Wednesday, 03 March 2021

Lucy Escott: Australia’s greatest American prima donna

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Once again KURT GÄNZL delves into the life and career of a Victorian vocalist who deserves better recognition. Madame Lucy Escott was an American soprano who achieved success in her home country of America, even greater success on the stages of Europe and the UK, and spent some eight years in Australia with W.S. Lyster's opera troupe.

ESCOTT, Lucy [Evans] [EASTCOTT née GRANT] (b. Springfield, Mass 4 January 1829; d. Paris 26 November 1895)Escott SLNSWLucy Escott, 1863; photograph by Edward Dalton, Sydney. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

Lucy Escott probably has the best claims, in retrospect, to be considered the ‘first American prima donna’ to make a successful career as an operatic soprano on the international stage.

A rather self-conscious article in the American press, in 1860, surveyed the field and came up with contenders: Madame Biscaccianti of Boston, Miss Withers of New York, Mrs Eastcott of Massachussetts, Miss [Maria Scovill] Brainerd of New York, Miss Wessler of Philadelphia, Miss Rosalie Durand of New York … Such as Mrs Sutton and Elisa Hensler didn’t even rate a mention. Anyhow, it was no contest. Only the career of Miss Withers aka Cora de Wilhorst approached that of Lucy Escott in quality, in success, and in travels, and by the time Cora made her debut Lucy was already wowing Naples with her performances.

Dwight of Boston had come to the same conclusion four years earlier: ‘She is, I believe, the only bona fide American prima donna who has appeared with continued success ...’.

Lucy was born Lucy Evans Grant, the daughter of Luther Grant of Springfield, Massachusetts, and his wife Lorinda née Williams, in 1829. Not 1832. She appears in the 1830 census. She was educated to music, and, as a teenager, was already a successful music teacher in Springfield. At the age of seventeen (24 March 1846) she married another local musician, the British-born Richard Eastcott (b. Broadwood x 15 October 1817; d. Springfield 19 August 1880), who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1834 (and, allegedly, played at Victoria’s coronation)   before emigrating to America in 1839. He taught piano and violin in Worcester, Mass, and performed in concerts (‘a jolly and dapper little Englishman’) at the local Brinley Hall. I spot him, in 1843, playing in the orchestra at the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. ‘Miss Grant, pupil of E. Hamilton’ is to be seen concertising with him in 1845, and ‘Mrs Eastcott’ appears beside him, in concert, the month after their marriage.

The following year (while La Biscaccianti was, in her turn, making her first public appearances) she sang with Henri Herz and Camillo Sivori (11 October 1847) at the Tabernacle, NY, taking the part of Zerlina, alongside Mme Fleury Jolly, when they gave a selection from Don Giovanni. She followed up on programmes featuring the young pianist Richard Hoffman and the violinist Joseph Burke, from New York to Boston via Rochester, Albany and Syracuse (‘… a superb singer. Her voice is exceedingly deep and rich and she reminds us much of Mrs Bishop … we have had no such singing here since Mrs Bishop visited us…’) to their most recent home in Providence, RI. When she gave three concerts at Albany’s Bleeker Hall (12 November 1850, ‘Qui la voce’, ‘Non fu sogno’) the local press avowed ‘We have heard the best vocalists of this country but must acknowledge we have never witnessed a more splendid display’. 

Albany was the next place where they posted their shingle as teachers, and, there, Lucy became the soprano of St Paul’s Church, teamed with the young tenor, Henry Squires. Mr Squires would henceforth be part of her life, in one capacity or another, for as long as she would live. He appeared with Lucy in concert in New York where she sang on a number of programmes at Tripler Hall (Zorer’s ‘Joy and grief’, ‘Una voce poco fa’ as ‘Tyrant, soon I’ll burst thy chains’, Jenny Lind’s Song of Home, ‘O dolce concerto’), but the future team was sundered temporarily when the Eastcotts took the plunge and set off for Italy, where Lucy might further her studies.

They apparently settled on Florence, and an American abroad wrote back in August of 1852: ‘Mrs Eastcott, of Albany I believe, has been studying vocal music here and in Bologna for the year past. Mrs Eastcott has an organ of great power and compass—a soprano—remarkably sweet and pure in the upper notes. She has been very assiduous in her studies and her execution of the most difficult passages wins the heartiest applause, not only from those present, but from a large crowd of outsiders on the street below. She speaks the language with fluency and her style of singing is purely and thoroughly Italian … If Mrs Eastcott preserves her strength and voice, she is sure to make a sensation in the musical world.’

