Saturday, 07 March 2020

Manchester to Melbourne: the tale of an ill-fated baritone

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Theatre historian Kurt Gänzl continues his exploration of forgotten Victorian vocalists. In this article, he takes a look at English baritone Henri Wharton who enjoyed a successful (though relatively short career) with several prominent opera companies in England, the USA and Australia. During the 1860s, he spent six years in Australia as a member of William Saurin Lyster’s Opera Company.

WHARTON, Henri [WHARTON, William] (b.? Manchester c.1834; d. Manchester 26 September 1870)

Henry WhartonThe only known portrait of Henri Wharton, taken in the 1860s during his time in Australia. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Ward family collection: cartes de visite portraits (chiefly of entertainers), ca. 1862-1891, PXD 820.The baritone known as Henry or Henri Wharton (and where there is such a consistent difference, that usually means it’s a false name) has long been a bit of a mystery, particularly to scholars of the Australian operatic stage, on which some of his greatest successes were scored. I can’t say that I have fully solved the mystery, but I’ve got a little closer, and found a few interesting details, not previously mentioned in accounts of his career, which fill out the picture just a little.

So who was he and where did he come from?  Well, his surname may or may not have been Wharton, but his first name definitely wasn’t Henri. It was William. And he actually made his first appearance as a vocalist, at what appears to have been the age of twenty, as ‘William Wharton’ (of ‘Manchester’). Quite why he switched, we will never know, unless it was in homage to the seventeenth-century priest and savant of that name, or in imitation of the character out of the more recent Fennimore Cooper book, The Spy.

According to his entry (as ‘Henri Wharton’) in the 1861 census he was born in Manchester around the year 1834, and in 1857—as William Wharton—travelling to America on the ship Pomona—he duly admits to the age of 23. Interestingly, his travelling companion is ‘John Wharton, 25, musician’ so it does look as if the Wharton bit is for real.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any John Wharton with a brother William, a couple of years younger, in the censi of 1841 and 1851. In Manchester or anywhere else. I found a William (son of James the joiner) in New Street, Manchester, who fitted ... but his brother John is not older, but three years younger. I found a William (by John—another joiner—ex Ann) in Charlton upon Medlock and christened at Manchester Cathedral 28 December 1834, and a William Henry (Henry x Sarah) born, alas, in Birmingham … So there, for the moment rests all I know of the beginnings of ‘Henri Wharton’.

From various notices, advertisement and reviews, I have picked up that Henri was indeed ‘of Manchester’, that ‘he received part of his musical education in Leeds’ and, more worryingly, on one occasion he is referred to as Henry (sic) Wharton junior, as if his father had the same name. Maybe he did.

Anyway, Mr William Wharton first appears to my eyes as a vocalist on 18 September 1854 when he is billed (‘of Manchester’) at Liverpool’s Lord Nelson Street Concert Hall in a series of Prize Concerts (the prize was a piano) alongside the local Scotch vocalists, the Misses Wemyss, Mrs Keef and Mr and Mrs Steedman. Mr H.V. Lewis RAM conducts. It simply says that he is ‘of Manchester’ but nothing about a first appearance, so maybe it wasn’t.

It is a whole two years before I spy Mr William Wharton on a public stage again, and again it is in Liverpool, at a concert given by pianist Emma Jackson (18 November 1856), in the company of Belina Whitham and Ernest Perring. The following month he is in Manchester, ‘a new baritone’, ‘loudly applauded and encored’, singing for D.W. Banks at the Mechanics Institute, and from then on he is a regular on the programmes at the Free Trade Hall, singing with Mrs Sunderland, David Miranda, Delevanti and the other local favourites, as well as with such visitors as Charlotte Dolby, Mrs Newton Frodsham, Charles Braham and Sims Reeves. The programmes regularly included operatic excerpts, and Wharton was heard singing Luna’s music from Il Trovatore, Maritana, La Sonnambula, Locke’s Macbeth or Hatton’s Robin Hood, alongside such songs as Stephen Glover’s ‘The Good Time is Here’, the comical ‘I’m not myself at all’, Tully’s ‘The happy muleteer’, ‘O, would I were a boy again’, ‘Shall I wasting in despair’, ‘’Twas post meridian’ and ‘The Village Blacksmith’ but most frequently ‘The Tempest of the heart’ aka ‘Il balen’. He also took part in oratorio performances, sharing on occasion the bass music with Henry Phillips.

