Monday, 3 December 2018

A Strange Night at the Opera with James Joyce

Here's a lovely illustration by Carl Flint from his book with David Norris, Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide, 2012. It shows a night at the Paris Opera in July 1930, with John Sullivan singing his famous 'topseasoarious' role in William Tell. Joyce's extraordinary behaviour was reported in the international press:

'The audience were witnesses of a dramatic scene which exceeded in intensity the drama being placed on stage...A sudden hush fell...when a man in one of the boxes, whom many recognised as James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet, dramatically leaned forward, raised a pair of heavy dark glasses from his eyes, and exclaimed: 'Merci, mon Dieu, pour ce miracle. Apres vingt ans, je revois la lumiere.'*

Ellmann 1982 p 625, quoting articles in L'Intermediare 5 July 1930  and the Daily Express 1 July 1930

*'Thank you my God for this miracle. After twenty years I see the light once more'

Joyce did indeed stage a dramatic publicity stunt that night in Paris, but I don't believe that it happened the way the press reported it.  For one thing, he never sat in the box at the opera. With his bad eyesight, he always sat at the front of the stalls. Remembering this night later to Frank Budgen, Joyce talked about 'my antics in the stalls of the Paris Opera.' So if Joyce really did lean forward and remove his glasses most people in the audience would only have seen the back of his head. Also 'after twenty years' would make him unable to see since 1910!

Here's Joyce, with Augustus John, wearing those dark glasses. On 15 May 1930, he'd had his ninth eye operation, in Zuruch, and been given these glasses to protect his left eye while it healed. On 15 June, Nora Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver that the surgeon, Dr Alfred Vogt, 'found great progress in the sight' but added 'My husband asks you not to speak of his eyes to anyone till I write again.' (Letters III p198).

Ellmann, who takes the press story at face value, says in a footnote, 'Joyce wanted to keep his recovery secret because he was concocting a publicity stunt to aid...John Sulivan'.


On his return from Zurich to Paris, Joyce learned that the Italian star tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, had received a glowing review for singing Arnold in William Tell at the Paris Opera.  Listening to him sing, here, I can understand why.

However, Joyce believed that only John Sullivan had the right to sing this role.

'Joyce once remarked, 'I have been through the score of Guillaume Tell, and I discover that Sullivan sings 456 G's, 93 A flats, 92 A's, 54 B flats, 15 B's, 19 C's and two C sharps. Nobody else can do it.''

Herbert Gorman, James Joyce 1941, p 343

We have Joyce's own version of what followed in a letter, written several years later, from Paul Léon to Frank Budgen

'Perhaps Léon, who is typing this will shoot you off a pen-picture describing my antics in the stalls of the Paris Opera for the scandal of the blasé-abonné, and the ensuing story in the press....

Concert of Volpi heard. Also much talk about a performance of William Tell with Volpi in the part of Arnold. Conversations with Sullivan establish that Volpi had the entire score cut by some half of it and the key lowered by a half note. This Volpi performance is narrated with all sorts of compliments in the N.Y. Herald by their official music critic (M.Louis Schneider). Immediately a letter is written to him containing a wager by Sullivan to let him and Volpi sing both the part of Arnold in any concert hall – the arbiter to be Mr Schneider....Naturally no reply from either Schneider or Volpi (considering Schneider had written that nobody at present could sing the part of Arnold as had been done by Volpi).'

Paul Leon to Frank Budgen, 29 January 1938, quoted by Budgen in James Joyce and The Making of Ulysses, p362-3

Yes, to help Sullivan, Joyce engineered a feud between him and Lauri-Volpi!  Joyce wrote letters to the New York Herald and Paris newspapers issuing the challenge, and persuaded Sullivan to sign them.  

