The Carl Rosa COmpany in Liverpool


Royal Alexandra Theatre 1875

The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Liverpool, c. 1875

Liverpool was the Carl Rosa Opera Company’s artistic home for over a decade. Carl Rosa, together with Euphrosyne his wife and star soprano, first brought their Company to Liverpool in the autumn of 1873, opening a three-week season at the Alexandra Theatre on 13th October with Balfe’s opera Satanella. On their return three months later the Company was coping with the death of Parepa who had died after childbirth. Uncertain whether he could carry on without her, Carl cancelled the tour and the Company departed from the Royal Amphitheatre with a performance of Faust on 7th February 1874 facing an uncertain future.

After some deliberation, Rosa decided to revive the Company, which commenced touring again in September 1874. They came twice to Liverpool during this time, appearing at the Amphitheatre in September and the Alexandra in April 1875. Liverpool-born baritone, Charles Santley, joined the Company for a London season, after which the Company toured the country.

Charles Santley

Sir Charles Santley (1834–1922)

Santley made four visits to his native Liverpool under the Rosa banner from December 1875 until May 1877. The January 1877 season included four local premieres featuring Santley: The Porter of Havre (Cagnoni), Joconde (Isouard), Pauline (Cowen), and The Flying Dutchman (Wagner). The Dutchman, the city’s first acquaintance with Wagnerian opera, was already familiar to Santley as he had created the title role in both the Italian and English language premières in London, the latter with Rosa. The local première, with Ostavia Torrani as Senta, took place at the Alexandra on 10 January 1877 before a crowded house.

The local journal The Porcupine considered the premiere to be ‘A magnificent rendering of one of the most striking works ever placed on the Liverpool stage’. Four months later in the same theatre Santley sang a final Dutchman on 5th May, in a performance which marked his departure from Rosa and his farewell to opera, as he had resolved to return to the concert platform. The Santley era and the company’s formative years were over!

front cover of the 1892 Liverpool Prospectus

Front cover of the 1892 Liverpool Prospectus

Rosa’s continuing strategy was to serve his London and provincial public with seasonal additions to the repertoire. Liverpool saw most of them, a mixture of revivals and new arrivals, including, Lurline, Favorita, Lohengrin, Carmen, Huguenots, Mignon and specially commissioned works such as Esmeralda and The Canterbury Pilgrims. He was a shrewd judge of singers and many of the singers he engaged, such as Barton McGuckin, Joseph Maas, William Ludwig, Aynsley Cook, Georgina Burns, and Marie Roze, became household names. Rosa, always the musician, did not neglect the orchestra and always insisted on high standards. From the early 1880’s, Rosa himself frequently delegated conducting to others, so that he could focus more upon management problems. His most pressing problem, the need for his own theatre, was finally resolved when he purchased the Royal Court Theatre for £40,000 in early 1884. Liverpool was to become the Company’s home.

Charles Lyall

Photograph of the tenor and accomplished artist, Charles Lyall

Why choose Liverpool? The theatre itself was the old Amphitheatre refurbished and renamed in 1881. Rosa was familiar with its amenities and he knew that it would serve as a permanent base to prepare and perform new productions before taking them on the road. The location was also ideal as it facilitated rail travel to the industrial cities and towns of the north of England and Scotland together with sailings to Ireland. Rosa spoke at a concert on 29th March commenting that ‘Liverpool has always been exceedingly kind to me’ and promised to do his best for the city. He took possession of the theatre two days later opening modestly with melodrama and subsequently a little opera. The benefits flowing from a local opera house had yet to come.

Rosa’s next tour began in August 1884 and took in several major cities, including Dublin, Edinburgh, Bristol and Manchester, before the Company finally landed at the Royal Court on Christmas Day. The Carl Rosa Christmas opera season would be a feature of the city’s musical life for over a decade. The first novelty was Millocker’s Beggar Student (first performed by the Company in Manchester that September), this was followed by Boito’s Mefistofele (the British première of which the Company had given in Dublin that August), with William Ludwig in the title role. Charles Villiers Stanford’s new opera, The Canterbury Pilgrims, was also given for the first time in Liverpool. Three local premières in one month was impressive, but the main event was the British première of Massenet’s Manon on 17th January 1885, just a year after the world premiere in Paris. The Liverpool production proved to be a triumph, with the leading singers, Marie Roze, Barton McGuckin, William Ludwig, conductor Eugene Goossens, together with Rosa himself receiving ovations from a distinguished and appreciative audience. National coverage of the premiere was similarly enthusiastic. There was more applause at the end of the season on 31st January, when Rosa thanked everyone on both sides of the curtain for their industry and support. He had promised to do his best and he trusted that he had provided an opera season worthy of the city. He had.


The Royal Alexandra in the 1870s

In 1887, the Royal Court witnessed the première of a British opera commissioned by the Company: Frederick Corder’s Nordisa, which was given its first performance on 26th January, with the Americans Julia Gaylord and Edward Scovel in the principal roles and the now indispensable Goosens as conductor. The work was well received with the elaborate production, especially the avalanche scene in the third act, which impressed the audience. Rosa, Corder, and the leading artists, were called before the curtain at the end of each act. After the premiere Rosa entertained fellow impresarios Augustus Harris and Colonel Mapleson, the composer Corder, and national press representatives to a supper in the Grand Hotel. It was a convivial end to a most successful evening with Liverpool once again on the British operatic map.


View of the Royal Court Theatre and St George’s Hall

Liverpool’s opera-loving public regularly enjoyed performances of The Bohemian Girl, Maritana, and Carmen, interspersed with novelties such as Marchetti’s Ruy Blas, Masse’s Galatea and a revival of Balfe’s Puritan’s Daughter, the Company’s first opera dating from their time in America. There were also spectacular productions of Auber’s Masaniello, Halevy’s La Juive, and Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil and The Star of the North, often featuring Fanny Moody and Charles Manners. These two famous singers eventually fromed their own, Moody-Manners Opera Company.

When the local season closed on 23 February 1889 with The Star of the North Rosa came before the curtain to give his usual end of season speech. He thanked the company for their hard work and the local press and public for their support and looked forward to seeing them again. This was the last time he addressed a Liverpool audience before his death in April 1889.


A photograph of the previous Royal Court before the theatre suffered a devastating fire in 1933. The current building was built in 1938.

Rosa was a show business celebrity at a time when, thanks to him, opera was becoming a popular form of entertainment. His death was an occasion for sorrow in towns and cities throughout the land. This was especially so in Liverpool, where he had been an influential figure in musical and social circles. The city had been his provincial home and he had given it a national operatic dimension. This was no mean achievement in the hazardous world of operatic management.

Despite his death, the Company responded by promptly restructuring, with provincial tours and Royal Court seasons continuing as before. Although the Royal Court was sold by the Company in 1896, The Carl Rosa Opera Company continued to give regular and well-received opera seasons in Liverpool from then until the 1950s.

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