However the popular new baritone disappeared from Manchester, Preston and other Lancashire concert bills after only a few busy months. For now it was that he and brother John chose to quit Britain and head for America. They spent some eighteen months on the other side of the Atlantic, and I did not think that I would ever discover what—if anything—they got up to in that time, on the musical front. But thanks to one publisher of sheet music, I have found the answer. Henry/Henri (as he now was) joined up with the ‘New Orleans English Opera Company’, a well-established group headed by Miss Rosalie Durand, Miss Georgia Hodson and Mr Fred Lyster which, in fact, did not have any particular ongoing connection with New Orleans, but which toured fit-up opera around America with fair success. Quite what Wharton did in the Rosalie Durand company (as it then was) is not wholly clear, for Fred Lyster was himself a bass-baritone with comic tendencies. I see him only playing Arnheim in The Bohemian Girl when Lyster appeared as Devilshoof. However, in a company which had a mezzo-soprano (Miss Durand) as prima donna, and a soprano (Miss Hodson) as lead tenor, anything was doubtless possible.

Anyway, Wharton’s membership of the company—in whatever capacity—is immortalised in sheet music publicising ‘Mr Henri Wharton of the New Orleans English Opera Company’ singing ‘Good time is here’ (which he’d been singing for years), Frederic Shrivall’s ‘Day and Night I thought of thee’ and C.W. Glover’s ‘The bashful young gentleman’.

Wharton returned to England at the end of 1858, and moved straight into his first English operatic engagement, replacing Edmund Rosenthal, for a season at Manchester, as the baritone of the strong Tully Opera Company, alongside Henry Haigh, Lizzie Dyer and Fanny Huddart. The local press described him as: ‘formerly a popular favourite here and who had just arrived from two years professional sojourn in the United States. Mr Wharton’s voice has gained considerable power and he sings with energy and expression.’ He sang with the company in concert (‘The Happy Muleteer’, ‘Il balen’, ‘John Barleycorn’, Alexander Lee’s ‘La Napolitaine’, ‘The Sailor’s Journey’, ‘’Twas Post meridian’) and in concert versions of Il Trovatore, Martha, Maritana and The Bohemian Girl, but when they headed back to London, Rosenthal returned, and Wharton remained in the midlands to take part in a very heavy programme of further concerts (Lover’s ‘Over the way’, ‘Rage, thou angry storm’, ‘Home of my father’, ‘Farewell to the Mountain’, ‘The Peace of the Valley’, ‘Largo al factotum’, Rossini’s ‘La Danza’, ‘The Bell Ringer’, ‘Hearts of Oak’, ‘Widow Mahne’), further concert operas, oratorios and cantatas. He sang Rodolfo in La Sonnambula with George Perren and Belina Whitham, again with Jenny Baur, on several occasions with Mrs Wood’s star quartet of pupils (‘the celebrated baritone’), and on one occasion with a revived Mr Wood, and he sang Luna in Il Trovatore with Sara Dobson and Don Jose in Maritana with Richard Seymour (28 January 1860).

In December 1859 he sang The Messiah and in January 1860 he took the bass music in Elijah with the Leeds Choral Society—the press referred to Leeds as ‘the locality of his adoption’—joined Miss Crosland in Mr Wood's concert in Huddersfield ('My Cottage near Rochelle', 'Over the way', 'Largo al factotum'. 'Christmas comes but once a year'), went from the Marsden Mechanics Institution to the Huddersfield Philosophical Hall to the Town Hall, Holmfirth, sang The May Queen with Louisa Vinning at Bradford and at Easter time he was heard in The Messiah at the Free Trade Hall and in The Creation and a concert version of Iphigenia in Tauris (Thoas) with the Yorkshire Choral Society. His reviews were uniformly appreciative (‘very successful and awarded much praise’, ‘received unmistakeable token of the audience’s appreciation’) and he moved quickly onwards and upwards to his first London appearances.