'I challenge M.Lauri-Volpi to sing this role in the way his compatriot Rossini wrote it and in the way I myself have sung it hundreds of times in the principal cities of France, Belgium, and even of Italy, where this opera, buried for want of a tenor who could sing it since the death of the celebrated Tamagno (who sang it last in 1889), was resuscitated by me in 1922.'

quoted by Ellmann James Joyce 1982, p624

Sullivan's biographer Francois Nouvion says that the singer 'found the whole thing completely ridiculous, but in view of his friendship with Joyce, he signed the letter.' By doing this, he'd made a lasting enemy of Giacomo Lauri-VolpiThe Italian later got his revenge in his book Voci Paralelle, where he presented Sullivan as a drunk and a failure:

'John O'Sullivan is another Irish tenor, but from another time. Carelli called him the tenor of two notes. He would rouse the stalls in Ugonotti and Guiglielmo Tell....Sullivan triumphed in Ugonotti and flopped in Guiglielmo Tell. Devoted to Bacchus his career was short.'

quoted by Francois Nouvion, Asile Hereditaire: The Life and Career of John Sullivan, 2012



Continuing with Leon's letter to Frank Budgen:

'A week later – performance of Guillame Tell with Sullivan. Sitting in the fifth row right aisle next to the passage your obedient servant next to him JJ next to him, Mrs Leon and next to her Mrs J – somewhere in the stalls an Irish Miss correspondent of some paper, and a gentleman correspondent of the Neue Zuricher Zeitung.

First and second act pass with great applause. J.J. being greatly enthused. Third act where there is no Sullivan on the stage spent in the buffet.

Fourth act after the aria 'Asile hereditaire' sung with great brio and real feeling by S. applause interminable. J.J. excited to the extreme shouts, 'Bravo Sullivan – Merde pour Lauri Volpi'. The abonnés...rather astonished, one of them saying: Il va un peu fort celuis-la.*

Half an hour later: at the Café de la Paix. Great conversation in which S. joins after he has changed clothes. At the moment of parting the correspondent having been talked to all evening about music approaches J.J. with the following words:

The Correspondent: Thank you so much for the delightful evening. I have some pull with my paper and should you wish I could arrange for an article or two to appear there about your Paris impressions.
JJ: Many thanks but I never write for the newspapers.
The Correspondent: Oh! I see you are simply a musical critic.
Next day an article in the press. Mr J.J. returned from Z'ch after a successful operation goes with friends to the Opera to hear his compatriot S. sing William Tell. Sitting in a box. After the fourth act aria he takes off his spectacles and is heard saying, 'Thank God I have recovered my eyesight.''

* 'He's going a bit strong, that one'

So in this letter, Joyce is presenting the miraculous cure stunt as a press invention. Ellmann believed that Joyce was being misleading here, but why would he do this while admitting to shouting 'Shit!' in the Paris Opera House?

We have another witness of that evening, Lucie Léon, who describes what happened in her book, James Joyce and Paul Léon: The Story of a Friendship, 1950

Although she dates this to 1936, this is clearly the same event described in the letter to Frank Budgen.  Lucie Léon was sitting right next to Joyce, yet she makes no mention of him dramatically removing his spectacles.

Lucie Léon recalled the evening again, in 1972, when she was interviewed by Arnold Goldman for his Radio 3 documentary on Sullivan and Joyce:

'After the famous aria people clapped  and Mr Joyce suddenly stood up in his seat, started waving his cane and his hat, and in his best French right out loud, he said: Bravo Sullivan, et merde pour Lauri-Volpi. I must say it brought the house down. and Joyce was very pleased with himself.'

''Send him Canorious' – Arnold Goldman writes about James Joyce's 'Sullivanising'',  The Listener, 3 August 1972.

It strikes me that Joyce causing a scene at the opera was newsworthy, but the journalists wanted to tell the story without using the word 'shit', and so one of them invented the 'Merci mon Dieu' story. It's also possible that Joyce suggested this 'miraculous cure' angle to the correspondent from the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, in the conversation at the Café de la Paix after the show.

So this is how I picture the scene, with Joyce waving his opera 'cliqueclaquehat' and cane. 

I think that this kind of behaviour was unusual in Paris, but very common in the Italian theatres where Joyce developed his opera-going habits. La Scala in Milan is still notorious for booing opera singers.

'Roberto Alagna, the Parisian tenor of Sicilian origin, has decided not to return to La Scala this November as Massenet’s Werther after an eight-year absence. The reason: he did not want to endure the catcalls of the loggionisti, those self-appointed arbiters of taste and guardians of tradition, who like to boo, jeer and audibly comment during performances.'

Fred Plotkin, 'Does Booing at La Scala Ruin the show?' WQXR radio

Here's Joyce's description of the lively loggione (gods) of the Teatro Verdi in Trieste: 

'Loggione. The sodden walls ooze a steamy damp. A symphony of smells fuses the mass of huddled human forms: sour reek of armpits, nozzled oranges, melting breast ointments, mastick water, the breath of suppers of sulphurous garlic, foul phosphorescent farts, opoponax, the frank sweat of marriageable and married womankind, the soapy stink of men......'