In April the following year, another report followed: ‘[Mrs Eastcott] formerly of Springfield, Mass, made her debut some months ago at one of the theatres here in the well-known letter scene from Il Barbiere. I witnessed it, and can testify that her success was very decided …  she is now singing as prima donna at one of the theatres in Naples…’

And indeed she was. Lucy had been taken on as prima donna at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples, where she had become a decided favourite. It seems she made her first appearance there, in a complete opera, on 10 January 1853, in the role of the heroine in Mercadante’s Violetta, and won sufficient success to allow it to be played 32 times. On 8 May 1853 she followed up as Emilia in Lillo’s new comic opera Ser Babbeo (‘giovane cantatrice americana che già piacque citanti’). She also played in the previous season’s hit Elena di Tolosa, Angiolina in Petrella’s Le Miniere di Freimberg, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Il Trovatore, Norma, L’Elisir d’amore, Battista’s Ermelinda and, in January 1854, Giovanni Moretti’s Il Festino. She encountered the Draconian methods of the Italian theatres when she declined to play in Sarra’s Carmosina, which was written in Neapolitan dialect, and found herself in hot water.

The Morning Post reported from Naples on the sudden increase in striving Americans in the town and of their shining example: ‘In Naples we have an American lady, Mrs Escott, who draws every night at the Nuovo, and has really succeeded …’

And later: ‘The last thing one would expect of the Americans is that they should come and sing with success on the Italian stage. Nevertheless we have two examples in Naples at the present moment. Mrs Escott is an American lady who for more than a year has ‘drawn’ at the Nuovo. She came to Italy knowing nothing of the Italian language and only possessing such musical education as can be picked up in the United States, and yet within a few months she became the favourite at the Nuovo, a theatre which has schooled some of the best living artists. She has acquired the Italian school of singing and made the most of a delicate organ. With an unusual talent for acting, she has surpassed most Italian artists in dramatic excellence. She now leaves Naples for America where no doubt she will coin her fame into gold.’ The other American success, at a lesser theatre, was Henry Squires.

And Lucy, perhaps because of the vagaries of Italian pronunciation, had become definitively ‘Escott’.

The Escotts did not return to America. They progressed instead to England, where ‘a Madame Lucia Escott’ appeared at Helen Taylor’s concert at the Hanover Square Rooms in June. The English press commented ‘Her style is earnest and dramatic but not remarkable for finish’.

They then descended to the village of Antony, in Cornwall, where Richard’s family lived, and at Antony Farm, on 2 December 1854, Lucy gave birth to a son, [Louis] Edgar (d. Coos, Oregon 12 July 1940).

She came back to singing the following year, starting off with a concert at Plymouth’s St George’s Hall (‘Una voce, ‘Com’è bello’, ‘Lo, Here the gentle lark’,’ Charming May’), and appeared at Giacinto Marras’s concert in London, in June, with her Trovatore aria, and at the downmarket Newman Rooms, in music from Lucia di Lammermoor, with Allan Irving, before she was snapped up by E.T. Smith for the last nights of his Drury Lane opera season.

The opera chosen for her debut was La Donna del lago, in which she played alongside Fanny Huddart, Armandi, Flavio and Hamilton Braham. She scored a distinct success. ‘Her appearance in youthful and pleasing, Her figure is small and slight but very elegant; her features are delicate and feminine and her voice, a high soprano, is remarkably clear and flexible without that vibrating quality which conduces greatly to expression. Her intonation is beautifully true, and her execution and style those of a highly finished artist … her whole performance, full of refinement, spirit and sensibility was a continued triumph’.

