Happy 242nd Birthday, Nancy

>> Saturday, October 27, 2007

Anna Storace (pronounced sto-RAH-chay), known to her friends as Nancy, has been virtually forgotten over the past two centuries, although during her reign as Europe's favorite buffa soprano she lived a life that few women experienced. The Julie Andrews or Fanny Bryce of the 18th century, Anna Storace did it all.

Anna Selina Storace, known as Nancy to her closest friends, was born in London on 27 October, 1765 to Stefano (1725-1781) and Elizabeth Storace (née Trusler). Stefano Storace moved to Dublin from his native Italy at the age of 23, relocating ten years later to London while working as a double bass player. In 1761 he married Elizabeth Trusler, who was the daughter of the proprietor of Marylebone Gardens. Their first child was a son, Stephen (1762-1796), who would later become a popular London composer of comic operettas.

Anna began studying voice in London with the great castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, for whom the young Wolfgang Amadè Mozart composed his Exsultate jubilate in 1773. By the time she was eight years of age, Anna was singing before royalty and performing throughout England. In 1778, at the age of thirteen, she went to Naples accompanied by her parents to visit Stephen, who had been studying composition at the Conservatorio San Onofrio for three years. Her debut Italian performance was at the Teatro allo Pergola in Florence in 1780, where it was reported she enjoyed such success that the castrato Luigi Marchesi, who performed alongside her, demanded she be dismissed from the troupe. Further performances took place at Lucca, Livorno, Parma, Milan and Venice. It was in Venice, while working with Irish tenor Michael Kelly and Italian baritone Francesco Benucci that Anna and her two friends were scouted by Count Durazzo, who had been sent by Emperor Joseph II of Vienna to hire singers for his newly formed Italian Opera Company. In the meantime, Anna's father had returned to London only to fall ill and die just at the onset of his daughter's success. Anna, her mother and brother traveled to Vienna with the new trio of singers, where they remained for four years.

Anna made her Viennese debut on 22 April, 1783 as the Contessa in Antonio Salieri's La scuola de'gelosi, and went on to perform in numerous other operas in Vienna. While in Vienna, Anna's star rose quickly and she soon found herself the toast of the city, celebrated as the favored prima buffa at the Burgtheater. She had a strong voice of an amazing range, solid technique, and her acting was lively and delightful. Impresarios and composers adored her for her indefatigable spirit and her willingness to lend a hand wherever one was needed. In 1784 Anna married John Abraham Fischer, an older English composer and violinist. This was apparently at her mother's request and against the advice of her friends. Fischer beat Anna mercilessly, which caused the actress to attempt to hide her bruises with make-up when appearing on stage. At last, Emperor Joseph II, concerned about his prize singer and actress, banished Fischer from Vienna. Not long after this, Anna announced that she was pregnant, but continued to work until at the premier of her brother's opera, Gli sposi malcontenti in 1785, during which she suddenly lost her voice. She gave birth to a daughter in 1785, who was given to a foundling home and died not long after. After a four month hiatus, Anna returned to the stage on September 26. Her popularity with the Viennese was so great that a cantata was jointly composed in her honor (Per la ricuperata salute di Ophelia) by Mozart, Salieri and Cornetti, with the text written by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Ophelia was the role Anna was currently preparing for Salieri's latest opera, La grotta di Trofonio, so the title of this cantata was in reference to that character. She premiered as the original Susanna in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro on May 1, 1786. Anna's final performance at the Burgtheater was on February 19, 1787 in Martín y Soler's Il burbero di buon cuore. This was followed by a farewell concert at the Kärntnertor Theater on February 23, at which Anna performed Ch'io mi scordi di te?...Non temer, amato bene K505, a grand concert aria Mozart had composed for her, with himself accompanying her on fortepiano.

While in Vienna, Anna's name had been linked romantically with several men besides John Fischer, including composer Vincente Martín y Soler, Francesco Benucci, who sang the title role in Le Nozze di Figaro, Lord Barnard (William Henry Vane of London, who later became Earl of Darlington in 1792 and Duke of Cleveland in 1833), Mozart, and even Emperor Joseph II. However, when one studies her grueling rehearsal and performance schedule it is easy to see that these would have been short-lived affairs, if they indeed existed; the only two that have been sufficiently documented are Fischer and Benucci. Indeed, Anna maintained an amiable friendship with Benucci after their breakup following the run of Figaro, and in 1789 the two paired up once again to perform in concert at The King's Theatre in London, where they performed selections from Figaro and Don Giovanni, as well as some duets by Salieri. When Anna left Vienna at the end of February of 1787, she was accompanied by her mother and brother, tenor Michael Kelly, who sang the roles of Don Curzio and Don Basilio in Figaro, Mozart's pupil Thomas Attwood, and Lord Barnard. There were plans in the offing for Anna to return to Vienna in 1788, but these fell through because the emperor could not pay her what she required, due to Austria's war with Turkey.

