Anna Maria Barry is in the final year of her PhD at Oxford Brookes University, where she is a member of the OBERTO Opera Research Unit. Her work concerns the figure of the male opera singer in nineteenth-century culture. Using a wide range of sources, including operatic novels, portraits, autobiographies and letters, she argues that male opera singers were key cultural figures of the nineteenth century who have been largely overlooked by scholars. She is especially interested in the relationship between opera singers and the Navy. Anna blogs at www.inartandsong.com and can also be found on Twitter: @AnnaMariaB87.
Whilst researching the colourful characters who sung opera in the nineteenth century, I have frequently been struck by the ways in which these men were something akin to Victorian rock stars. Many of these men were larger-than-life characters who had at least as much enthusiasm for wine and women as they did for song. They sung passionate music on stage, their messy love lives were reported on in gossip columns and women went wild over their tight trousers. No opera singer, however, was more of a rock star than Sims Reeves.
Reeves was the most famous English tenor of the Victorian era. His career lasted over 50 years, from 1838 through to 1891. During this time he received many honours and accolades, even performing privately for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. His most famous role was Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. Despite his operatic success, Reeves’ reputation was frequently called into question. He often failed to turn up for his appearances, something which happened so often that many believed he was an alcoholic. When he did show up, he was rumoured to make unreasonable demands. (Instead of 1,000 brown M&Ms, he was rumoured to require a backstage bowl of soup from Birch’s in Cornhill, eaten in a room decorated with a particular type of chintz wallpaper.)
It was not just his rock star antics that compromised Reeves’ reputation, however. British male opera singers occupied a uniquely problematic place in nineteenth-century Britain, as opera was seen by many as a foreign and feminine art form. This compromised the perceived British masculinity of these singing men. This idea can be found reflected in George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876). The novel’s eponymous protagonist is ‘stung to the quick’ by the suggestion that he could become like the great Italian tenors Mario and Tamberlik, believing that opera singing ‘was not thought of among possible destinations for the sons of English gentleman’ (140). In order to negotiate these prejudices many male singers of the nineteenth century turned to autobiography. Through their life-writing, these men attempted to present themselves as respectable, masculine and British men. Many of these operatic autobiographies take unusual and surprising forms, but the strangest by far is the work of Sims Reeves.
Towards the end of his career, Reeves wrote two autobiographies. The first, Sims Reeves: His Life and Recollections appeared in 1888. This is an especially unusual work. The majority of its chapters take the form of fictional short stories, most of which are gothic or sensational in tone. However, despite it being clear that these stories are fictitious, Reeves curiously presents them as events he has actually experienced. Even more strangely, he takes a starring role in many of these short stories. These tales are full of tropes from gothic literature: the tyrant, the deranged woman, ruined abbeys and castles, shipwreck and the supernatural. Though it may at first appear counterintuitive that this subject matter could be used to create a respectable persona for their author, these stories frequently feature Reeves himself as an honourable hero. Furthermore, several of these strange tales can be read as a coded defence of his profession and social status as an opera singer.
One fictional story features a character called Harry Sherstone, who is a thinly-disguised version of Reeves himself. Sherstone, like Reeves, is a British opera singer from Kent who received his early musical education in a church choir. Sherstone is in love with the daughter of an ‘obstinate and aggressive’ bishop who severely disapproves of his operatic career (37). The Bishop forbids the young lovers from seeing each other, so Shertstone leaves the country and his young inamorata falls into a melancholia so severe that her father fears she will die. Later on Reeves himself comes into the story, when he meets the Bishop and his daughter in Milan. Reeves realises the cause of the young girl’s heartbreak, and manages to reunite her with Sherstone who is coincidentally performing at Milan’s La Scala under a stage name. The evil Bishop eventually repents, the young couple marry and live happily ever after. But what was Reeves trying to suggest with this story? I believe that through this tale he was attempting to demonstrate that it is unjust and hypocritical to exclude singers from polite society. By using a thinly disguised version of himself as the wronged protagonist of this story, Reeves was effectively launching a coded defence of his own social standing and an attack on those who feel that opera singing is not a respectable profession.
