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Monday, 14 December 2020

Marian Burton: A fine contralto with an irregular private life

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Drawing on images in the Falk Album, KURT GÄNZL takes a look at the contralto, Marian Burton, who had a career truncated by personal considerations, but nevertheless made herself an enviable reputation on the both sides of the world.

Marian BurtonMarian Burton, 1890; photo by Falk Studios, Sydney. Theatre Heritage Australia, Falk Album, 030/3.

BURTON, Marian [BURTON, Mary Ann] (b. Bermondsey, c.1860; d. Sussex, 1939).

The details of her professional life are reasonably simple and clear, and were reported reasonably accurately in her lifetime, notably in the colonial press. However, one certainly cannot say the same of that private life, which effectively ended her career in Britain.

Mary Ann Burton was born in Bermondsey. She said so, her ‘parents’ said so, and why not? Nobody seems sure exactly when, and probably with reason. The 1861 census shows Robert Burton, packing-case maker, and his wife, Elizabeth, at 95 Chalton Street, with a 17 year-old daughter, Emma. Machinist. And a seven-months old Mary Ann. That’s her. Curious? And not registered anywhere that I can find. But I’ve seen this situation before. I’ll gamble that Mary Ann is an illegitimate child of 17-year-old Emma. Just to muddy things, there is Mary Ann born in Bermondsey in 1858, and according to her death registration she was born in 1856: so why would you say the infant was 7 months old in the 1861 census? And 12 in 1871. If it weren’t. Curious. Not straightforward anyhow.

Of her early life there is little to tell. She said in an Australian interview that she was first taught music by a gentleman named Merrick, later on by Randegger, and attended a nebulously named institution which is said, sometimes, to have been the Royal Academy of Music. Well, I don’t know about all that, at all. I first see Miss Marian Burton, on 8 February 1878, taking part in a concert in Brixton, alongside Edith Wynne, Miss Poole, Mrs Osborne Williams, Lloyd and Santley. Rich company for a beginner! Next up, she is performing at Steinway Hall, as a pupil of Lansdowne Cottell’s London Conservatoire (1 July 1879). That’s more like it! Emilie Petrelli, Frederic Wood, Eugenie Kemble and Walter Clifford are fellow pupils. She sang ‘The Old, Old Story’ and ‘The Lady of the Lea’ and made ‘a very favourable impression. She has a contralto voice of the most agreeable quality and her singing is decidedly good’. In the next years I spot her singing on Hastings Pier, at the Crystal Palace (10 November 1879, 21 August 1880), at the Town Hall, Emsworth, at city dinners (United Law Clerks Society, Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum), at the Angell Town Institute, the Royal Academy Banquet, and at several dos with a mayoral flavour, which, given future events may or may not be significant. Her regular pieces were the contralto warhorses ‘The Better Land’, ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Lost Chord’.

:In 1881, I spot her at Bristol, Swindon, in Elijah with Agnes Larkcom and St Paul with Annie Sinclair at Leamington Spa, at more dinners and again at the Crystal Palace. She took part in a concert party with Miss Sinclair/Annie Marriott, Henry Guy and F. Henry Horscroft which performed a number of dates (The Messiah, St Paul, Choral Symphony) and gave The Ancient Mariner and The Rose Maiden at Crystal Palace, in the early months of 1882.

In July, she sang at a Grenadier Guards concert at Rhyl (‘Better Land’, ‘Lost Chord’, There is a Green Hill’, ‘Minstrel Boy’) and the bills, for the first (and only?) time claimed her as ‘RAM’. When she moved on to Leicester and Wanstead, the qualification had gone. On 11 November 1882 she made a first appearance in Manchester, in de Jong’s concert at the Free Trade Hall. She sang ‘Quando a te lieta’, ‘Sleep my love’ and duetted the Venetian Boat Song with Clara Samuell, in ‘a strong contralto ‘, was judged ‘very enjoyable’ and encored. She would return regularly to sing for de Jong, in concert and oratorio, and it would seem that it was from there that her career took its decisive turning.