Anna opened in London in Paisiello's Gli schiavi per amore (The Slave of Love) on April 25, 1787, in which she had also appeared in Vienna under the original title of La gare generose (Noble Contests). In this she appeared as an black slave. This production was more successful than the Viennese production, for London audiences had not been given true comic opera for a number of years. Anna's acting was refreshing and authentic and she immediately won their hearts. In the audience sat the Prince of Wales, George IV, who also attended the next performance the very next night. It was observed that he arrived before the beginning of the overture, which was apparently out of character for him. He came again on the 28th. No doubt Anna's comedic flair delighted the prince, as "the enchanting Storace was beating time with her garden clippers", as was reported in the Morning Chronicle. Through this friendship Anna was able to secure for Mozart an invitation to come to London to compose an opera. By the time this came through, however, Mozart was too ill to accept.

In July, London held its annual Handel Commemoration Festival at Westminster Abbey and Anna was invited to sing the most popular soprano piece in Messiah, that is, I know that my Redeemer liveth, as well as Let the bright seraphim from Samson. Despite the Storace family's hopes that they would not hear from Dr. John Fischer after taking their leave from the continent, he made his presence known within the year. Perceiving that Anna's popularity could only grow and possibly make her a wealthy woman, Fischer secured lawyers to make her an offer: Fischer would never appear in the same country as she as long as she paid him an annual stipend of ten pounds. Seeing this for the blackmail it was, Anna refused to meet his terms. For some reason Fischer abandoned his suit. He would later tour Europe and settle down in Ireland, where he was employed as a music teacher. He died there in 1806.

Anna and her brother, Stephen became nearly inseparable and joined together at Drury Lane to turn out a dizzying number of operas until Stephen's death in 1796. They spent nearly every minute of their lives together either in rehearsals or performances, with he as composer and conductor and she as the prima buffa. Although Stephen had married and had a son, he spent more time at his sister's house than his own. Stephen seems to have offered Anna more than a husband could, with mutual interests and goals, and marriage was something Anna was to forever after avoid. Stephen's style of musical comedy fitted Anna like a glove and the public adored her performances in which she was consistently cast as the soubrette, opposite the leading man. Each role seemed to be a variation of the role of Susanna in Figaro, the clever young girl who could outwit any lecher or fop who set out to conquer her. Because these roles were often ethnic, Anna's dark complexion and curvy figure were perfect. These roles did not demand a stately, serene beauty, and Anna could look every bit the part of a slave, servant girl, or gypsy.

Between the months of November 1791 and May 1792, Anna was gravely ill with what appears to have been a brain hemorrhage and nearly died the exact night that Mozart died in Vienna, December 5, 1791. Incisions were made in her skull to ease pressure on the brain, however, and she recovered, although she was weak for many months. As soon as she was able, Anna returned to the stage with all the energy and zeal she had in the past. In the summer, Anna was contracted to sing Handel's Messiah at the king's birthday celebrations. During the performance, however, as she sang the final cadence of I know that my redeemer liveth, a Quaker woman stood and exclaimed, "O fie on thee! Shame! Shame! It is rank idolatry!". The woman was quickly escorted out of the church. In those times, a woman singing in a church was not looked on with favor, much less a woman of the theatre who was considered to be only one step above the rank of a prostitute. The newly rebuilt Drury Lane re-opened in March of 1794 and by the end of 1795 Stephan Storace had fallen seriously ill, but continued to turn out his operas. It is assumed that he had a brain tumor. He died on March 16, 1796 at the age of 33. Anna was understandably prostrate with grief, although she returned to work after only six weeks, a fact that did not escape her most hardened critics.

In 1797, Anna began to take a more active role in society and was seen with John Braham, a new, talented tenor who had premiered in Stephen's Mahmoud in 1796. Braham, who was 11 years Anna's junior and trying to establish himself in the London theatre, had everything to gain from this relationship and the two embarked upon a tour of Europe in August 1797. However, upon arriving at Calais they were immediately detained by the police for not having passports. These were troubled times in Europe, especially France, and travelers from England carrying no passports were quickly assumed to be spies by Napoleon's police. Nevertheless, they were requested to perform for Napoleon and Josephine twice in October. The tour took them to Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice. In Naples, they met Admiral Nelson and his mistress, Emma Hamilton, with whom Nancy formed a close, lifelong friendship. After performing in Venice the two traveled north to Vienna, where Anna was hardly remembered since both Emperor Joseph II and Mozart were dead. This must have been a difficult time for Anna. When they returned to London in September 1801 Anna was pregnant. Her son, William Spencer Harris Braham was born on May 3, 1802.

The following Autumn, Anna and Braham returned to Drury Lane, which was being run by Michael Kelly, performing in The Siege of Belgrade on November 2nd. News of Admiral Nelson's death quickly consumed London, however. When the Admiral's body was returned to London, Braham was asked to sing at the funeral service, with Anna sitting next to Lady Hamilton, who had been, not unsurprisingly, omitted from the Nelson Family's guest list.