On 10 July she took up the role of Lucia (previously played by Mme Gassier), before Smith’s season ended. But Lucy stayed right where she was. Joseph Stammers was the next tenant, playing an English opera season, and Lucy was hired as prima donna. She appeared on 21 July opposite Elliot Galer, as Arline (‘We have seldom seen a more agreeable representation of the gentle Arline’) and following up as Maritana, as Aeolia in The Mountain Sylph, Amina in La Sonnambula, and, when J W Wallack guested, sang one of the witches in his Macbeth. As the season stretched on, she caused ‘a furore’ as Galatea in Acis and Galatea, Adina in L’Elisir d’amore and sang her Lucia again, this time in English. At her Benefit, she introduced a new patriotic song ‘Victoria’ (S.W. New/Renton Nicholson) ‘dedicated to the forces of the Crimea’ and was praised as she  ‘not only sang the song exquisitely but acted every line of it’.

After the opera season, she repeated her Galatea at St Martin’s Hall, and appeared in concert from Covent Garden (Venzano waltz ‘with dashing facility’) to Greenwich to Carlisle and Islington, before returning to the theatre for a series of Stammers performances of The Bohemian Girl and La Sonnambula at Covent Garden. Stammers was succeeded, at Easter, by J.H. Tully and Frederick Kingsbury, and the Bohemian Girl performances were overtaken by the first English-language production of an opera which Lucy knew well from her Italian days. And thus, Lucy Escott became the world’s first English-language Leonora in Il Trovatore (24 March 1856). Lloyds newspaper summed up the situation: ‘Leonora is a difficult part, because it is less known and has fewer traditions than any which Miss Escott has yet attempted’, but ‘she sang and acted with her wonted energy and thoroughly entered into the spirit of the part’. ‘Madame Escott acquits herself with singular dexterity in the part of the heroine, the music of which, so profuse in the florid volubilties of the Italian school, she delivers with uncommon energy and freedom. We could not desire a more adequate executant of the ‘Tacea la notte’ or someone more decisive and vigorous in style’.

Once again, Lucy’s acting performance got the notices, but it was taken for granted that (apart from a dicky trill in Handel) her vocal talents were impeccable. America had sent a worthy ‘first American prima donna’ across the Atlantic.

The Mountain Sylph was revived (‘The cast has … probably never been excelled’) and on 30 June 1856 the company produced the Esmeralda of the ‘very Neapolitan’ composer Vincenzo Battista, which Lucy was said to have performed, improbably, 100 times in Naples. The press found it ‘trite and vulgar … below criticism’, but the cast drew appreciative notices. On the season’s 100th night Lucy contributed her ‘Miserere’ and the last act of The Enchantress.

In August the ‘National Opera Company’ (manager: Tully) went to the provinces, with Il Trovatore as its main offering, but with Maritana, Lucia di Lammermoor, Esmeralda, The Bohemian Girl, Cinderella Norma, Lucrezia Borgia, and, as the tour moved on, La Traviata, or the blighted flower amongst its baggage, until 1 June 1857 they came to rest at London’s Surrey Theatre:

‘The opera company which designates itself ‘National’ and has been singing in most of the English provinces has found its way to the Surrey Theatre where during the past week it has been playing La Traviata under circumstances of considerable force and efficiency. Miss Lucy Escott sustains the principal character and gives a very able and affecting version of the unfortunate heroine ... Her acting in this as in every opera she undertakes betrays great earnestness as well as a remarkable power of dramatic exemplification, while her singing is that of a clever and experienced artist’.

Lucy, tenor Haigh and baritone Durand, plus seconda donna Lizzie Dyer, still formed the backbone of the troupe, but Fanny Huddart was replaced by Rosalia Lanza, and a new tenor was added: Henry Squires.

After the Surrey season, the flourishing troupe hit the road again for another extended tour of the main centres, adding Loder’s The Night Dancers to their repertoire, in which Il Trovatore was still the main attraction, Rigoletto a novelty, and in which Esmeralda stayed stubbornly an item. They spent the festive season in Cork, where the local critic remarked ‘Lucy Escott’s reception was in the highest degree flattering, the audience displaying an amount of enthusiasm reserved only for prime favourites’ and finally came to a halt at Newport in June 1858.

In mid-September, Lucy, her husband, son Edgar and the members of her ‘National’ company: Emma Heywood, Charles Durand, Aynsley Cook and consort and Brookhouse Bowler, boarded the Prince Albert and sailed for America.