On 22 February 1883 she appeared with Henry Leslie’s choir, at St James’s Hall. The other vocalists were Santley, father and daughter, and the conductor was Randegger. Seemingly her first engagement in which he was involved. Which makes a bit of a mess of the stories told as to her arrival in the Carl Rosa company. For that was announced a few weeks later, and I am sure the impetus came from de Jong, who had a close association with the impresario.

The Rosa engagement was made, but it had to be delayed, for Marian was signed for the series of concerts christened the ‘Sims Reeves Farewell Tour’. The Reeves concerts were interleaved with others (Die erste Walpurgisnacht, The Woman of Samaria, The Rose Maiden) before Miss Burton returned to London for Rosa rehearsals.

The company opened on 16 August 1883 at Blackpool, playing Esmeralda, and Marion Burton made her first appearance, as the Gipsy Queen in The Bohemian Girl, before they set off for the tour proper, beginning in Dublin. In Dublin, she featured as Frederic in Mignon, the Gipsy Queen, and played Mercedes in Carmen, and the press praised ‘a most successful first appearance’, ‘exceedingly promising. She has a most agreeable contralto and her acting is marked by a wonderful aplomb for one so young and inexperienced’. As the tour progressed, she was also seen as Azucena: ‘A distinct success … an admirable portrayal of inexorable revenge’ and as Siebel in Faust. All five roles would become staples in her repertoire during her time with Rosa. In February, she took a night out to appear in the Schubert Mass in E Flat and Die erste Walpurgisnacht, with Bridson and Lloyd, with the Sacred Harmonic Society, and was praised for ‘good declamatory power and a intelligent manner of singing’.

When the company landed at Drury Lane, 14 April 1884, Miss Burton was seen as Lazarillo in Maritana, and as Dame Margery in Villiers Stanford’s new Canterbury Pilgrims (‘could not easily be improved upon’) but it was her Mignon which aroused the greatest enthusiasm. It would do so throughout her time on the opera stage. When the company produced Mefistofele she was Martha, when The Beggar Student was mounted she played the plum role of Palmatica, at Liverpool at Christmas 1884, she sang the Stabat Mater with Marie Roze, Barton McGuckin and Ludwig, and when The Lily of Killarney was revived, she played Mrs Cregan. Her reviews were invariably good, though some found her too young for Azucena and she was once accused of singing sharp.

The 1885 season saw the production of Manon, in which Miss Burton was cast as Rosette, 1886 brought the addition of Ruy Blas in which, as Casilda, ‘she threw into high relief a part which would have otherwise been feeble’, but when The Marriage of Figaro was brought back, she was given the role of Cherubino, and stole the show with her fine singing and boyish pranks. Mackenzie’s The Troubadour (Agalais) was the other item of the season, but it failed to take.

In 1887, she appeared in a Patti concert for de Jong at Liverpool (‘Voi che sapete’ ‘Three Fishers’), sang Elijah in Edinburgh, at the Free Trade Hall, and all the time continued to play her Carl Rosa Siebel, Lazarillo, Frederic, Gipsy Queen, Azucena and Cherubino, with a little time off for ‘indisposition’. When the new tour started from Dublin, there was a cast change. Carmen was produced, with Marion Burton in the title-role. ‘She approaches Minnie Hauk’ gasped the local critic, although she overacted less and ‘a certain soft richness in her voice … was not suitable’. Not conventional, anyway.

But something was afoot. Miss Burton collapsed on stage in mid-Maritana. And there were reports in the press that she had married John Payne, ex-of the Rosa orchestra. The reports were quite correct, but decidedly out of date. Three years late. The two had been married 22 April 1884. So why did this para appear now. Easy. Married Mrs Burton Payne was having an affair with a prominent man, Mr Herbert Jameson Waterlow, alderman of the city of London, sometime Sheriff of London, a member of the gentry … and married and a father of two. Mr Payne was their beard. Whether he had always been a beard (remember all those engagements at the Mansion House?) or only developed into one, I have no idea.

Anyway, word went out that Madame Burton had a lung complaint, and she would return to the Rosa company for the 1887-88 season. But she didn’t. Some time in the April quarter of 1888, a little Marjorie Waterlow Payne was born in Teddington. Followed by Adeline Waterlow Payne on 24 August 1889 in London.

