Tuesday, 01 March 2022

Mademoiselle Scasi: From West End prima donna to Queensland guttersnipe

Written by
Continuing his exploration of lost nineteenth century Victorian singers, KURT GÄNZL takes a look at the career of Annetta Scasi, the daughter of an West End furnitue merchant, who changing her name from Isaacs to the more Italianate Scasi, enjoyed some success in the UK and Australia in comic opera.

unnamed CopyAnnetta Scasi, 1870s. Photo by London Stereoscopic Co.SCASI, Annetta [ISAACS, Hannah] (b. ?9 Phoenix Alley, Longacre, Covent Garden, c.1847; ??d. Australia)

IN 1871, the New York Clipper inserted a little article amid its gossipy pages.

‘Some little while ago there appeared at the Globe Theatre a lady singer named Miss Coralie D’Auban. A great splash was made in regard to her début by her indulgent friends, and every fence and wall in town duly broke out with the name of D’Auban who was represented as a foreigner of high birth and illustrious connections. A shower of little innocent paragraphs artfully inserted in the journals invited the public to this belief. When Mdlle D’Auban turned up at rehearsals at the Globe Theatre, Mr Hughes instantly recognised the ‘distinguished foreigner’ as Miss Solomons, a clever young Jewish maiden whose father kept a furniture shop hard by the theatre. She had been absent from London some three months on the continent and had returned to the paternal roof with her voice well cultivated and her mother tongue proportionately dislocated. At rehearsal Hughes remarked what a strange havoc a quarter of a year’s difference had made with her English ... [She complained about the ‘feelthy English climate’ and coughed a lot and finally Hughes decided] the lady was pushing her affectations too far and determined to put her up. ‘Come, come, Miss Solomons’, said he ‘I’ll tell you what to do for your cold. Go round to your father’s shop, swallow half a pail of furniture varnish and rub your chest with passover cake. I think that will bring you round’. From that moment on Miss Solomons instantly recovered.’

Names had been changed to ‘protect’ those involved, but C** D’A*** was obviously—to me—meant as Cornélie d’Anka, and ‘Mr Hughes’ was either Alfie St Albyn or Willie Worboys, and I said so, in my biography of Emily Soldene. But this crafty journalist had done a mixture. The furniture merchant’s daughter from Drury Lane was indeed in the cast of Falsacappa at the Globe Theatre, but she was not ‘Miss C d’A’. She was a lady by the name of ‘Annetta Scasi’. And her nom de théâtre spelled backwards told all. It was not Solomons, it was Isaacs.

Miss Isaacs’s father was Lewis Isaacs, a successful furniture dealer of 117 Drury Lane and subsequently 3 Queen Street, the father, with his wife Phoebe (née Davis), of a large family of which Hannah was one of the younger members.

Marguerite Debreux 1Marguerite Debreux, c.1871. Photographer unknown. Victoria & Albert Museum, LondonShe would later claim that she had trained at the Royal Academy of Music, at Paris and in Milan. Of these claims I have no supporting evidence. But I suppose it could be she, the ‘Mdlle Scasi’ who made a debut at the Théâtre des Italiens in November 1869, singing La Sonnambula and provoking the review: ‘Mlle Scasi is not a decided acquisition to the troupe’.

‘Mdlle Scasi’ first appears to practised eyes in an opera buffa troupe mounted at the Lyceum Theatre in January of 1871, with a repertoire including Bottesini’s Ali Baba, Crispino e la comare, and also Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Amalia Colombo, Enrichetta Bedetti Fuollo and Maria Callista were the leading soprani, and Mlle Scasi appeared briefly: ‘the little part of Berta was allotted to a Miss Scasi who strove earnestly to give effect to the quaint little air which is Berta’s sole chance of distinction’. Apart from a participation in conductor Tito Mattei’s Benefit at the end of the season (1 March), that seems to have been her contribution.

Soon after, she must have appeared at the Crystal Palace, for her press advertisements announces that she was ‘of the Royal Italian Opera Buffa, Lyceum Theatre, and the Crystal Palace’.

My next sighting of her, however, is in a Good Friday Concert at the Holborn Amphitheatre, singing ‘From Mighty Kings’ with ‘a pleasing command over the florid passages’.

