> Music and social history
Photograph by Walery, London.
Harold Rosenthal in his book Opera at Covent Garden (1967) has a chapter “The Golden Age of Augustus Harris” which begins “Augustus Harris, under whose management Covent Garden enjoyed one of its most brilliant periods, was one of the most fascinating figures in British theatrical history. . . .”
Harris’s friend, Mrs Clement Scott, wife of the critic, wrote about him in her book Old Days in Bohemian London “Stage reformer, born impresario, brilliantly clever, ambitious, bubbling over with infectious energy, his sole failure in life was the wild attempt to defy nature and cram thirty-six hours of hard labour into a day which only contained twenty-four, and some of those intended for rest. . . To be with him for fifteen minutes was to feel as though you had been holiday making by the sea for a week”.
It is surely surprising that no biographer has yet attempted a book on this remarkable man. Perhaps there is too much information to make it an easy task. There are currently 56,553 entries on the newspaper data base for ‘Augustus Harris’, not including The Times, between 1870 and 1949. He is said to be a producer of pantomimes and melodramas but his opera productions are sometimes not mentioned at all in reference books.
Harris was indeed extraordinary because of his multitude of businesses and interests, not only as an operatic manager, although this was his favourite pursuit. He also managed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane from 1879 till his death in 1896, producing there annual spectacular melodramas which the public loved and pantomimes which were more lavish than any ever seen before. He was Lessee and Manager of Covent Garden 1888-1896, and managed, for shorter periods Her Majesty’s Theatre and the Empire and Palace Music Halls. He was a shareholder in the Alhambra, Leicester Square, Lessee and Manager from 1887 of both the Tyne Theatre, Newcastle and the Grand Theatre, Glasgow. He was also managing Olympia at the time of his death. From 1883 the Carl Rosa Opera seasons at Drury Lane were under the joint management of Harris and Rosa. He had five or six companies touring the country in the nineties, with his Drury Lane Autumn Dramas, Burlesques, Light Opera and Italian & German opera companies.
He gave the UK premieres of important, standard repertoire works by Wagner (Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde), Verdi (Falstaff), Massenet (Manon, Werther), Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci), Mascagni (L’Amico Fritz) and Puccini (Manon Lescaut). He commissioned La Navarraise from Massenet, while operas by British composers receiving their world premieres under his management included three by Frederic Cowen and two each by Stanford, Mackenzie, Goring Thomas and Isidore de Lara.
He was knighted in 1881 by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen whose company of actors he had presented for a season at Drury Lane. He was elected a Sheriff of the City of London (1890) and was actually the first actor to be knighted by Queen Victoria (1892), for services rendered in the arrangement of the ceremonials during the visit of the Emperor of Germany, so not for his theatrical work.
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He was a prominent Freemason, instituting Drury Lane Lodge in 1885 and becoming Treasurer of Grand Lodge in 1890. He was the first elected Member for the Strand Division when the LCC was set up in 1889. The same year he became proprietor of the The Sunday Times. He belonged to five livery companies in the City - and was Master of the Pattenmakers Company (1892). He travelled to the Continent regularly searching for productions and artists for his opera companies, visited America and worked closely with Henry Abbey, Augustin Daly and Maurice Grau in operatic endeavours.
He wrote or co-authored forty one plays and libretti. He oversaw everything himself, but had three well chosen assistants who went on to have important careers of their own in theatre management - Arthur Collins at Drury Lane, Neil Forsythe at Covent Garden and Fred G. Latham at the Met in New York. He was christened ‘Augustus Druriolanus’ by Punch and died at the age of 44, not in poverty but a wealthy man at the height of his powers and with a vast circle of friends.
Augustus Henry Glossop was born in Paris on 18 March 1852. His father, Augustus Frederick Glossop, was stage manager at the Théâtre Italien in Paris at the time. His grandfather, Joseph Glossop, who was married to the singer Elizabeth Feron, had built London’s Royal Coburg Theatre (opened 11 May 1818), now known as The Old Vic.