Anna finally decided to retire from the stage after the 1807-1808 season was completed. Her final performance was on May 30, 1808 in her brother's opera, No song, no supper. In January of 1809, Anna moved herself, Braham and six year-old Spencer into Herne Hill Cottage. After eighteen years together, Braham and Anna parted ways in 1814. Embarrassing and scandalous lawsuits ensued, with Braham trying to lay hands on the material possessions Anna had bought with her own money. Throughout his life, Spencer maintained that it was the break with Braham that caused the decline of his mother’s health, as well as her death. Anna retained her property, but suffered a stroke in the summer of 1817, and a couple of days later had a second stroke and died at 1:30pm on August 24 with her old friend, Michael Kelly at her bedside. Her funeral was on September 2nd and was attended by her many friends and her small family. She was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary's Lambeth, where her mother, Elizabeth erected a plaque to be inserted into the wall.

Nancy's Association With Mozart

Anna Storace arrived in Vienna in January 1783 to begin rehearsals for the Italian Opera Company that would be opening the following April. It is likely that she first met Mozart during the premier of Antonio Salieri's La scuola di de'gelosi. Mozart would have been in attendance at this premier because he would have been highly interested in the new singers who were being heard for the first time, plus he always made it a point to attend the openings of his fellow composers' operas in order to keep abreast of what they were composing. Mozart would have been extremely impressed and excited over this new and flamboyant little soprano. She would have won him over instantly with her full, velvety voice, her delightful appearance and her marked comedic flare. Anna was truly unique! It wouldn't have taken Mozart long to introduce himself to Anna make his presence known to her.

Anna and Mozart were known to have developed a very close and warm professional relationship, but it is less well-known that she and Mozart were also considered dear friends. She and her other British associate, the Irish tenor, Michael Kelly became quite close to Mozart and it wasn't unusual to find Kelly, Anna, her brother, Stephen and their mother, Elizabeth in the Mozart home for private musicales, soirees and parties. Mozart could also be found in attendance at dinner parties in the Storace apartment as well. It is believed by some of the most prominent and most respected Mozart scholars that Mozart and Anna may have even been romantically involved, as there was ample opportunity and reason for this to be so. However, there is no solid evidence or proof that such a relationship between them existed. The great Mozart historian, Alfred Einstein wrote of their relationship:

Between Mozart and her there must have been a deep and sympathetic understanding. She was beautiful, attractive, an artist, and a finished singer, whose salary at the Italian opera in Vienna attained a figure at that time unheard of.

He continues by stating that after Anna's return to London in 1787, she and Mozart continued their relationship through correspondence by letter:

But he remained in correspondence with Anna Selina. What happened to these letters is a mystery. Anna Selina certainly treasured them, but perhaps before her death, which occurred in Dulwich in 1817, she destroyed them as not intended for the eyes of an outsider.

In addition to the role of Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, it is believed that Mozart most certainly composed the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni for Anna. Unfortunately, she was unable to sing it because she returned to London before the opera opened in Prague. Anna did have plans to return to Vienna in 1788, but contract negotiations fell through and the emperor could not offer her the salary that she demanded due to escalations in the ongoing war with Turkey.

When Mozart learned that his British friends, including Anna, would be returning to England he decided that he would like to go with them and see if he could obtain a commission for an opera at the King's Theatre in London. Anna, Stephen, Kelly and Mozart's pupil and friend, Thomas Attwood agreed that this would be a good plan and decided that they would all participate together in procuring a commission for Mozart. However, plans fell through when Mozart's father refused to take his son's in children while Mozart and Constanze got settled in England. It was a disappointed Mozart who then made plans to travel to Prague with Constanze for several performances of Figaro. Just before his departure for Prague Mozart composed the great concert aria, Ch' io mi scordi di te?... Non temer amato bene K505 as a farewell gift for Anna. Upon his return to Vienna, Mozart and Anna performed the piece together at her farewell concert at the Kärntnertor Theater. What makes this concert aria unique and outstanding is the fact that it is actually a concerto for voice and piano. Mozart composed the piano part to be played by himself. Einstein writes,

...the voice and piano carry on a dialogue so intimately interwoven and so heartfelt that one feels the particular intention in every measure. And at the same time the aria is so extended that it seems more like a concerto movement than an aria. We have the impression that Mozart wanted to preserve the memory of this voice, no brilliant soprano and not suited to display of virtuosity, but full of warmth and tenderness; and that he wanted to leave with her in the piano part a souvenir of the taste and depth of his playing, and of the depth of his feeling for her: Few works of art combine such personal expression with such mastery--the intimacy of a letter with the highest grandeur of form...

Nancy returned to London, leaving Vienna on 27 February 1787. Her last glimpse of Mozart would have been from the rear window of her carriage as he stood shivering at the customs house, where he came to see his friends off. As stated earlier, Mozart and Anna would continue their friendship through letters, but they would never see one another again. Anna worked for several years procuring a commission for Mozart in London and would succeed in the fall of 1790. However, by then Mozart's health was starting to fail and economic conditions in Austria were not good, so he was obliged to decline the commission. Anna died from a stroke in August of 1817, but not before burning the letters to her from her friend and perhaps lover, Wolfgang Mozart. As she stated to her son, Spencer, they were "For my eyes only".

(Reposted from my graduate research website on the Life and Career of Anna Selina Storace.)

The following video is of Susanna's aria from Act IV of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Nancy opened as the original Susanna on 1 May 1786.




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