Other stories defend Reeves against more specific claims. As I have said, his career was dogged by accusations of alcoholism, which Reeves and his circle vehemently denied. Several of his stories are designed to demonstrate his distaste for alcohol, in an attempt to vindicate himself from these persistent rumours. The most shocking of these stories is the volume’s opening chapter, which graphically recounts a grisly mass murder. This story’s protagonist is Sarah Webb, a violent woman with a drinking habit, who is in service at a great house. One evening she begins to drink whiskey excessively, becoming progressively more deranged and demonic as she continues to drink. She eventually attempts to rob her sleeping master, who awakens as she is stealing his watch, causing Webb to grab a dagger and ‘remorselessly bur[y] it in her master’s throat’ (11). She then smothers her master’s wife with a pillow before also killing their two sons. Reeves’ story is shocking on many levels: it is a graphic narrative of a woman murdering a family, including a young baby. More shocking, though, is the fact that this chapter opens the autobiography. A reader, expecting a theatrical memoir, is likely to be puzzled as to why they are instead plunged into a gruesome tale of murder. However, by introducing his volume with a vivid warning about the dangers of alcohol, Reeves is immediately signalling to his readers that he does not approve of excessive drinking. Through this shocking subject matter, then, he is attempting to defend himself against accusations of alcoholism.
Other stories are designed to present Reeves as a respectable professional. One, entitled ‘Mephisto: Behind the Scenes’ is the tale of a wicked theatre manager who allows an immoral lord to take advantage of young female performers backstage. One evening Reeves sees the lord attempting to seduce a promising young singer, before discovering that he has been seen leaving with her. Reeves chases after the lord’s carriage, liberating the frightened young girl. On freeing her from the predator’s clutches, Reeves tells the lord dramatically: ‘I do not fear you or any man, and if you have any grievance in the matter, bring it into a court of law’ (109). Through this story Reeves is acknowledging the weak morals that were popularly understood to be part of theatrical life backstage. However, by casting himself as the hero of this story, actively fighting against such immorality, Reeves was able to distance himself from the negative connotations that came with a theatrical profession. Through this story Reeves is again attempting to defend his profession and advocate for its respectability.
Other stories feature operatic ghosts, suicide, prima donnas coming back from the dead, hauntings on the railway and a plethora of strange happenings in ruined castles, opera houses and suspicious monasteries across Europe. In short, it is an excellent read. But what did nineteenth-century audiences make of the famous tenor’s foray into gothic literature? Unfortunately for Reeves, the answer was ‘not much’! Critics generally found his stories distasteful. For example, a reviewer in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper found the ‘strange romances’ to be ‘unduly tragic’, singling the most ‘harrowing’ chapters out for criticism (5). Similarly, a reviewer in The Observer felt that these stories were of ‘an unpleasing character’ (3).
Most scathing, however, was The Spectator. Its critic described Reeves’ fiction as ‘sensation novels condensed’, lampooning his writing and concluding with a damning paragraph:
Such a book as this leads one to the conclusion that it is rash to expect a singer to be able to reveal in writing the secret of the almost magical power which he exercises over the hearts of men. At any rate, such expectations will be grievously disappointed by these memoirs. Their egotism would be intolerable if it were not so naïve. But at best they do no more than constitute an addition to the annals of conceit. (18)
Not a single review of Reeves’ work attempted to seriously engage with or interpret his fiction; most reviews ignored or dismissed it, while at least one reviewer seemed to be uncertain as to whether or not the stories were fictitious. These reactions are perhaps not surprising, given the highly unusual form that Reeves adopted. Ultimately, his peculiar style seems to have merely confused his readers. Despite these negative reactions, however, Reeves’ work received so little critical attention that it did not really damage his already precarious reputation further. His strange stories were merely forgotten.
I think that this is unfair. Although Reeves was no literary genius, and his stories are sometimes comically contrived and over-wrought, his work is, nevertheless, remarkable. It represents a uniquely creative effort to negotiate public identity through life-writing, whilst also offering a fascinating glimpse into the anxieties and imagination of a celebrated Victorian rock star.
Elliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 2003.
‘Mr. Sims Reeves as a Novelist’, The Spectator (10th November 1888) p. 18
Recollections of Sims Reeves’, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. (7th October 1888) p. 5
Reeves, J. Sims. Sims Reeves, His Life and Recollections. London: Simpkin Marshall & Co, 1888.
‘The Life of Sims Reeves’, The Observer. (7th October 1888) p. 3