The Glossop family moved back to London very soon after his birth. He was the third child and elder son of Augustus and Maria Glossop (née Bone). His parents had met when they were both appearing at the Princess’s Theatre, he as a light comedian and she as a dancer. They married at St Anne’s Soho and had five children, all christened with the Glossop surname. Augustus Senr used Harris as a stage name and Augustus Jnr did the same. Augustus Senr was considered a black sheep when he went into the theatre, so perhaps the change of name was due to the family’s disapproval. In the 1861 census they are all Harris and from then on remain so, but with Glossop retained as a Christian name.
Augustus Jnr was known as ‘Gus’ by all his friends and he is frequently written about as Gus Harris. His life as a child was much influenced by his father’s career as stage manager for all the Italian Opera seasons at Covent Garden. In an interview he says “ . . . My first remembrance of opera dates back to the time when, as a boy of six, I saw Martha given at Covent Garden —the new theatre that had just been built after the fire. After this I was frequently behind the scenes there, and when I went to Paris I used to meet all the great artists and composers either at [J.B.] Faure’s, Patti’s, or [Miolan] Carvalho’s, where I passed my Sundays. . . .” The Strand Musical Magazine (August 1895)
In another interview in The Strand Magazine in December 1891 he says that at the age of ten he pestered his father to let him have a model theatre. He was given one seven feet high which was fitted up in a large room used as a laundry at the back of the stables. There he put on his own productions of melodramas and nearly blew the roof off with his explosion at the end of The Miller and His Men.
His education was varied and interesting and proved a huge advantage to his career as it covered many areas which were useful to him later. In 1861 he was living at home with the family at 9, Pelham Place, Brompton and was attending a school in Turnham Green. He evidently had a good singing voice as a boy and took lessons but it disappeared when his voice broke and never came back. At the age of thirteen he was sent to school at the Collège Chaptal, Paris for four years. He is supposed to have attended the École Niedermeyer, Paris, where Gabriel Fauré was said to be a fellow student but Fauré was seven years older than Gus and this was a music school, so perhaps he just spent time socialising with the music students there. He then went to Hanover for a year where he learnt to speak German fluently, and through the influence of Pauline Lucca, was allowed free entry to the Opera House, then one of the best in Europe. He took full advantage, attending the performances almost every night.
Returning to London, he worked as Treasurer for his father at Covent Garden for a short time. Augustus Senior was Lessee for the pantomime season in 1870/71 when he put on Sleeping Beauty; or, Harlequin and the Spiteful Fairy written by Charles H. Ross and Gilbert Arthur À Beckett (who was Augustus Snr’s nephew). By then, Gus’s mother had opened her own costume business, Auguste et Cie, in London and perhaps this is why “through the influence of a great silk merchant” he was “allowed to study raw silk at St Katherine Docks with the idea of going out to Japan.” He had a life long passion for materials and was very lavish in his spending on costumes once he was a manager.
He had his eighteenth birthday in March 1870 and then his life changed course again. He abandoned silk and accepted the post of foreign correspondent at Emile Erlanger& Co., the City financiers. He was with them for three years then accepted what he considered to be a better position in Paris, with Tiffany, the diamond merchants. Weeks after his arrival in Paris his father died and he returned home. His life then altered completely and he became concerned with the theatre for the rest of his life. It is important to remember that his father died in1873 when Gus was 21. Their careers are so similar that with the same name the two can easily be confused. However, there is actually no overlapping as Gus only began his theatrical career after the death of his father.
First of all he tried becoming an actor and made his stage debut as Malcolm in Macbeth in Manchester, with Genevieve Ward playing the Queen. Through John Coleman he then found a job in Barry Sullivan’s company at Liverpool and is quoted as saying “ There I had the hardest fortnight I have ever had in my life. I got the large sum of £2 a week to study twelve parts in a fortnight — which I had to do with the aid of strong tea to drink and wet towels round my head to keep me awake. Then I came across Mapleson who appointed me stage manager for his Italian Opera Company.” John Coleman in his book Fifty Years of an Actor’s Life seems to clarify the situation. “One day, he called on me at the Tavistock, Mapleson happened to be dining with me, and I invited the airy youth to join us. He was “resting” for “want of something to do,” while Mapleson was going on tour with his company from Her Majesty’s. Over the walnuts and the wine an engagement was effected. From that moment Gussy turned the corner and never looked back till he was installed at Drury Lane.”
