Alice May: Gilbert and Sullivan's First Prima Donna (review)
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Reviewed by
Alice May: Gilbert and Sullivan’s First Prima DonnaAdrienne SimpsonNew York: Routledge, 2003224 pages, $49.95

Readers turn to life stories for a number of reasons. Traditionally, a biography or autobiography celebrates the subject's achievements, often in the face of considerable obstacles. Such texts inspire admiration and sometimes are meant to encourage emulation. In another venerable tradition, life stories are told with less noble ends, appealing more or less obviously to readers' prurient interests. Still others are obviously commercial enterprises, simultaneously promoting and capitalizing on the rising celebrity of the subject. Yet another strain of biography, the so-called critical biography, analyzes its subject's life and work in relationship to each other, and a related variety, the life-and-times biography, puts its subject into a larger historical context as well.

Most singers' published life stories seem to fall into the first group, providing a calendar of the singer's engagements, a supply of enthusiastic reviews, a cache of photos in and out of costume, and some lively anecdotes. (Has any soprano ever sung "Vissi d'arte" without having her wig catch fire?) While some of these books make compelling reading, they usually provide little insight into what sets that interpretive artist apart from others. And, to be fair, the aims of such books are frankly—and understandably—commemorative. A singer's art and fame are transient, and print offers longevity as well as a tangible sign of our admiration and gratitude.

The present volume falls somewhere between this large category of celebration and the smaller one of critical or historical analysis. Drawing effectively on often slender resources, Adrienne Simpson pieces together the life and work history of a now-forgotten singer who made her career in both musical theater [End Page 441] and (to a lesser extent) opera. In following the performer from appearance to appearance and supplying the reactions of the press along the way, it resembles the conventional singer biography. What sets it apart from the more familiar approach is the choice of subject, a singer who is unknown to readers either by first-hand experience or reputation. Her career did not follow the wished-for trajectory from obscurity to wealth and fame; her star emerged only partially and momentarily before again disappearing.

In this respect, the subtitle of the book is somewhat misleading. Alice May was a successful singer but by no means as celebrated a singer as the term prima donna implies. The particular primacy she is assigned is also dubious. May did indeed create the leading female role in The Sorcerer (1877), which Simpson calls Gilbert and Sullivan's "first successful full-length operetta" (p. xiii), but they had previously collaborated on the full-length Thespis (two acts, 1871) and the one-act Trial by Jury (1875). Nor was the association lasting, as the phrasing might lead a reader to infer. After this venture, which the author treats as the high point of the singer's career, May moved on to other, increasingly less successful ones.

May was born in the county of Yorkshire, probably in 1847—"birth dates have always been a remarkably elastic commodity in theatrical circles," Simpson wryly notes (pp. 4-5)—and virtually nothing is known of her earliest years. She studied with Mrs. Joseph Wood, a well-known teacher of singing who had, as Mary Anne Paton, created the role of Rezia in Weber's Oberon in 1826. Later, probably in the late 1860s, May became associated with G. B. Allen (1822-1897), a composer and teacher of singing, evidently first as a pupil and then romantically. Her first professional appearance took place on 16 August 1869 in a concert in the seaside resort town of Margate. Later that year she gained a position with the German Reed Company at the Gallery of Illustration in London, where Simpson says she "went on to create many new roles in works by leading British music-theatre composers" (p. 12)—which, however, go unidentified here.

One wonders how many roles May could have created during her time at the Gallery of Illustration, since she arrived, with Allen, in Australia on 4 June 1870...


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