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Emily Soldene: Opera Singing Rebel

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Emily Soldene.

Emily Soldene.

Emily Soldene's Early Years

From humble beginnings to influential writer, via a stage career as singer and actor, Emily Soldene defied the conventions that restricted the choices a woman in her era had.

Born in 1838 into what might have been a bigamous marriage, Emily's prospects for rising from a hum-drum existence did not look good. Her mother was a milliner, and Emily married young.

She had several outstanding attributes; an unwillingness to accept the role Victorian society mapped out for her and a lovely singing voice. Then, Adelina Patti entered her life.

The Italian opera singer had performed in London, and Emily read a rave review of the show. This inspired her to seek out a singing teacher, and it was soon apparent that she had a lot of talent, but not quite enough for the operatic stage. So, she turned to the music halls that were growing in popularity for employment under the stage name of Miss FitzHenry.

 The cavernous Oxford Music Hall in London in which Emily Soldene performed frequently.

The cavernous Oxford Music Hall in London in which Emily Soldene performed frequently.

The Victorian Music Halls

Our distorted view of Victorians is of a staid and humorless society bound by myriad rules about things people could not do. The music hall puts the lie to that image.

Their numbers exploded in the middle of the 19th century, offering food and drink along with comedy and songs, often of a bawdy nature. The music hall was one of the few places where a working-class woman could earn enough money to live independently, other than prostitution; it was not unknown for the two professions to be combined.

Emily specialized in songs of tragedy, and with her ability to wring emotions out of her lyrics, she brought floods of tears from audiences.

While she was immensely popular with her melancholic ballads, the operatic stage still beckoned. Her breakthrough came when two highly strung actors refused to work with each other in a new Jacques Offenbach operetta.

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein

Early one morning in 1869, there was a commanding knock on Ms. Soldene's door. The actress playing the eponymous role in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein had thrown a hissy fit and declined to perform with her leading man. Could Emily, pretty please, rescue the production?

With very little rehearsal time, Emily Soldene stepped into the role. The leading man, whose name is not recorded, tried to sabotage Emily's performance by making lewd comments to her. She overcame the harassment and was a sensation; the world of light opera was opened up to her. Miss FitzHenry never appeared in the music halls again.

One triumph led to another, and soon she had a string of gentleman admirers from the upper echelons of society. Helen Batten (History Extra) writes that she “attended races, played poker, smoked, drank brandy, and ate lavish dinners with the most fashionable men in the country.” Her husband of long-standing remained in the background.

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Her success as a performer allowed her to move into the role of director and, eventually, into managing her own light opera company that went on a successful tour of America in 1874-75.

For the next decade, she was in constant demand at home and abroad, but as she aged and packed on weight, the ingenue roles were harder to sustain.

The harsh critics turned on her and viciously attacked her attempts to take on sexy roles. She was reduced to playing what is known in the trade as heavy lady, character parts.

As the demand for her talent dried up and her funds became depleted, it became necessary for Emily Soldene to find a new line of work.

Emily Soldene striking a dramatic pose in 1875.

Emily Soldene striking a dramatic pose in 1875.

Emily Soldene: The Writer

Through connections developed during her singing career, Emily landed a gig writing a weekly column for Australia's Sydney Evening News. As she had connected with audiences through her voice so she engaged readers with her pen. She had a free hand to write about whatever she pleased and did so with wit and insight.

She turned her sometimes acerbic comments towards Winston Churchill for his “swelled head” and found the 1908 Olympic Games to be “deadly dull.”

Earlier, she caused more than a few teacups to rattle in many genteel drawing rooms. During her days in the seamy music halls, she had kept a diary, and she knew which top-hatted gentlemen had been dallying with which actresses.

Her tell-all book of 1898 under the innocent title of My Theatrical and Musical Recollections revealed the peccadilloes of dukes, military men, barristers, and, of course, the notoriously randy Prince of Wales. It was the best-selling book of the year.

She followed this in 1896 with a novel, Young Mrs. Staples, in which she tackled the hypocrisy of double standards when it came to sexual appetites.

Men were accorded a nod and a wink for sexual indiscretions, while women were condemned as disgraceful strumpets for similar behaviour. She found this abhorrent, but her point of view was not a popular one in an era when women were still legally the property of their husbands.

Emily Soldene continued her gossip column right up until her death in 1912 at the age of 73.

Bonus Factoids

  • In the 1870s, there were 30 large music halls in London and hundreds of smaller ones.
  • Numerous self-appointed guardians of the moral code tried to pressure local councils into shutting down music halls on the grounds that they encouraged depravity. One of their targets was Marie Lloyd, a great exponent of the double-entendre song. She was summoned to perform her allegedly saucy numbers before a committee of upstanding citizens. She did so without the winks and gestures that gave her lyrics their ribald meaning. With a perfectly straight face, she was able to argue that if people found her performances rude, then it was “all in the mind.”

Sources

  • The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel Victorian.” Helen Batten, Allison & Busby, 2021.
  • “Victorian Music Hall Mayhem.” Nell Darby, victorianengland.com, June 21, 2019.
  • “Emily Soldene: How to be a Victorian Actress.” Helen Batten, aspectsofhistory.com, undated
  • “Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, Rebel” Helen Batten, historyextra.com, undated.
  • “Emily Soldene: In Search of a Singer.” Kurt Gänzl, Operetta Research Center, March 9, 2007.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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