There is a most unexpected fact about him in Bernard Shaw’s London Music 1888-89 but sadly he gives no location or date “ . . . very few people in London know that he is an operatic artist as well as an impresario. The first time I had the pleasure of seeing him was in Der Freischutz, in which he played Zamiel, the demon huntsman. The part is not a singing part, so I am unable to speak critically of Mr Harris’s voice; but his vivid and agile pantomime made a deep impression on me. . .”
He stayed with Mapleson for four years and in April 1875 was with the company for their Drury Lane season. Four years later he was Lessee and Manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane himself at the age of 27, having in the meantime written and staged pantomimes at the Crystal Palace and run the Royalty Theatre while the Manager was on an extended holiday.
In February 1879 the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane closed during the pantomime season and no one seemed willing to take on a huge theatre which had often in the past meant financial ruin for the manager. Gus, being ambitious and ever an optimist, managed to scrape together sufficient money from various sources to lease the theatre. The lavish pantomime that he put on at Christmas 1879 proved a success with the public and his great melodrama The World, of which he was a co-author, made money and his success as lessee and manager was assured. Each subsequent year he would produce a spectacular pantomime and then a successful autumn drama which would be highly lucrative for him when produced in several English provincial theatres and on tours in America. Three of his dramas were made into films many years after his death.
His first operatic season was in 1882 when he presented Franke and Pollini’s German Opera at Drury Lane 18 May - 20 June. Hans Richter from the Imperial Opera House, Vienna conducted performances of Lohengrin, Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Fidelio, Euryanthe and the first performances in Britain of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde.
In 1883 Gus invited Carl Rosa (1842-1889) to give his first season at Drury Lane and became a partner in the enterprise. Their success was such that these seasons became annual events. Gus took over the stage management and mise en scène which had previously been under Rosa’s personal control. Herr Randegger had for some time been sharing the conducting with Rosa. Two new operas by English composers were given world premières in this season, Esmeralda by Goring Thomas with Georgina Burns and Barton McGuckin, and Ben Davies (making his debut in opera) and Columba by Mackenzie, with Alwina Valleria and Barton McGuckin. The season was five weeks, with twenty eight performances of Fidelio, The Bohemian Girl, Il Trovatore, Maritana, Faust and Mignon. “ The art-union of Augustus Harris and Carl Rosa was an outcome of an affinity—of a peculiar magnetism which brought together men who had ideas in common and could definitely work them out to their mutual gain and for the benefit of the world at large. . . . The Carl Rosa seasons at Drury Lane marked a distinct forward stride in the progress of opera in the vernacular”. Herman Klein: Thirty Years of Musical Life in London (1903)
In 1884 The Canterbury Pilgrims by Stanford was the new English production on 28 April and in 1885, Nadeshda, again by Goring Thomas, had its première on 16 April and was an instantaneous success. On 8 June 1886 the new work was The Troubadour by Mackenzie and on 4 May 1887 Nordisa by Frederic Corder. On 25 May Lohengrin was sung in English with Marie Roze as Elsa and Barton McGuckin in the title role.
1887 was Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year and Gus decided that he would mark the event at Drury Lane by producing his first season of Italian Opera on a large scale, at the height of the season. This he did, and began a revival in the fortunes of Italian Opera which had been failing in popularity in recent years. For this season he engaged both world class singers and brilliant newcomers and mounted the productions with more than usual splendour. Singers included the De Reszke brothers, with Jean singing for the first time here as a tenor, Victor Maurel, Minnie Hauk, Lillian Nordica, Sigrid Arnoldson, Fernando De Lucia, Battistini, Navarrini and Del Puente. Many of them had been engaged when Gus took Herman Klein to Madrid where Luigi Mancinelli was conducting. While in Spain they attended two bull fights so that Gus could make notes and sketches in order that his forthcoming Carmen would have a truly realistic setting. Aida opened this 1887 season with Madame Kupfer-Berger and Jean de Reszke. The Prince and Princess of Wales were present and immediately became ardent admirers of de Reszke. Eleven operas were given and the season was considered a great artistic success despite the fact that Gus had had to invest all the money he had made with his successful Drury Lane Autumn Dramas and lavish Pantomimes, but still finished up £16,000 out of pocket.
