‘Emily Soldene was a singer and for a couple of nineteenth century decades, a star
among stars on the English-speaking stage’ – thus, Kurt Ganzl introduced the subject
of his exhaustive biography.
Emily Soldene was probably born on 30 September 1838 at Clerkenwell, London. Her
mother ran a business as a straw bonnet maker and the family were living at Finsbury,
London in 1841 and 1851.
Taking her later writings at face value, Emily had a nurse and a governess, she learnt
to play the piano and ‘was educated at Mrs Freeman’s academy’. She also saw the ballet,
Giselle, as a teenager.
She married John (Jack) Powell, a law clerk, on 17 March 1859 at St Marylebone, London.
He was the son of a news reporter who worked with Charles Dickens. Emily wrote, ‘(I)
ran away when I was very young but old enough to know better’, ‘my parents were against
The inauspicious setting of the wedding is captured in another recollection: ‘at
my wedding, the best man, I think he was the pew opener, could not be trusted with
the precious thing (her wedding ring)’.
A young Emily
Powell became her treasurer and acting manager for more than a decade. The couple
had four children: Kate Elizabeth (born 10 March 1860), Ellen Clara (8 June 1861),
Edward Charles Solden (27 February 1863) and
John Arthur (12 September 1867).
‘When I was quite young, I heard Santley (the “ultimate English baritone of the Victorian
age”). Never shall I
forget it. I felt I would give the world to sing, to be an artist’. Emily approached
William Howard Glover ‘who considering it to my advantage to hear as much good music
as possible, sent me to one or other of the opera houses every night of the season.
There, my taste was formed and nourished by the greatest artists of the day’.
Her first appearance on the dramatic stage was in a portion of Il Trovatore in January
1865 during a concert at Drury Lane. The Daily Telegraph reported, ‘ Emily Soldene...has
a dramatic stage capability of high order...she possesses, too, the physical advantages
of a handsome face and a tall, well-proportioned figure. In voice, she
is almost equally well gifted and she has evidently been carefully trained.’
But Emily was leading a double musical life: by matinee she was Soldene, the classical
opera singer; by night she was Miss FitzHenry, the music hall songstress guided by
her friend and mentor, Charles Morton. She enjoyed adulation and growing popularity
in the music halls: ‘Miss FitzHenry’s songs are received with the most uproarious
applause’. She had ‘fervent style and power’ and ‘completely electrifies the audience’.
A crossroads was looming in her career. In reality the choice was relatively simple:
the music halls paid
regularly and the concerts, spasmodically. She had also split with Glover after serving
her indentures and the final deciding factor was the emergence of a new rage from
France – opera boffe – to which Emily was particularly well suited. She enjoyed that
most fortunate of juxtapositions: being the right person, in the right
place, at the right time.
Opera bouffe was a musical form which combined ‘the sparkle of French wit and music
with the elegance of opera comique and the inoffensive of the choicest English burletta
(a farcical play set to music)’. It was ‘sparkling, spicy, spectacular’ entertainment.
Its flavour may be captured from two reports: ‘Sweet innocence. A little girl went
with her mother to a Soldene concert. When that lady and the full chorus appeared,
the little girl...looked at them a moment then said, “Mama, are those women ready
for bed now”’. Writing later, Emily recalled seeing a performance of Chilperic. ‘The
ballet was on...the sort of thing one might take one’s mother...when suddenly, “Bing-bang-boom”
on the drum and cymbals, and to everyone’s astonishment, four-and-twenty legs shot
out...as far as possible and as undressed as possible, and
before we had recovered from this severe shock, four-and-twenty other legs shot out...just
as far and just as nude. The dresses were worse than deceptive, they were slit up
to the waist...’. This musical form was embraced by Emily using her vocal and comedic
talents – ‘her voice, her vitality and her magnetism first found their perfect material’.
(right: Emily as Chilperic)
From 1869 to 1871, she starred in productions in London and the provinces of: The
Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (as the Duchess); Little Faust (as Chilperic) and Genevieve
de Brabant (as Drogan, pictured left). The breakthrough came when John Russell was
searching for a replacement Grand Duchess in a smash-hit show and selected Miss FitzHenry;
except that she was killed-off
and Emily Soldene, resurrected.