After which, she was hired for the Globe Theatre, to sing the jeune première role in the first London performances in English of Offenbach’s Les Brigands (Falsacappa). Marguerite Debreux, from Paris, who had made something of a sexy hit in London’s Le Petit Faust sang Fragoletto, and Alfie St Albyn, a fine and versatile tenor with comic spirit, was the title bandit.

The production was only mildly liked, but Mlle Scasi—in spite of her apparent backstage antics—came out of it all right, being judged ‘a vocalist of considerable ability’, ‘the Signora Annetta Scasi whose accent is nevertheless decidedly English, has a good voice, sings fairly and acts with spirit’ (Daily News) ‘her surname spelt backwards could not sound more English than her accent … but [her] voice is pleasing, while her acting, though crude, is not wanting in spirit.’ Later on, the Daily News would claim Mlles Scasi and Debreux (the latter more known for her sex appeal than her voice!) as the best vocalists in the show.

Apparently backstage must have flared up again, for before the run ended, Mlle Scasi announced that she had ‘seceded from the company’.

An engagement of similar importance would take a while to come, but Mlle Scasi continued on, advertising ‘for opera, opéra-bouffe or burlesque, town or country’ and appearing in concert at Margate’s Hall by the Sea,  at Liverpool’s Theatre of Varieties, playing the little The Rose de l’Auvergne with William Terrott and J.A. Shaw, and playing Queen Barleysugar (‘with songs’) in the pantomime The King of the Peacocks at the Surrey Theatre.

In 1872, she spent some time on tour with L.J. Sefton’s London Comedy Company, singing the part of Graciosa, alongside Helen Maxse, Ambrose Perrini and T.B. Appleby in King Kokatoo (L’Ile de Tulipatan), but when the company took out a second tour, she had been replaced.

This time, however, it was not her backstage behaviour, it seems, that caused the change. Mlle Scasi had been cast in the star role of Robin Wildfire in the spectacular production of Offenbach’s Le Roi Carotte at the Alhambra.  Her ‘animated acting and brilliant singing’ apparently suited the hall, the vastly spectacularly produced grand opéra-bouffe-féerie suited it even better, and the result was a long run, and over 150 performances by Mlle Scasi as a star at the Alhambra.

But, once again, she did not follow up. She vanished, returning a year lady from what she announced had been her ‘tour of France and Italy’. Of this, I have yet to find trace.

Her first engagement back in Britain was at the Dublin Gaiety, where she played opposite Charlotte Saunders in the burlesque, The Good Woman in the Wood. After opening night, the local press wrote: ‘Mlle A.S. who is concerned chiefly with vocalism possesses a contralto of considerable richness and range and, while playing with skill, is still superior as a vocalist. Indeed, the lady would succeed better with a Dublin audience if her manner were less foreign and more pliant; if she were verbally audible and easier in attitude, if she were more inclined to sing songs than contrive effects ... as Prince Achmed’. Mlle Scasi was off on nights two and three. She went on to team with Miss Saunders in Rumpelstiltskin (into which she interpolated Bellini’s ‘Son Vergin vezzosa’).

At Christmas ‘billed as late of the Alhambra, the Lyceum, Globe and the principal Continental Theatres’, she played Morgiana in the pantomime The Forty Thieves at the Surrey Theatre (‘The Scasi Waltz’ by Amy Weddle), and sang at the Surrey Gardens in a production of the little Le Rajah de Mysore (‘acted with great animation and sang brilliantly’, in a tenor role).

In 1876, she took over briefly the management of a little company playing The Sleeping Queen, Fortunio’s Song and The Wedding Night, and at Christmas of the same year she played Romance in the Sanger’s Amphitheatre production of Gulliver on His Travels, alongside four elephants, two dromedaries, 2 camels, a heap of horses and 300 children. Needless to say, she ‘carried away the chief vocal honours’.

Thereafter, I spot her only at the Foresters Hall, doing a double act with Annette Solomon as ‘the Operatic Mimics’, singing duets with half of the Hartridge Sisters at the London Pavilion, and appearing with J.A. Cave at the Marylebone Theatre in his own piece The Burgomaster. The promising career of Mlle Scasi seemed to have foundered. In any case, in England it was finished.

In 1878, Phoebe (20 April) and Lewis Isaacs (22 April) both died, within forty-eight hours of each other. Their obituary notice in the Jewish papers remarked that they were the parents of barrister David Lewis Isaacs, and Mrs C Mordaunt Matthews, wife of a physician, but it did not mention Hannah. It just noticed ‘Australian Papers Please Copy’. Not without reason.