In July, the Leeds papers announced: ‘Mr Wharton of this town, pupil of Mrs Wood, has we understand been engaged by the Pyne and Harrison Company as principal baritone’. ‘Pupil of Mrs Wood’!  And ‘of this town’? The previous year, they had chronicled ‘his debut in Leeds’. The Manchester press semi-retaliated: ‘Mr Wharton, so well-known in the Free Trade Hall Monday evening Concerts is rapidly rising in his profession ... Mr Wharton has devoted himself to his profession, possesses a fine voice along with considerable musical talent, and we doubt not will win the reward of earnest study and resolute perseverance.’

And on 1 October 1860, Henry Wharton made his British stage debut, as principal baritone (in succession to Charles Santley) with Pyne and Harrison, in the role of Rhineberg in Lurline. Press and public approved him: ‘a high baritone, the upper notes of which are particularly sweet’, ‘Mr Wharton has a nice voice—a high baritone—enunciates distinctly, sings with judgement, occasionally, indeed with true feeling ... and promises to be a valuable acquisition’, ‘a very favourable impression ... an intelligent speaker and an excellent singer ... a sweet and powerful baritone voice, a good method  and considerable energy’, ‘an agreeable vocalist possessing an excellent baritone’. The Era could not forbear to compare him to Santley and admitted that he had ‘peculiar difficulties to contend with’ in following the favourite baritone, but ‘he created a favourable impression, however, and sang the music allotted to him carefully and well, obtaining an encore in the sweet ballad ‘A father’s early love’. We think we may confidently predict that this gentleman will become a favourite with the public …’

In fact, Wharton was only one of several ‘principal baritones’ engaged for the Covent Garden season, and Alberto Laurence, Henri Corri, Wallworth and Distin took the relevant roles in other operas, but during the season he also appeared in Santley’s role of Julian in Victorine (‘he made the most of the small part … and sang as he always does sing, well and effectively’), Arimanes in Satanella (a Willoughby Weiss role) and created the part of Count Malespina in Bianca, the Bravo’s Bride (‘Chiefs on Might Relying’).

During the season, he visited Manchester to sing in The Messiah and the local press commented: ‘Since Mr Wharton’s departure from Manchester he has evidently been under good training for his voice has mellowed in tone, and he has gained facility of execution. He is now in a position at the Opera House, Covent Garden, that must greatly aid in onward progress ... Mr Wharton’s voice is generally lighter than some of the Messiah music demands, but he nevertheless sang with great care and met with a very gratifying reception.’

When the Pyne and Harrison company went on tour, Wharton went with them, taking on a number of additional roles (Don Salluste, the hunter in Dinorah) and, after a brief interlude, which included a series of concerts in Dublin, he switched his operatic allegiance first to Henry Cooper’s touring opera and then to Elliot Galer’s ‘London Grand English Opera Company’ with Hermine Rudersdorff as prima donna. When that engagement ended, on 25 March 1862, Henri Wharton had played his last role on the British stage.

He advertised for work, but, when it came to the point, he withdrew from an engagement to sing at Hull on 28 April. The Hull newspaper remarked that he ‘unfortunately could not appear in consequence of having to proceed to Sydney to fulfil an operatic engagement’. Henri Wharton’s operatic engagement in Sydney was without a doubt a consequence of his very first operatic engagement, in America. For the Rosalie Durand-Fred Lyster company (which had gone through a variety of titles) had ended its American tour in Australia where, with Fred’s brother William Saurin Lyster as its manager, and American vocalists Lucy Escott and Henry Squires as its stars, it had become established as the colony’s outstanding operatic troupe. Quite why Henri Wharton chose to abandon what was evidently a blossoming career in England, to exile himself to the southern hemisphere I cannot tell, but he did, and in so doing, put to an end that English career.