Glowing reviews were written of her performances in London and the
provinces: ‘Miss Soldene brings both vocal and histrionic powers of a conspicuous
order...and infuses an immense amount of vitality into her portraiture...’. ‘...It
would be difficult to name any actress who could better portray the passions, emotion,
weakness, hauteur, regal dignity and esprit of
the German beauty. Her dresses are magnificent and her deportment graceful, queenly
Emily sailed from Britain to conquer the Americas in 1874 -75. By now she
was managing her own repertory troupe. New York capitulated: ‘I was found
to be “magnificent”, “magnetic (I am afraid they also said, ‘massive’) possessing
vim, a grand voice and...knew what to do with it’. Soon everything ‘Soldene’ was
the rage. ‘Soldene’ stockings, hats, gloves, fans and coiffure.
‘But the greatest sensation was the “Soldene” girl. Never had been seen such girls,
real girls with fine limbs, complexions nearly all their own, beautiful
creamy white skins, figures perfect...“The Boys” simply went crazy over this crowd
of imported loveliness’.
Following two months of huge success at New York, Emily took her troupe onto the
(rail)road. For five months from January to May 1875, America was criss-crossed with
five-day shows at Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago and Canada, to mention
a few of the towns invaded. ‘Miss Soldene is genial in manner and
has a pleasant face, one feature of which, according to physiognomists, indicates
a prodigal generosity. She
has a powerful voice, well trained, and very effective on stage...(her) forte is
jolly extravaganza with music,
grace and symmetry as lib..’
After a triumphant return to Britain, Emily’s show embarked on a tour of England’s
major towns from July to October 1875 which drew similar rave reviews – the magic
was still there – but it wasn’t quite the triumphant procession of earlier tours.
Newly-introduced shows were not as popular as the old favourites, the first signs
that the appeal of Emily’s version of opera bouffe was beginning to dull. Then, it
was back to America for a gruelling tour from December 1876 until July 1877.
America now exhibited a fascination with Emily’s mouth! ‘Hers is a long, square-cut
mouth, but not only is it phenomenal in size, but also phenomenal in its workings.
It is capable of more posing and posturing and contortions
than any other similar orifice in the world. It does not simply open and shut; it
chases the other features all around the face...’
Australia was Emily’s next port of call. The entourage made their debut in Sydney
on 15 September 1877. This engagement also providentially provided a record of its
receipts for one performance. There were 1,456 customers who paid £166 9/- of which
almost £100 was passed to the tour. In England, the normal box office receipts were
between £30 and £40.‘The Soldene
troupe is an unparalleled success...All parts of the theatre were densely crowded.
Mlle Soldene received a magnificent ovation.’
Back in England, in 1879, Emily introduced Bizet’s Carmen to the provinces for the
first time. ‘Miss Soldene as the cruel and faithless Carmen sang and acted with appropriate
dash, spirit and recklessness and elicited repeatedly the heartiest applause...’.
‘It was generally conceded that my Carmen was a good one. I had a natural turn for
From the ‘tragic’ to tragedy: Emily was reported as being taken seriously ill while
in pantomime at Glasgow in January 1880. This was clearly a smokescreen. Her husband,
Jack Powell had a severe stroke and became an invalid. He was consigned to the salty
breezes of Bognor in the hope that the seaside might kick-start a
recovery. His nurse was Naomi French from Preston, Herts.
Emily needed to work and another long tour of Britain began, running from March to
October of 1880. The ‘notices were good and appreciative, but they are no longer
thrilled as they had been in the days when...their
kind of entertainment was fresh and new’. Emily was a fondly loved old favourite
rather than a bright new star. ‘The shiniest shine was gone’ for a performer in her
eleventh year as a star of opera bouffe.
The Atlantic was crossed again in 1880. Now the reviews faltered: ‘The Soldene company
appeared last night
in a mangled adaptation...The music was beyond their capabilities...there is a pitiable
lack of both dramatic and vocal talent.’ It was an ‘old show with old costumes, old
props, a depleted company, colds, no money and pretty low morale’. Emily decided
to go sleighing, became indisposed and was savaged: ‘it was the most wretched performance
of that opera ever given in Syracuse...Soldene, fat and forty...her voice is broken
and unmusical’. She played numerous dates across America from November 1880 until
June of the next year but received rotten notices.
This period, between 1880 and 1881, were the lowest point of Emily’s life. Not only
was there the dreadful American tour, but she also became a widow: while she was
performing at Crystal Palace, Jack died at Bognor on 14 September 1881 from ‘paralysis’
likely induced by a further stroke. Emily was forty-two, husband-less
with four children and, as far as the stage was concerned, she was yesterday’s heroine.
