their painting excursions into the countryside, rarely attending his prescribed school. He was rescued from this rebellious folly by his family’s arrival in Naples to further Nancy’s singing studies. Nancy, however, was soon put to work and by the time she was sixteen she was engaged as Prima Buffa at La Scala in Milan.

At about this time Stefano pere died and Nancy, accompanied by her mother and brother continued her quest for fame. Not long after his fathe’s death, the liberated Stephen returned to London where for a while he tried his hand as a painter as well as a mathematics teacher. At the behest of his sister, he composed a number of arias which she included in her every performance at La Scala. As in London, it was the custom at La Scala for the diva to choose her own favourite arias, irrespective of the opera being performed. Thus Stephen Storace fulfilled his late father’s dream and became a composer.

In 1784 at the age of seventeen, Nancy obtained the post of Prima Donna of the newly re-established Italian opera in Vienna. She arrived in Vienna, accompanied by her mother, the baritone Francesco Benucci and the tenor, Michael Kelly. A most elegant apartment was provided for her as well as a carriage and a pair of fine horses. Two maids and a cook were there to fulfil her every wish. Elegant, sophisticated audiences graced the Opera House and the public galleries housed attentive and well behaved crowds. All expenses incurred by the Opera House were met by the Emperor, Joseph II.

Nancy remained in Vienna for three years during which time she married Abraham Fisher, an English violinist, a friend and contemporary of her father’s whom Michael Kelly described as the ugliest creature in all of Christendom, Nancy bore a child, a little girl whom she refused to care for, the baby dying soon after her birth. Nancy endured the cruelty and beatings of the jealous Fisher until the Emperor himself intervened and Fisher was exiled from Vienna.

The Vienna years added to Nancy’s operatic experience. Her performances included Paisielo’s setting of Beaumarchais’s play, The Barber of Seville, Martin y Soler’s Una Cosa Rara, and operas by Antonio Salieri. Her greatest fame comes from her perfomance as the first Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Her lover at the time was Benucci, the Figaro to her Susanna. With this pairing in mind Mozart and Da Ponte created a most enduring operatic masterpiece. Steven Storace arrived in Vienna in 1785 to present his own opera, Gli sposi malcontenti with Da Ponte as librettist, experiencing great success with his original opera score. The scores of this opera as well as that of his subsequent work for the Viennese Opera are now lost.

During this period, Nancy gave her heart to Lord Barnard who arrived in Vienna with a group of young English aristocrats as partof their Grand European Tour. This descent on Vienna by some of England’s tide of youthful “John Bulls” was a yearly occurrence. They held horse races in the Prater, they gambled and went wild with drink, smashing lamp posts and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Reparations for the damage caused by the rampaging young aristocrats were paid out of the English Ambassador, Sir Keith’s own pocket and his letter testifies to his dread of these marauders. Sir Keith, wrote in 1786, “I will certainly be wiser to get out of the way, for my purse is at a very low ebb.” Lord Barnard by contrast, spent his time entirely at the opera, entertaining Nancy or being entertained by the Storaces in their luxurious apartment. He speaks in his diary about the delightful suppers he enjoyed with Miss Storace.

Nancy returned to London in 1787 in the company of Lord Barnard, her mother, her brother, Michael Kelly and Thomas Atwood who had spent some years as Mozart˜„ pupil on a scholarship provided by the Prince of Wales. Nancy Storace returned to London with a one year contract at the King’s Theatre. She was heralded as a great returning diva by the London newspapers: “Storace of high distinction at the Emperor’s Court and courted everywhere as the Empress of the musical line is expected to land at Dover on Monday next the 26th.” (The World, March 22, 1787).

Nancy was just twenty-one years old. She had left London as a thirteen-year old child soher native city must have appeared to her almost as a foreign country. One of the principal differences between Vienna and London that Nancy was soon to notice was her status as a professional performer. There was no question of direct court patronage or of lodgings or carriages or servants being provided for her. She had to arrange all this herself and pay for it from her own purse. The theatres were private enterprises, run by managers who often pocketed the nightly takings, and the audiences were a world away from those she was accustomed to in Vienna.

Nancy began her London career with acclaim. Her debut took place on 25 April 1787 at the King’s Theatre as Lisetta in Paisiello’s opera Il reTeodore in Venezia. The Times reported on 26 April: “Her figure petite—yet pleasing—eyes full of fire—features finely formed—a volubility of expression, admirably calculated for the recitative burletta—a sweetness and depth of tone, rarely to be met in a female voice—a delightful shade with the most perfect knowledge of music’s art sums up the perfection of this new operatic star.”

During this time, Nancy suffered the greatest disappointment of her young life. The attentive Lord Barnard soon married his cousin, Lady Katherine Powlet, daughter of the Duke of Bolton. On June 6, according to his diary, he dined with Nancy for the last time. Lord Barnard subsequently embarked on a distinguished parliamentary career as MP for Totnes. Although his diary reveals frequent visits to the opera , it also reveals his sorrow at not ever being with Nancy Storace again. Banishment also awaited her estranged husband, Abraham Fisher. After Nancy refused to see him, he engaged lawyers and promised to disappear from Nancy’s life only upon her undertaking to pay him 10 pounds annually. Nancy rejected the blackmail and Fisher departed for good for his native Ireland where he died in 1806.