Henry Wharton arrived in Sydney (via Melbourne), on the steamship Wonga Wonga, in the company of Fred Lyster, Rosalie Durand and Frank Trevor, 19 June 1862, and was duly pre-puffed by his manager: ‘his agent in London has, at great expense, succeeded in procuring the services of Mr Henry Wharton, late Primo Baritono of the Pyne and Harrison company, who arrived by the last overland mail …’

He made his first appearance with the Lyster company at the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney, on 9 July, playing Don Pedro in The Rose of Castille, to the Elvira of Rosalie Durand, the Manuel of Henry Squires and the Salluste of Frank Trevor. The next morning the Sydney Morning Herald reported ‘The Don Pedro of Mr Henry Wharton was a careful performance, his voice is very rich and mellow, of good quality and compass, ranging from about F below the bass staff to A flat above the staff. What, however, most strikes the listener is the extreme purity of intonation proving that this gentleman has been well grounded in the Italian school ... Mr Wharton achieved his triumph in the song ‘Tho fortune darkly o’er me frown’ in the first act which he sang with great taste, the last verse of which he was compelled to repeat in obedience to an encore from all parts of the house …’ The Lyster company, at last, had a baritone worthy to put alongside Miss Escott and Mr Squires.

Wharton followed up as Count Arnheim in The Bohemian Girl, King Alphonso in La Favorita, Germont in La Traviata, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Malatesta in Don Pasquale, Rhineberg in Lurline, Don Jose in Maritana, the title-role in Don Giovanni, and Luna in Il Trovatore, during a season which ran till late September, before the company moved on to Melbourne. He added Carlo Quinto in Ernani, Le Nozze di Figaro, St Bris in Les Huguenots, the title-role in Rigoletto, Rodolfo in La Sonnambula, and the Count de Tienar in Amilie to his repertoire, and made what were advertised as ‘his first appearance in the concert room’ at the inauguration of the local St George’s Hall, and his ‘first appearance in oratorio’ in a Christmastide Messiah with the Melbourne Musical Union. His first, it goes without saying, in the colonies.

From Melbourne, the company proceeded to Hobart, before in mid-May returning to Sydney to start the whole round again with Duke Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia, Dandini in Cinderella, Riccardo in I Puritani, and Danny Mann in The Lily of Killarney all included in Wharton’s list of roles.

During a hiatus in the Lyster operatic performances in Melbourne, from October 1863, Henry advertised for singing pupils, but kept well in the public view both in concerts and on the stage, singing the role of Hecate in Barry Sullivan’s performances of Macbeth and playing in Guy Mannering and a Christmas Cinderella at the local Theatre Royal.

The new Sydney season began (3 March 1864) with the production of Faust in which Wharton was cast, in the absence of a primo basso in the present company, as Mephistopheles. The experiment is said to have been not a success. Wharton was ill cast.

Whatever the cause, Wharton was soon off with a ‘severe illness’. ‘Severe’ it may have been (operatic illnesses in advertisements were always redundantly ‘severe’) but he was back on stage in ten days or so, singing La Favorita  (15 March), Maritana, Il Trovatore and Don Giovanni, in the first week, with apparently undiminished gusto. Faust remained in the repertoire, but Wharton was allegedly sidewound into the more suitable role of Valentine. Yet I spy playbills of 5 and 7 and 9th April in which he is indubitably listed to play the role of Mephistopheles. When Le Prophète was produced, before the end of the Sydney season, he played Oberthal.

On to Melbourne—with Wharton still playing Mephistopheles as well as Plunkett in Martha, to a six months tour of New Zealand, and to another period out, during which he was seen giving an Entertainment in conjunction with Mr and Mrs Frederick Younge at the Polytechnic Hall (20 April 1865). Henry’s contribution included ‘Many a Time and oft’, ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ and ‘The First Kiss’, plus duets with the lady.

In May 1865 it was Sydney again (Antonio in La gazza ladra, Beppo in Fra Diavolo, Pietro in Masaniello and now Valentine in Faust, then Brisbane, more Sydney (Belcore in L’Elisir d’amore) and back to Melbourne, to Hobart, Melbourne (Assur in Semiramide), with gaps in the schedule filled by teaching (‘a limited number of pupils for the art of singing and development of the voice’) …

In May, at the end of the Lyster troupe’s 1866 season in Sydney, an apparently unexpected announcement appeared in the press. ‘Mr Henry Wharton (baritone) begs to announce his intention to stay in Sydney and teach the art of singing’. There was no mention of  ’indisposition’: Henry had played the season to its last nights, but had decided then, after four hectic years of operatic touring, to put his stage career to an end. He installed himself at Mary Villa, Mary Street, Newton Road, and as if to emphasise his decision advertised: ‘Mr Henry Wharton having a large assortment of handsome fancy costumes can make arrangements to supply gentlemen going to the fancy ball …’.