Giacomo Joyce 



The newspaper story of Joyce miraculously seeing 'the light once more' thanks to Sullivan's astonishing voice is echoed in 'From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer', written two years later. Here Joyce is still mocking Lauri-Volpi, who appears as 'Giaco for luring volupy' alongside Ernesto Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli. The three star Italian tenors stand under a darkened street lamp, which they are unable to re-light. Then Sullivan appears with his bag of tools and 'makes the world go lighter. Lux!'The three tenors stand 'mouthshut' at this demonstration of Sullivan's superiority.

Giovanni Martielli
'Enrico, Giacomo and Giovanni, three dulcetest of our songsters, in liontamers overcoats, holy communion ties and cliqueclaquehats, are met them at a gaslamp. It is kaputt and throws no light at all on the trio’s tussletusculums. Rico is for carousel and Giaco for luring volupy but Nino, the sweetly dulcetest, tuningfork among tenors, for the best of all; after hunger and sex comes dear old somnium, brought on by prayer. Their lays, blent of feastings, June roses and ether, link languidly in the unlit air. Arrives a type in readymade, dicky and bowler hat, manufactured by Common
Enrico Caruso
Sense and Co. Ltd., carrying a bag of tools.
Preludingly he conspews a portugaese into the gutter, recitativing: now then, gents, by your leave! And, to his job. Who is this hardworking guy? No one but Geoge, Geoge who shifts the garbage can*, Geoge who stokes in the engine room, Geoge who has something to say to the gas (tes gueules!) and mills the wheel go right go round and makes the world grow lighter. Lux! The aforesung Henry. James and John stand mouthshut. Wot did I say? Hats off, primi assoluti! Send him canorious, long to lung over us, high topseasoarious! Guard safe our Geoge!'

'From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer', The New Statesman and Nation, 27 February 1932

Sullivan and Joyce
 * 'Joyce was carried away by Sullivan's voice. He said to me that it was cleansing and reminded him of the men that came for the garbage in the early morning.'

Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, p.188 

Thursday, 29 November 2018

John Sullivan: 'long to lung over us, high topseasoarious!'

'Just out of kerryosity howlike is a Sullivan? It has the fortefaccia of a Markus Brutas, the wingthud of a spreadeagle, the body uniformed of a metropoliceman with the brass feet of a collared grand ....Hats off, primi assoluti! Send him canorious, long to lung over us, high topseasoarious!'   

From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer*

Here's Joyce describing the voice of his favourite singer,  the Cork-born Franco-Irish tenor John Sullivan, king of powerful high notes.  Although he liked to compare his own voice with John McCormack's lyric tenor, Joyce felt that Sullivan's heroic tenor soared above both of them. Mutual admirers, Joyce and Sullivan were close friends and drinking companions. In the Wake, the singer appears as 'Jean Souslevin' (John under the wine/vine).

Joyce first learned of Sullivan in a letter from his brother, Stanislaus, who met the singer in Trieste, and found him reading A Copy of A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man This predisposed Joyce to like Sullivan. When he later heard him sing, in Tannhauser at the Paris Opera in October 1929, he was overwhelmed by Sullivan's powerful voice. Joyce developed an obsession with promoting the singer, who he felt had been unfairly treated by the opera establishment.

'J.J. is now all Sullivan....What wirepulling!....He does no other work apparently – has done none for a month, than to boost Sullivan in whom he sees what he would like to have been. Each new arrival at the house has to hear the story of the mistreatment of Sullivan at great length.'

Stuart Gilbert Diary 29 December 1929, Reflections on James Joyce, 1993, p15

Joyce,  47 years old when he first heard Sullivan, was going through a mid-life crisis. He discovered the singer while he was suffering from a serious writing block – partly caused by a deterioration in his eyesight and also by the closure, for economic reasons, of transition. He no longer had an outlet for his writing, and could not face the huge effort of beginning the still unwritten Book Two of the Wake.

'I have been sleeping sixteen hours a day for the past three weeks incapable
of thinking, writing, reading or speaking.'  

