The Late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911) visited London just once, in the summer of 1892, to conduct a short season of German Opera at the Covent Garden Theatre. Before describing that season, it is worthwhile examining the circumstances which brought it about.
In 1879, Augustus Harris, later Sir Augustus Harris, one of the greatest impresarios of his age, became manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1882, he managed a season of German Opera performances, put on by the concert promoter Hermann Franke and Bernhard Pollini, the Intendant1 of the Hamburg Opera. The season was conducted by the great maestro, Hans Richter.
Early in 1888, Harris announced a season of Italian Opera, to be put on at the Covent Garden Theatre. From then on, Harris would lead a golden age of opera performance at Covent Garden, and continue to influence it until long after his death in 1896. At that time opera in London meant Italian Opera, that is opera sung in Italian, irrespective of its original language. Harris began the move to original language performances, first French, and then later German. This in turn led the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden as it was then known to be renamed the Royal Opera House, the name it retains to the present day.
The 1892 Season in London
In 1892, Harris decided to stage a short season of German Opera, in German, at Covent Garden during June and July. For this purpose, he approached his contact from ten years previously, Bernhard Pollini, and in effect hired a substantial part of the Hamburg Opera, excluding the orchestra, but including the sets, the costumes and their conductor, Gustav Mahler, who had been appointed the previous year. Guest singers from the Berlin Opera were also hired. The announcement of the season that appeared in the Daily Telegraph2, promised a Wagner Ring3 cycle with one performance on each of four consecutive Wednesdays, plus performances of Tristan und Isolde4 and Fidelio5.
Putting on a season of opera in the late 19th Century was a very different proposition from doing so today. The costs had to be met entirely by the theatre management or the impresario personally. It was therefore common practice to offer the season to the public as a subscription, thereby selling as many seats as possible in advance of outgoings to pay singers, musicians and other staff. Even so, just to break even required a very high percentage of seats to be occupied every night of the season. For this German Opera season, Harris offered a season subscription priced between 40 guineas (£42) for the best seats, to £4 18 shillings (£4.90) for the balcony stalls.
For the two months before his visit, Mahler started to learn English from his friend Dr Arnold Berliner6. He noted down in a pocket book the words and phrases that he assumed would be useful in the theatre. He found the language difficult and never became proficient in it. While in London however, he insisted on trying to speak English, even though he sometimes struggled to remember words, which resulted in long pauses and some amusement. Mahler set sail from Cruxhaven on Thursday, 26 May, bound for Southampton.
The orchestra that Mahler was to conduct was neither his own Hamburg Opera orchestra nor the usual Covent Garden orchestra. It had been assembled especially for the season from English players, with additional specialist players brought in from Germany. As such, the orchestra was in poor shape as an ensemble, and even some of the singers were not familiar with Mahler's autocratic style. Mahler was aided by his assistant conductor, Leo Feld.
The first performance at Covent Garden on 8 June was Siegfried. This opera was given first to allow the tenor Max Alvery to make his London début in the title role, one of his best. Harris had an immediate success on his hands. Public demand for seats was so great7 that he immediately arranged for a second season to run in parallel as it were, at the Drury Lane Theatre. Siegfried and the Ring cycle would be repeated on the Mondays, following their performances at Covent Garden on the previous Wednesdays, as well as additional performances of Tristan and Fidelio. He also arranged for the English première of Viktor Nessler's Der Trompeter von Säckingen (or Säkkingen). This was a work Mahler detested, having been obliged to conduct it during his time at both Leipzig and Prague. In London, the performances were conducted by his assistant, Leo Feld.
Public and critics alike were full of enthusiasm for these performances. In reading the critics' reports in the newspapers and magazines however, it is sometimes necessary to bear in mind the personal prejudices of the reviewers concerned - for example, many were anti-Wagnerian.
There was at least one amusing anecdote regarding the season. This was the first year in which electric lighting had been installed at Covent Garden, and contrary to the previous seasons when gas lighting was in use, the lights were dimmed during the acts of the opera. This annoyed the London society ladies who regarded the whole evening as merely an opportunity to see and be seen, which the dimmed lights prevented. It also annoyed those people who could no longer read their libretto books.
Twenty performances were given in total, of which 18 were conducted by Mahler. The actual dates of all the performances were:
At Covent Garden:
- Siegfried: 8 June, 6 July
- Tristan und Isolde: 15 June
- Das Rheingold: 22 June
- Die Walküre: 29 June
- Götterdämmerung: 13 July
- Tannhäuser: 16 July, 22 July
- Fidelio: 20 July
At Drury Lane:
- Siegfried: 13 June, 11 July
- Tristan und Isolde: 18 June, 25 June, 9 July
- Das Rheingold: 27 June
- Fidelio: 2 July
- Die Walküre: 4 July
- Der Trompeter: 8 July, 14 July
- Götterdämmerung: 18 July
During his time in London, Mahler stayed briefly at a hotel, and then at two addresses: 69 Torrington Square and 22 Alfred Place, both of which were handy for Covent Garden. Neither house still exists, both having disappeared during a redevelopment of the campus of University College. Torrington Square is located between Gower Street and Russell Square, and Alfred Place is just off Tottenham Court Road, close to Goodge Street Tube Station.
Why Never Again?
On 23 July, Mahler left London for the first and last time to complete what was left of his holiday at Berchtesgaden. Successful though the season had been commercially for Harris and critically with the public, Mahler had found it physically draining and artistically unfulfilling.
In 1894, Harris attempted another German season in London, but Mahler asked for a fee of 1,000 marks a week, plus expenses. Harris declined, as Mahler knew he would. His summer months were much too precious to him, as these were the only times he could dedicate to composing.
Suggested Further Reading
Harold Rosenthal, Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden, Putnam, London, 1958.
Andrew Nicholson, Mahler in London in 1892, in The Mahler Companion, ed. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.