On 16 October 1866 he put on ‘his first and only Benefit concert’ at the Masonic Hall. He sang ‘A tanto amor’, ‘Ever my queen’ from L’Africaine and the comic song ‘Barney Avourneen’ for what, it seems, was the last time. A week or so later, the advertisements seem to stop (‘pupils and intending pupils … has removed to Burrington House, Wellington Street, Kingston …’) and no further news of Henry Wharton can be found until 16 February 1867. On that date his erstwhile colleagues of the opera company gave a Benefit concert for him. He was, the advertisements record, ‘at present physically incapacitated from pursuing his profession’ and ‘anxious to return to England’.

Australian theatrical historico-mythology—apparently on the say-so of one Mr F.C. Brewer, author of a The Drama and Music in New South Wales (1892)—says that Wharton had a nervous and/or physical breakdown (‘affection of the brain’) over attempting the role of Mephistopheles, back in 1864. Harold Love, in his history of The Golden Age of Australian Opera, modifies that, by noticing that Wharton continued to perform with the company after the production of Faust. What he doesn’t say is that he continued to perform for two whole years, through Australia and, for six months, from one end to the other of New Zealand, playing the gamut of roles from St Bris, Pietro in Masaniello and Plunkett to Henry Ashton, Alphonse in Lucrezia Borgia and Germont.

I haven’t found the record of Henri Wharton’s return to Britain, but I imagine he went sooner rather than later. In February 1868 there is a nearly new piano for sale at his address, on 9 May, I see an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, advertising his stage costumes for sale.

I have, however, found his death notice. Extremely curiously, not in the newspapers of Manchester, where he reportedly died ‘at his father’s home’, but in those of Sydney and Melbourne. According to them, he died at the age of 35 on 26 September 1870.

So I thought I would purchase his death certificate, and find out of just what he did die. But I couldn’t. There is, indeed, a Mr William Wharton listed amongst the Manchester deaths for the September quarter of 1870, but, according to the indices of the British nation, that Mr William Wharton was twenty-five not thirty-five years of age at his death. Is it a misprint (they do happen)? Is it he? And if it isn’t, does this mean he wasn’t a Wharton at all.

One more puzzle. At Wharton’s death, he is said to have left a widow. Now, he was ‘unmarried’ in 1861, and he arrived in Australia alone. So it is reasonable to suppose that if he wed, he wed during his time down under. There are a couple of William Whartons married in Victoria … one in 1862 (half of which, he wasn’t there), one in 1864 (some of which he was in New Zealand, and some more of which he was having his ‘severe indisposition’) ... and one Henry in 1865 (ditto) … there are three in New South Wales, too, but none looks promising … ah! there is ‘Mrs Wharton’ travelling with the Lyster company in July 1865. So she did exist!

I’m not getting anywhere. So back to the 1861 census. Henri is in Bath, with the Pyne and Harrison tour, but he’s advertising himself care of 146 Upper Brook Street, Manchester. So I looked up no 146: the head of the house is William Gibbon, timber merchant and carpenter (but not a joiner), from Cockfield, Durham, who gives no sign of being any kind of a relation: in 1851 he’s in Chesterfield, in 1871 in Hampshire. I’m afraid Mr Gibbon (who has a ‘lodger’ named Poole) must be a red herring. And then number 146 is ... sigh—the Plymouth Grove Post Office. I’m still not getting anywhere. Although the John the Joiner  (widower) is still living in Chorlton on Medlock with daughter Agnes and ... tiens, son John (45) ….

I thought, when I discovered that death notice, that everything about Mr ‘Henri Wharton’ would click easily into place. But it hasn’t. The search for the truth about William aka Henri Wharton continues.


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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), Emily Soldene (In Search of a Singer, 2007), and Gilbert & Sullivan, the Players and the Plays (October 2021). Forthcoming works include an update of the 2007 University textbook, and a translation of the Rapsodies of Petrus Borel with his brother, poet John Gallas.