Mother Waterlow Payne didn’t stop performing. When Agnes Huntington left the title-role which she had so famously played in Paul Jones in London, Madame Burton stepped in. But it was not for long. Things were clearly getting uncomfortable: and the couple took the traditional way out. A ship to Australia, leaving the world of John Payne, Mary Hannah Hill Waterlow, her son Mark and her daughter, Edith Grace, as far as it was possible to leave them behind.

Marian Burton made something of a sensation in the Antipodes. She was quickly acclaimed the finest contralto ever to have been heard in Australia (which was tough on Sara Flower and Lucy Chambers) as she cavalcaded from a concert (16 December 1889) at the Melbourne Liedertafel (‘Three Fishers’, ‘Home Sweet Home’), through a series of concerts and oratorios (The Messiah, Elijah) with Charles Santley, to a season with Nellie Stewart, starring in Paul Jones and Boccaccio. In October 1890, under the management of Australian impresario, R.S. Smythe, she crossed, with soprano Colbourne Baber, violinist Poussard and tenor Henry Stockwell, to New Zealand, where she triumphed in nine concerts in Auckland (‘Three Fishers’, Marzials, ‘A Summer Shower’ ‘Douglas Gordan’, ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Quis est homo’ ‘How beautiful are the Feet’, ‘Kerry Dance’ ‘Venetian Boat Song’, ‘Banks of Allan Water’, ‘Che faro’, ‘Lost Chord’, ‘The Children’s Home’, ‘Goodbye’) before heading off to the other main centres, and a few lesser ones. In December she performed Messiahs in both islands. Such was her success, it was said, that Janet Patey postponed an intended visit to New Zealand.

In Auckland, in May 1891, another Waterlow Payne daughter was born, and christened Hinemoa.

After one last Auckland concert (20 May), the couple and their new baby headed back to Australia on the Rotomahana. They were said to be going home. But Madame Burton was hired, along with Marie Fillunger, to support the Hallés in their concert tour of Australia. But, then, that was it, and the family returned to England where the widowed Elizabeth Burton has been caring for their two babes.

During their time in the south, ‘Mrs Waterlow’ had got into some momentary contractual strife with Australia’s sweetheart, Nellie Stewart. It had all been floralled over, and now Nellie was in England, trying to make her mark on the London stage. She was cast as Susan in a Blue-Eyed Susan with good credentials, and to play opposite her, as William, was hired … Marian Burton. Once again, Madame Burton scored splendidly, in spite of arousing the jealousy of star comedian Arthur Roberts who, in his traditional fashion, got her big moments wiped from the show. Blue-Eyed Susan did all right, but when it finished so did Madame. I don’t think she intended to: she kept advertising for work for some time, but then a son, Eric Waterlow Payne arrived to swell the family, followed by a Violette Marie (b. Brussels, 23 May 1896) and an Olga (b. Surrey, 24 October 1899).

The family moved home for a while to Brussels ‘in retirement’ but returned to end their days in Britain. Waterlow died in 1921 (13 November), his wife in 1927 (21 September) and his ‘wife’ in 1939. The opera world had seemingly forgotten ‘Marian Burton’, I have not found a single mention of her passing in the press of either hemisphere.

The Waterlow Payne children have had their details recorded minutely on the website Suffice it to repeat here that son, Eric, was killed at Ypres (16 July 1918), and that the two eldest daughters went on the stage. Marjorie was successful, but succumbed to cancer at the age of 31. Adeline played in musical comedy, then married thrice. Her second was a widowed gentleman of rank.


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Kurt Gänzl

Kurt is one of the most important chroniclers of the world’s history of music and theatre. His numerous works on the subject include The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre (1994, 2001), The British Musical Theatre (1986), The Musical: a concise history (1997), Gänzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre (1988), Victorian Vocalists (2018) and biographies of such artists as Lydia Thompson (2002), Willie Gill (2002) and Emily Soldene (In Search of a Singer, 2007). Forthcoming works include Gilbert & Sullivan, the Players and the Plays (October 2021), and update of the 2007 University textbook, and a translation of the Rapsodies of Petrus Borel with his brother, poet John Gallas.