However, in 1888 he produced his first Opera Season at Covent Garden. In the prospectus he wrote that at the request of an influential committee he had taken Covent Garden for the production of Italian opera. This committee included Lord Charles Beresford, chairman; the Earl de Grey, the Hon. Oliver Henry Oppenheim, and A.de Murietta, all men of influence and ability, and staunch supporters of the opera. “In the four years that followed, he introduced a torrent of changes at the opera house. French and German operas were now heard in their original language, he brought a young Australian singer named Melba to the theatre, and he created the opera as the social centre of the London scene, with the Royal patronage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Under Harris’s guidance the Royal Opera House (as it was known from 1892) achieved the eminence of a great international theatre.” Covent Garden Album (1981)
Nellie Melba played a great part in the success of these seasons. Gus used to allow the Royal General Theatrical Fund to have an annual fund raising matinee at Drury Lane. On 2 June 1886 he was Chairman at the Fund’s Annual Dinner and during the evening Wilhelm Gantz introduced a young Australian soprano, Mrs Armstrong, who sang Sing Sweet Bird by Gantz for the guests. This was Nellie Melba, using her married name, making only her second appearance in England. When she first sang for him at Covent Garden she did not make the immediate success that she had hoped for and was unwilling to return for his 1891 season. Lady de Grey and Lady Charles Beresford promised Gus that they would persuade her to return, by telling her that they could guarantee her success if she did so. Melba sang, her career reached new heights and this 1891 season marked the beginning of her great popularity with London audiences.
Gus’s Covent Garden Seasons were usually ten or eleven weeks. In 1888 nineteen different operas were given, in 1889 sixteen, 1890 eighteen, then in 1891 there was a mammoth season over sixteen weeks, with twenty different operas and ninety-four performances. 1892 and ’93 had twenty five operas each, 1894 twenty-seven, 1895 twenty-five and 1896 twenty-three. Generally the same production was never given two nights running and the problems of his stage staff must have been immense let alone finding rehearsal time.
Many years after Gus’s death when Thomas Beecham started his own opera company, he discovered that all the remunerative copyrights of operas belonged to the Covent Garden Syndicate — legacies of the Augustus Harris Estate. Jimmy Glover, his musical director at Drury Lane, calls him “this operatic musical Machiavelli of the Victorian Era” then goes on to explain his methods. “He first of all corners all the operas ; he then similarly garners in the artistes and when in possession of both —well, he takes the opera houses. . . .When an operatic artiste came to Harris and asked for an engagement —if the artiste were at all decent, he offered them a “when opera contract” —that is, an engagement at so much a week , only to operate when Sir Augustus Harris performed opera —no matter in what language. Now this contract only practically bound Harris to fourteen weeks a year —the grand opera season —and yet the very moment he advertised or announced “opera” prime donne, contralti, baritones, bassi, and chorus, fully equipped with a repertoire, all had to come from any part of the world to London. Some of the artistes who booked under this contract were Joseph O’Mara, David Bispham, Madame Olitzka, the Sisters Ravogli, Phillip Brozel, Charles Manners, Fanny Moody, Richard Green and numerous others.” Jimmy Glover: Jimmy Glover His Book (1911)
In the winter of 1893/94 Gus was seriously ill. There are various reports, but it seems to have been an attack of diabetes followed by blood-poisoning and nervous prostration. He had been a diabetic since at least 1889. This illness lasted two months, but after time recuperating in Hastings he went back to his old life style with barely time to sleep or eat. There were three Command Performances at Windsor for Queen Victoria and “At Covent Garden and Drury Lane alone — that is to say, quite apart from the Carl Rosa productions — ninety-two performances of twenty-seven operas were given in eleven weeks, and of these works seven were mounted for the first time in London” Herman Klein: Thirty Years of Musical Life in London (1903)
1895 at Covent Garden was Patti’s farewell season. She had not appeared there for ten years but was persuaded by Gus to sing in La Traviata, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Don Giovanni, with two performances of each.