Yet back home, her stock remained high and the troupe was booked on a tour from
December 1882 beginning at Dundee and ending at Newcastle – the ‘longest and densest
tour’ they ever undertook.
Undaunted by her last American experience, Emily was back in 1883 for
a further unsuccessful tour which, together with an experiment in theatre management,
depleted her funds. She appeared at Oxford. A critic wrote, ‘We hardly know how to
convey to Madame Soldene with sufficient
delicacy that there is a period at which it is wise for an artist to rest on her
laurels...the spectacle of an elderly lady..twitching her petticoats in the regular
opera bouffe manner was so unutterably sad and ghastly to
behold that a number of persons rose from their seats in shocked silence and quietly
left the theatre’.
Distant Australia beckoned again in 1892. Her tour, though, was another financial
disaster which wiped out Emily’s depleted resources – but there was a silver lining
in the cloud! She left the stage and, living in Sydney, began a new career as a newspaper
columnist for three years from 1892 to 1895. The reason she gave for this new direction
was basic: ‘Self preservation....I was paid for the very first lines I ever wrote’.
She began with an ‘eloquent tribute to myself’.
While ‘down-under’, Emily, the fledgling writer, started work on her first novel,
Young Mr Staples. It was a sensational tale of ‘a girl done, or gone, wrong; of her
tortured life and super-tragic end’. The book showed that Emily ‘had writing skills
aplenty’, its humour was an improvement on its sentiment and the finale was ‘simplistic’.
The critics were luke-warm: it was ‘not without merit’ and the writing had more ‘vitality
than art about it’. Another added that it was proof that Emily ‘is not only alive,
but that she is kicking’. The book probably did not sell well.
When she left the Antipodes, a paper wrote, ‘Not only in opera has Madame Soldene
achieved fame but in the literary life of Sydney her journalistic career as a musical
and dramatic critic created quite a sensation for the brilliancy of her writing and
the complete knowledge of her subject’.
Emily continued as the music and drama critic for the Sydney Evening News. Then,
came her literary tour-de-force: the innocently titled, My Theatrical and Musical
Recollections. ‘Emily’s memoirs made more of a stir than any such book in living
Of her revelations it was written, ‘She has had the good fortune to know many of
those whom the world calls smart people...One and all she gives away...Now not a
few of them are statesmen, judges, peers...Relentlessly she reveals to the world
what she knows in their lives...If the conditions or the results might justify proceedings
in the courts, divorce or other, all is told...Nobody is spared, not even those in
the highest position.’ Her autobiography sold well: ‘since its frank revelations
about the gilded youth of statesmen and fathers of family
men like Lord Rosebery and Lord Dunraven began to be known, there has been a great
rush for the book.’ It
was a full scale winner!
A nostalgic farewell matinee concert for Emily was arranged for 13 November 1906
at the Palace Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue. ‘For a lady of sixty (68 actually!), Miss
Soldene sang remarkably well’. The concert raised £800. Emily gushed, ‘My career
has been a chequered one and here’s the end of it – only it’s a different sort of
cheque’. (A nearby gentleman took the hint!)
Emily fell ill. ‘Bad times – horrid times. Cruel times, narrow escapes, long journeys,
travelling to the Beyond – to the Borderland.’ In November, 1911 she underwent an
operation – evidently serious as she wrote to her Australian readers, ‘Au revoir...if
all does not go well, it means “good-bye”’. Her apparent recovery was celebrated.
Emily died during the night of Sunday, 8 April 1912 at her lodgings in Bloomsbury.
Although she had been ill, her demise was unexpected. She had recovered from her
operation, but suffered a heart attack. Underlying her condition, though, was diabetes.
She was interred at Shirley Cemetery, Surrey with only two family members and very
few ‘theatre people’ present. She left a small net estate of £810 which was bequeathed
to her son, Edward.
Kurt Ganzl, as he drew the final curtain on his 1,551-page work devoted to Emily,
wrote ‘...I reckoned she was thoroughly worthy of what must surely be in any case
the biggest theatrical biography of the year. Of the era, of the century. Heck, maybe
of all time, for all I know.’
(I am grateful to Kurt Ganzl for his generosity in providing the photographs, allowing
his biography to be condensed and checking the completed epitome)