Signor Ochelli and das Wunderkind
Michael Kelly and Mozart by George Fleeton
FOR the Lyric Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro, in Dublin’s National Concert Hall on February 16 and 17, I was invited to write a programme note on the original staging of this opera, which took place in Vienna in May 1786.
It is published here, with kind permission.
We sat down to supper, and I had the pleasure to be placed at table between him and his wife, Madame Constance Weber, a German lady of whom he was passionately fond, and by whom he had three children.
Madame Mozart told me, that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art.
He was a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine fair hair, of which he was rather vain.
MICHAEL Kelly – whose description of Mozart this is – was a talented Dublin musician, actor and bon viveur, the eldest of fourteen children, born in 1762 in Mary Street, some doors up from where James Joyce opened his short-lived Volta Cinematograph in 1909.
Kelly’s mother, a McCabe from Co. Westmeath, was his inspiration as a singer.
He was about seven years younger than his friend Mozart and a bit of a prodigy himself.
Kelly studied singing in Dublin with the castrato Rauzzini (for whom Mozart had written his religious motetExsultate, jubilate in 1773).
In his mid-teens, Kelly then took to the stage, as a treble, in Piccinni’s Neapolitan opera buffa La buona figliuolawhich was given in the Smock Alley Theatre in 1778.
Shortly after that he sang again, in rival premises, at the Crow Street Theatre.
By then living in Drumcondra, these first performances took place just before Kelly emigrated, age16, to continue studying in Italy, and then in Vienna.
He never saw his mother again.
In Naples, his mentor was the British ambassador Sir William Hamilton, then working as a vulcanologist on Vesuvius and Etna.
Known as ‘the little singing boy from Ireland’, Kelly got invaluable stage experience in Rome and in Sicily.
In 1780 his meeting with Nancy and Stephen Storace, in Leghorn, was life-defining, and these three sang their way through Lucca, Pisa, Florence, Venice (where they entertained Casanova), Brescia and Verona – then still the heartland of Italian opera, since Monteverdi’s time.
Now a leading tenor, he left for Vienna in 1783, as part of the Italian Opera Company, booked by Emperor Joseph II to meet the growing demands for Italian opera in that city.
The first person Kelly met in Vienna as Salieri, then, in quick succession, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart and Da Ponte.
Indeed in the 1929 English translation of Memorie, his autobiography, Da Ponte makes generous mention of Kelly and of their work together preparing Le Nozze di Figaro, in the run-up to its prima in the Burgtheater on May 01, 1786.
Mozart cast Kelly as both Don Basilio, the music master, and as Don Curzio, the notary, for the opening run of nine performances.
The Emperor was present and Mozart conducted in his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked-hat.
And Kelly also tells us that, when the action required the presence of both his characters on stage at the same time, an understudy walked on while Kelly sang that part.
Reports on the opera’s initial reception are mixed and hard to pin down but the consensus seems to be that, far from being a flop, it got pretty good reviews.
One contemporary account put it this way:
‘Mozart was fortunate with his singers ….. Kelly was a very many-sided tenor, who had a great success in serious and comic parts, besides being a splendid actor’.
But Kelly wasn’t much of a diplomat.
Privileged and a favourite with the Emperor, on one occasion there were present at court two of the distinguished Irish generals in the Austrian service, O’Donnell and Kavanagh.
The latter said a few words to Kelly in Irish, which he did not understand.
Joseph II turned quickly to the young actor and asked ‘What is this, Ochelli, don’t you speak the language of your own country?’
To which Kelly replied ‘Please, your Majesty, none but the lower orders of Irish people speak the Irish language.’
To which I can only add that he needed to get home more often.
It is thanks to Michael Kelly’s journal of Reminiscences (published, in two volumes, by Henry Colburn, of New Burlington Street, London in 1826) that we know anything about the original Figaro rehearsals, backstage life, the stunning cast, and how Kelly persuaded Mozart to give one of his two characters, Don Curzio, a comic stammer (still retained in some productions to this day) and, if we can believe him, Kelly had also asked Mozart to write Susanna for his English soprano friend Anna ‘Nancy’ Storace.
A square deal all round then.
Kelly recalls “I had a very conspicuous part as the Stuttering Judge. All through the piece I was to stutter; but in the sestetto Mozart requested I would not, for, if I did, I should spoil his music …
I told him (Kelly was 23) that I would stutter ….. and that unless I was allowed to perform the part as I wished, I would not perform it at all…
Mozart at last consented, but doubted the success of the experiment…
The piece was loudly applauded and encored.
When the opera was over, Mozart came on the stage to me, and, shaking me by both hands, said “Bravo! young man; I feel obliged to you; and acknowledge you to have been in the right, and myself in the wrong”.
Now, although we have to take everything that Kelly writes with more than one pinch of salt, he was more than generous about Storace’s performance as Susanna, describing it as piquant, arch yet sensuous, eminently suited to the part, and both Mozart and Da Ponte had the English singer’s characteristics in mind when at work on the opera.
She was 20.
I went to take leave of the immortal Mozart and his charming wife and family.
He gave me a letter to his father, Leopold, who was at the court of Salzburg.
I could hardly tear myself away from him, and, at parting, we both shed tears.
Indeed, the memory of the many happy days which I passed at Vienna will never be effaced from my mind.
In the last week of February 1787 I quitted it with a heart full of grief and gratitude.
By March, Kelly was in London, where for 30 years he was a leading tenor, helping to manage both the King’s Theatre Haymarket and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where he continued to sing frequently with La Storace until she retired from the stage in 1808.
Kelly’s own final appearances, on any stage were appropriately in Dublin, in September 1811, and on the bill, at Smock Alley, was his late friend’s opera Così fan tutte.
On his way back to London from Holyhead, he picked up a paper which carried the headline Bankrupt. Michael Kelly, of Pall Mall, music-seller.
His book Reminiscences, vol 2, covers the final fifteen years of his life; it is replete with amusing and vivid pictures of theatrical life in London under Georges III and IV, and it was dedicated to the latter King.
Signor’ Ochelli, as he was referred to in Vienna, is buried in St Paul’s, the actor’s church, adjacent to Covent Garden.
It is worth seeking out these two books, from which I have drawn down some of the narrative of Kelly’s early life:
(London, Henry Colburn, 1826);
The Life of Michael Kelly
S M Ellis
(London, Victor Gollancz, 1930).
George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture in Ireland, teaches opera and cinema in higher education and promotes and produces light classical music recitals.
His next music event takes place on March 15 at 8pm in the St Patrick Centre Downpatrick: The Wildflowers in Concert.
Tickets (including refreshments) £15 from 028 4461 7184.
© George Fleeton 2013