The premiere of Stanford’s opera Shamus O’Brien took place on 2 March 1896 at London’s Opera Comique. This was to be the last new opera staged by Sir Augustus Harris. His Grand Opera Season in English ran at Drury Lane from 4 April until 9 May, and his lengthy and successful Covent Garden season opened on 12 May 1896 He was also managing Olympia where he was presenting a Grand Sporting and Military Show twice daily at 2 and 8.
In June 1896 he went to Folkestone to work on the next Autumn Drama for Drury Lane, The White Heather. Once again he became seriously ill and died there in the Pavilion Hotel on the evening of Monday 22 June, aged only 44. The following night at Covent Garden the opera was to be Rigoletto with Melba. “On the Tuesday morning it seemed as though there was likely to be no performance that night, for Melba, in a passion of grief for the death of Sir Augustus Harris, made the emphatic declaration that oxen and wain-ropes would not drag her to the opera to amuse an unfeeling public. As Sir Augustus, however, in one of his last injunctions had bidden his lieutenants to see that the opera should continue without interruption, calmer reasoning prevailed, and she accordingly sang the music of Gilda with all her customary charm and beauty of voice. . . .” The Sketch (1 July 1896)
The Opera House was however closed on the day of his funeral. “. . . he was the recipient of the accolade from his sovereign, the applause of his countrymen, and, at the zenith of his career, the funeral of a prince. . .” The Navy & Army Illustrated (Oct 1896)
At 10am on Saturday 27 June the funeral procession left his house, The Elms, in Avenue Road. The cortege consisted of the hearse, three carriages containing ornate floral tributes, twenty-four official mourning carriages, together with private vehicles. Crowds of people lined the entire route down Baker Street, Oxford Street, Park Lane, Knightsbridge and to the Fulham Road entrance of Brompton Cemetery. The hearse arrived at noon. Gus had always loved lengthy and ornate processions and put them into any production that he could. In the cemetery, the funeral procession broke up badly. “Gawd,” said a stage carpenter standing next to H.G.Hibbert “wouldn’t the guvnor be — cross if he were ’ere.” He was buried, not in the family grave, but in a prominent position at the edge of the circle on the main central avenue.
The beautiful ornate memorial that was placed on the grave has now been vandalised. The bust has been stolen and the female figure has lost her hands. The memorial drinking fountain, which was erected by public subscription on the corner of Catherine Street and Russel Street, outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has fared better, and Gus’s bronze bust still gazes towards his other great theatre, the Royal Opera House. Sir Augustus Harris and David Garrick (1717 - 1779) are the only Managers of Drury Lane to have died wealthy men.
His friend and musical adviser Herman Klein wrote “His genius was of that Napoleonic order which comes but rarely into existence and still more rarely finds its exact bent. His spirit moved with the times; it was fin de siècle in the most marked degree, and it brooked the interference of tradition only when by doing so it could secure the survival of the fittest. Where the public taste was concerned his instinct seldom erred; he knew precisely what his patrons wanted and how best to give it them. As impresario, manager, entrepreneur, dramatist, librettist, and stage manager, all rolled into one, he was absolutely unique; and it may be taken for granted that we shall ne’er look upon his like again’ ”
Era July 16 Mr Augustus Harris
Men and Women Vol II No. 15 Our Portrait Gallery No. 15 Mr Augustus Harris.
Our Celebrities Augustus Harris
December The Strand Magazine, Illustrated Interviews No VI, Sir Augustus Harris by Harry How
Pen Pencil Baton & Mask (published 1896) by Helen C. Black
Lloyds Weekly May 12 Half Hours with Celebrities Sir Augustus Harris Anonymous
Strand Musical Magazine, 1895, Vol II August page 83 Sir Augustus Harris on Opera.
Jennie Bisset © 2016
For extensive help with newspaper research we wish to thank Gail Naughton and Alex Bisset. We are grateful to Richard Copeman for allowing us to reproduce six images from his collection.