The practice of compiling music from various composers into pasticcio operas was already well developed by the time Stephen and Nancy Storace returned to London. John Adolphus, a contemporary music critic and historian said of this operatic genre: “The great art consisted of making every air and duet produce its utmost effect by not overloading the performers with difficulties or condemning them to struggle with
compositions which could only acquire applause by exciting wonder without producing pleasure.”

Once Stephen Storace realised that he had a gift for pasticcio opera, he began to formulate some definite ideas as to how a new kind of English comic opera might be created. This would not solely rely on the good-natured tunefulness of contemporary composers such as Arnold and Shield but would also venture to incorporate into English tradition the best of opera buffa - the charm of Paisiello and the greatness of Mozart - by simply copying their music and combining it with bits of other compositions including his own. It only needed Nancy to join him at Drury Lane for Stephen to feel confident about embarking on the realisation of his plans. This Nancy did in the autumn of 1789. Today, Stephen Storace would surely be sued for infringing copyright laws.

At this time Drury Lane boasted the best actors in London. Under the management of Richard Sheridan, there was a blossoming of talent. Sheridan, increasingly preoccupied with politics, wisely handed over the day-to-day running of the theatre to the principal actor, John Kemble. Shakespeare’s plays and on occasion a modern play would be staged. On the lighter side, the musical shows and farces which were often presented after a serious piece on the same night, were the responsibility of Stephen Storace. Theworks he composed do not survive. Mostly they were pasticcios of other people’s compositions but Sheridan considered them great money spinners and had them performed by excellent singers and actors such as Nancy Storace, John Banister, Elizabeth Billington and the beautiful Anna Crouch, a mistress of both Michael Kelly and the Prince of Wales.

As a composer, Stephen Storace had some original ideas and a strong sense of theatre. He tried to imitate Mozart as, for instance, in the finale of his The Pirates, which subsequently became the inspiration for Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Stephen wrote all his operas with Nancy in mind, casting her as a maid, a lusty maiden or an impudent young miss. Audiences never tired of her performances any more than later audiences tired of Charlie Chaplin or Marilyn Monroe. Stephen’s pasticcios, such as the Iron Chest and The Siege of Belgrade, inspired later English composers and brought a lightness to English opera, divorcing it in style from its European influences despite heavy borrowings from original European music. Nancy is believed to have been the first of many renowned English singers to appear in comic operettas on the English stage.

Stephen married Mary Hall in August 1788. Their son, Brinsley, died at the age of nineteen. Stephen was wealthy enough to purchase a country property but spent most of his time away from his wife and child , continuing to live with his mother and sister in London. Stephen’s opera Mahmoud, where his own artistry and imagination took precedence, was written with a young tenor, John Braham, in mind. He never completed that opera and died after a long illness on 16th March, 1796. Nancy Storace completed the opera with the help of Thomas Atwood.

John Braham was only nineteen years old and had been trained as cantor at the London Synagogue. Nancy immersed herself in the young man’scareer and, fearing a sudden upsurge of anti-Semitism in London and the ensuing gossip about their affair, Nancy and Braham departed for the Continent. They remained in Paris for eight months singing mainly at the Theatre de la Republique. Both became particular favourites of Napoleon and Josephine. They continued their travels, appearing in most of the Grand Opera Houses of Europe. Nancy and Braham also travelled to Vienna where everything Nancy remembered had changed. Mozart and Nancy’s great admirer, the Emperor Joseph II, were both long dead. She again met Salieri at the premiere of Haydn’s The Seasons), the production of which Salieri financed. Nancy found Salieri now a sad old man for he had lost his only son and his beloved wife.

Four years after they had left England, Nancy and Braham returned to London and to Covent Garden. In September 1801, Nancy gave birth to a son, William Spencer Harris Braham yet the couple never married. While Braham was still very much in demand, Nancy, ten years his senior, began losing her voice. Now obese, with her once glorious hair thinning rapidly, she began to evoke ridicule in the press. Audiences could no longer tolerate an ageing Diva in her favourite roles.

Braham left Nancy and their child for a younger woman. Nancy Storace died a lonely woman on 24 August, 1817 at her spacious three-storey home in Herne Hill. Her cherished gardens are today open to the public and known as Brockwell Park Gardens. It is a place where families gather for Sunday cricket, children play hide and seek among the old shrubberies in close proximity to Nancy’s residence designed for her by the famed architect, Sir John Soane.

Mr. Anthony Spurgin, a musician of Howe, Sussex, would appear to remain the only descendant of Nancy Storace and John Braham. At the time of writing it is possible that he may no longer be alive and, not ever having married, he may have died without issue.

(Note: Thank you Mrs. Selby for this informative and stimulating piece. Agnes Selby is author of the book, Constanze, Mozart’s Beloved.)