There, things went wrong. They were booked for three months, apparently through the agency of George Loder, for a season of their operas at Burton’s Theatre, following his Italian opera season with Pauline Colson and Gazzaniga. They opened with their celebrated Trovatore, which by now had been thoroughly done in New York. As the city echoed to the coming of Piccolomini and her ‘naughty’ Traviata, Burton immediately schemed to break their contract and closed them in a week. Richard Escott sued, and would eventually win $4,000, but the company’s New York season was finished.

For more than twelve months, Lucy and the remnant of her company wandered from concerts to small operatic performances around America. She teamed with the English tenor, David Miranda, in an opera company which finally came to grief in Cincinnati in early 1860. No fault, the press assured, of the prima donna ‘one of the best lyric actresses in English.’

But salvation from what looks severely like poor management was at hand. Mrs Escott was, as was Mr Squires, booked by the Lyster brothers for a season of opera in California.

It did not look like an outstanding company. Rosalie Durand, Georgia Hodson, the ill-fated Irishman John Haig aka Juan de Haga aka Camoens, or Fred Lyster were scarcely comparable with Charles Durand and the Aynsley Cooks as artists. But it worked.

The reaction of California was splendid. The troupe opened at Maguire’s Opera House with Lucia di Lammermoor (19 May 1860) and Lucy triumphed: ‘her style of singing is brilliant and enthusiastic the charm of which is increased by expressive features a pretty face and a good figure ... She sings easily without affectations or any of the assumptions which are generally the evidence of weakness. Sweetness of tone and purity of utterance are her great vocal merits. From first to last she was applauded to the echo … surpassed herself ...’. Never have artists been more cordially received in San Francisco’.

Lucy Escott had been something of a star in Naples, she had also conquered Drury Lane and Britain, but the epoch of her career was still coming, and the season in San Francisco was its beginning. The company played La Traviata, Maritana, Il Trovatore, I Puritani, Lucrezia Borgia, Ernani, The Rose of Castille, La Sonnambula, Rigoletto, Der Freischütz, La Favorita, Martha, Norma, The Bohemian Girl, Lurline and others in California, with two lengthy seasons in San Francisco, Lucy singing almost every night and—alongside her gentlemanly tenor—indubitably the star of every show.

Then, on 8 January, their successful time in California done, Mrs Escott, Squires and their colleagues—after many a rumour as to their plans—boarded the ship Achilles which carried ‘the first American opera company to visit Australia’ out of San Francisco. It was, indeed, the most consequent group yet to visit the Australian colonies, and from their arrival 1 March, and their first performance (Lucia di Lammermoor) in Melbourne on 25th of the same month, for some eight years, the Lyster opera company, Escott and Squires ever at their head, their repertoire swelled with versions of such works such as Les Huguenots, Oberon, Masaniello, Le Prophète, L’Africaine, Robert le diable, and Un ballo in maschera, played opera throughout Australia, establishing themselves as the most celebrated operatic performers of their time and place, and making themselves into key figures in the history of English opera, indeed of opera tout court, in Australia. And Lucy Escott into its virtual founding prima donna.

After an umpteenth ‘last performance’ in concert at the Sydney Prince of Wales Theatre 24 August 1868, the troupe as now constituted finally sailed back to San Francisco, and opened at the Metropolitan Theatre 21 December 1868 with their grandiose production of Les Huguenots. Their Australian success was not repeated and, when Lyster returned to Australia, Lucy and Henry remained in America.

Soon after (21 June 1870), Lucy Escott became Mrs Henry Squires. Since her husband was still alive in Massachusetts (where he died of the syphilis in 1880), presumably some sort of arrangement was arrived at. But singer-gossip columnist Blanche Roosevelt referred to ‘Mrs Henry Squires, our great prima donna, the first American to sing in Naples, and her husband Henry Squires the Albany tenor …’ and the press in Paris, to where the couple moved their home, noted the presence, singing in the Parisian salons in 1874, of ‘M et Mme Henry Squires, deux chanteurs de bonne école’.

After years of continental travels (duly chronicled in the Australian papers), M et Mme Squires settled permanently in Paris, where they lived in retirement until Lucy’s death in 1895. Henry returned to America, and died there, after a stroke, in 1907.

It had been quite a life and one hell of a career.

 

This article was first poublished in Victorian Vocalists by Kurt Gänzl, Routledge, 2018

Read 400 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 March 2021
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.