seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Composer Michael William Balfe

michael-william-balfeMichael William Balfe, Irish composer best remembered for his opera The Bohemian Girl, dies in Dublin on October 20, 1870.

Balfe is born in Dublin on May 15, 1808, where his musical gifts become apparent at an early age. He receives instruction from his father, a dancing master and violinist, and the composer William Rooke. His family moves to Wexford when he is a child.

In 1817, Balfe appears as a violinist in public, and in this year composes a ballad, first called “Young Fanny” and afterwards, when sung in Paul Pry by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, “The Lovers’ Mistake”. In 1823, upon the death of his father, he moves to London and is engaged as a violinist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He eventually becomes the leader of that orchestra. While there, he studies violin with Charles Edward Horn and composition with Charles Frederick Horn.

While still playing the violin, Balfe pursues a career as an opera singer. He debuts unsuccessfully at Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber‘s Der Freischütz. In 1825, Count Mazzara takes him to Rome for vocal and musical studies and introduces him to Luigi Cherubini. In Italy, he also pursues composing, writing his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. He becomes a protégée of Gioachino Rossini‘s, and at the close of 1827, he appears as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Italian opera in Paris.

Balfe soon returns to Italy, where he is based for the next eight years, singing and composing several operas. In 1829 in Bologna, he composes his first cantata for the soprano Giulia Grisi, then 18 years old. He produces his first complete opera, I rivali di se stessi, at Palermo in the carnival season of 1829—1830.

Balfe returned to London in May 1835. His initial success takes place some months later with the premiere of The Siege of Rochelle on October 29, 1835 at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produces The Maid of Artois in 1836, which is followed by more operas in English. In July 1838, Balfe composes a new opera, Falstaff, for The Italian Opera House, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, with an Italian libretto by S. Manfredo Maggione.

In 1841, Balfe founds the National Opera at the Lyceum Theatre, but the venture is a failure. The same year, he premieres his opera, Keolanthe. He then moves to Paris, presenting Le Puits d’amour in early 1843, followed by his opera based on Les quatre fils Aymon for the Opéra-Comique and L’étoile de Seville for the Paris Opera. Meanwhile, in 1843, he returns to London where he produces his most successful work, The Bohemian Girl, on November 27, 1843 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The piece runs for over 100 nights, and productions are soon mounted in New York, Dublin, Philadelphia, Vienna, Sydney, and throughout Europe and elsewhere.

From 1846 to 1852, Balfe is appointed musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. There he first produces several of Giuseppe Verdi‘s operas for London audiences. He conducts for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter.

In 1851, in anticipation of The Great Exhibition in London, Balfe composes an innovative cantata, Inno Delle Nazioni, sung by nine female singers, each representing a country. He continues to compose new operas in English, including The Armourer of Nantes (1863), and writes hundreds of songs. His last opera, nearly completed when he dies, is The Knight of the Leopard and achieves considerable success in Italian as Il Talismano.

Balfe retires in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rents a country estate. He dies at his home in Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, on October 20, 1870 and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, next to fellow Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. In 1882, a medallion portrait of him is unveiled in Westminster Abbey.

In all, Balfe composes at least 29 operas. He also writes several cantatas and a symphony. His only large-scale piece that is still performed regularly today is The Bohemian Girl.


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Birth of James Bernard Fagan, Producer & Playwright

james-bernard-faganJames Bernard Fagan, Irish-born actor, theatre manager, producer and playwright in England, is born in Belfast on May 18, 1873.

Fagan is the eldest of the five children of Sir James Fagan, a surgeon at the Belfast Royal Hospital and an inspector of Irish reformatories, and Mary Catherine Fagan, née Hughes. He attends Clongowes Wood College near Clane, County Kildare and then moves to England. Initially interested in a career in the church, he begins studying law at Trinity College, Oxford in 1892 but leaves in 1893 without a degree. He works for a time in the Indian Civil Service but abandons this career for the stage.

Fagan begins his career as an actor with the company of Sir Frank Benson for two years, then joining, from 1895 to 1899, the company of Herbert Beerbohm Tree at Her Majesty’s Theatre. There he appears in Katherine and Petruchio, A Man’s Shadow, Julius Caesar, The Musketeers and Carnac Sahib. He starts writing plays in 1899, with The Rebels, for the time forsaking acting. In 1913 he returns to the stage touring as the Rt Hon. Denzil Trevena in his own play, The Earth. He next writes The Fourth of August (1914) and Doctor O’Toole (1917). In 1917 he produces his first play, his own adaptation of the Brieux play Damaged Goods at St. Martin’s Theatre. He next produces The Wonder Tales and The Little Brother at the Ambassadors Theatre in London.

Fagan takes over the Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square as a Shakespearean playhouse in 1920. The Times calls his revivals of Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, Henry the Fourth (Part Two) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream “memorable for their freshness, sanity and distinction, and [deserving of] a place in theatrical history.” At the Court, he revives Damaged Goods and, in 1921, with the assistance of the author, produces George Bernard Shaw‘s Heartbreak House, with Edith Evans as “Lady Utterwood.” In 1922 he produces his play The Wheel at the Apollo Theatre. Its success allows him to repay his creditors. Even more successful is his adaptation of Treasure Island at the Savoy Theatre with Arthur Bourchier as “Long John Silver,” which opens December 26, 1922. It is revived every Christmas until the outbreak of World War II.

Fagan is persuaded by Jane Ellis, the actress who with Alfred Ballard founds the Oxford Playhouse “Red Barn” in 1923, to be its first manager. His first production at the Oxford Playhouse is a restaging of Shaw’s Heartbreak House and numbered Shaw among the audience. He produces The Cherry Orchard, at various theatres, to favourable reviews, popularising Anton Chekhov in Britain. From November 16, 1925, with Dennis Eadie, he presents Juno and the Paycock at the Royalty Theatre, thus bringing Seán O’Casey to the attention of London’s theatre-going public. O’Casey’s The Plough follows the next year.

Fagan receives little support from the University of Oxford or the play-going public and resigns in 1929. His successor is Stanford Holme, who broadens its appeal and, despite the straitened times, makes it financially viable. In 1929, he is a director of the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, where his friend Terence Gray is director. He also produces many works for the Irish Players.

Beginning in the 1920s, several of Fagan’s plays are adapted for film. He moves to Hollywood in 1929 for the filming by Paramount Pictures of his play The Wheel as The Wheel of Life. Other film work includes his co-adaptation of the screenplay for the 1932 film Smilin’ Through, and he co-writes Paramount’s Forgotten Commandments the same year. His play Bella Donna is filmed four times, including posthumously in 1946, and a 1936 film, The Improper Duchess is based on his 1931 play of the same name.

James Bernard Fagan dies in Hollywood, California, on February 17, 1933 at the age of 59 of a heart attack following a bout of influenza.