At some stage, she had left for Australia.

Mlle Scasi started her Australian career well, singing opposite Clara Thompson in the pantomime Alfred the Great (1878), at the Melbourne Academy of Music and, later in the year, when she appeared in Lallah Rookh at the Sydney Theatre Royal, the critic rather over-enthusiastically announced her ‘the best opéra-bouffe and burlesque artist we have had here’. She went on to play in burlesque, but once again, she seems not to have followed up. Or so I thought.

In 1886, a local paper reported of her performance that season at the Alhambra, Sydney: ‘when I first saw Miss Scasi—if you read her name backwards you get her real one—she was a burlesque artist with a big screw and an awful temper. Three years ago, I wandered into the Academy of Music, Sydney, and to my great surprise found an old friend greatly altered in vesta amor. She had evidently gone back to the old name now.’ She shows up in several concerts (‘Bid me discourse’ etc) in Sydney, and in 1888, I spot her in Brisbane, singing operatic arias between the plays at the local Opera House, while also took part in plays there—playing, amongst others, the role of the scolding wife in the Australian play Grif.

In 1891, she announced her return to Brisbane after ‘two successful years in the north’, and my last sighting of her is later that same year, taking the role of Josephine Corkarm in an HMS Pinafore burlesque entitled Mil Dew Ba (1 October 1891).

So did she end her career in Australia? And her life? Is she the Annie Isaacs, daughter of Louis of London and Dunedin, who died in Redfearn, Sydney 22 January 1918. It seems she was not, for a whole other story has emerged to fill in the gaps.

In The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser of 14 December 1917, I find a mention of ‘Madame Scasi’ ‘who organised entertainments here and kept things on the move’ ‘one relic of [her] palmy days was an eighty guinea sealskin coat which she brought from London to Grenfell and which was viewed with considerable respect’. And it also tells us that she was the wife of John Craddock Towle. ‘Was’. Mr Towle, who operated as a doctor and/or chemist, was a widower from the Isle of Man, via Parke NSW. And he had died in Walgett, NSW in 1902 of ‘paralysis of the heart accelerated by intemperance’. So, when did she marry him? Goodness! 11 March 1878 … at St Mary, Lambeth, London! And the couple arrived in Australia 15 July 1878. With a ‘Master Lewis Towle aged 3’ in tow! In 1880, a George William Craddock Towle was born, and in 1882 the Grenfell press reported that Hannah was going back on the stage. Surrounded by press puffs about Drury Lane, Covent Garden and even La Scala, they visited New Zealand in 1884, and in 1886 a warrant for Towle’s arrest was issued for desertion. By the 1890s he was up in Queensland wanting a divorce and fathering a Mona Gladys and a Victoria May on one Margaret McBride.

Hannah didn’t keep little George. In 1890, aged 10, he was found living in a brothel in Sydney. The case came to court, and a stout motherly Mrs Ryan recounted that ‘Doctor’ Towle and his wife had separated three years ago and the boy had been entrusted to her care by the mother. She didn’t say what he was doing in a ‘house of ill-fame’.

As for Lewis Towle (it seems, né illegitimately Isaacs), unless he was the 5ft 2 chappie who became a jockey and ended up in jail …

In 1892, Towle sued for divorce, and the Townsville newspaper reported the gory details of his and her lives. Yes, she had a bastard before they married but he didn’t know that (strange, when the child travelled with them weeks later), she had worked as a barmaid and ... a prostitute … and she had had another illegitimate child … The doctor was brought into court to witness the fact. Other aliases surfaced. Mr Towle, of course, was white as snow.

In 1900 (‘dentist and chemist’) he went bankrupt, two years later he died of the drink, and in the meanwhile Hannah …?

Well, I spot her singing at a rugby club do at Gunnedah in 1895, and thereafter I see ‘Mrs J.C. Towle’ and ‘Madame Scasi’ no more. Perhaps she did go back to being Annie Isaacs and died in Redfearn. No. The gravestone in Rookwood cemetery reads ‘eldest daughter of the late Lewis Isaacs of Dunedin NZ’. Dunedin? I think not. Eldest daughter, no. Died 22 January 1918.

So Madame Scasi’s last resting place remains to be found. Sounds as if it may have been a gutter.

Read 262 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
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.