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 22 November 1929, Letters 1, 286

John Sullivan
'When I ceased contributing to transition I felt a sudden kind of drop as I was determined not to try to attack the second part in such an ill-equipped state....In this frame of mind I first heard Sullivan singing and for the last four and a half months I have been working incessantly to try to get him past the Italian ring which protects the London, New York and Chicago opera houses.....All this involved a tremendous amount of telephoning, interviewing, newspaper hunting, theatre-going, entertaining and being entertained.....No doubt I may have...made myself ridiculous in the eyes of soberthinking people, but I do not care very much, for it is incomparably the greatest human voice I have ever heard, beside which Chaliapine is braggadocio and McCormack insignificant. On one of the evenings he sang when Miss Beach and Miss Monnier were present I said...that since I had come to Paris I had been introduced (ie by them) to a great number of recognised geniuses, without specifying names, in literature, music, painting and sculpture, and that for me all these persons were...perhapses, but that there was no perhaps about Sullivan's voice....I have always insisted that I know little about literature, less about music, nothing about painting and less than nothing about sculpture; but I do know something about singing I think.'

To Harriet Shaw Weaver,  18 March 1930, Letters I 290-2

I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with the Joycean Arnold Goldman, a near Sussex neighbour of mine. Arnold told me about a documentary he made in 1972 for Radio 3 about Joyce's Sullivan obsession. He interviewed Lucie on, Maria Jolas, Philippe Soupault and Nino Frank who talked about this extraordinary time in Joyce's career

Shortly before her death, Lucie on, wife of Joyce's assistant Paul on, told Arnold that they didn't share Joyce's enthusiasm for Sullivan's voice:

'Joyce had brought us the two O'Sullivan records that he liked best – one was Celeste Aida and the second one was the famous aria out of William Tell. We heard that over and over again, because when Mr Joyce used to come here to work, after work was over, he would say, 'Supposing we hear a little Sullivan,' and we would put on the Sullivan records. Now I have a confession to make. The Sullivan voice was so big and so booming – we never told Mr Joyce, but we put a sweater and a muffler into the machine so that at least the voice would become a little smoother.' 

''Send him Canorious' – Arnold Goldman writes about James Joyce's 'Sullivanising'',  The Listener, 3 August 1972.

'Wilhelm Tell and Celeste AIda on the phonograph made even more noise than Sullivan did on the stage, and we played them exclusively for Joyce. He would sit drinking in ''the voice'' from the depths of the huge dilapidated leather armchair which we kept around the house because I liked it and because Joyce regarded it as 'the only comfortable chair in the house.''

Lucie on, James Joyce and Paul L. on: The Story of a Friendship, 1950. p21

'Don't you think the most important thing in a tenor is that he should sing loud?' 

Joyce quoted by Victor Gollancz, Journey Towards Music: A Memoir, 1965, p23

Here's one of the records Joyce made the ons play.



'Joyce once remarked, 'I have been through the score of Guillaume Tell, and I discover that Sullivan sings 456 G's, 93 A flats, 92 A's, 54 B flats, 15 B's, 19 C's and two C sharps. Nobody else can do it.''

Herbert Gorman, James Joyce 1941, p 343

Arnold in Rossini's William Tell is one of the most demanding tenor roles in opera. In 1829, when Rossini wrote it, it was usual for tenors to sing high notes using a falsetto 'head voice'.  But in 1837, Gilbert-Louis Duprez, a young French singer, caused a sensation when he sang the highest notes in full 'chest voice'.  After Duprez, everyone expected tenors to use their chest voice (although Rossini thought that Duprez sounded like a capon having its throat cut!).

Gilbert-Louis Duprez by Disdéri

Here's the tenor Carlos Barcenas, who also sings Arnold, showing the two ways of singing a high C.

'Tenor high C’s are scattered throughout the opera literature. Sometimes tenors transpose the aria down slightly or drop an octave, other times they fake it and edge into falsetto voice, where it is easier to sing. Just as often, they hit it, and hold it, and that moment is one of the most exciting in an opera house. It is moments like those when opera, in addition to the aesthetic joys and emotional satisfactions, can seem like a spectator sport or a circus high-wire act.'

Daniel Wakin 'The Note that Makes us Weep' in the New York Times

Those were the moments that James Joyce went to the opera for, and Sullivan always provided them. Listen to him here, singing Arnold's big aria.

As part of his Sullivanising campaign, Joyce got friends to write articles in the newspapers. You can read an entertaining one, by the irish poet Thomas MacGreevy, online: He describes witnessing a 'charming French tenor' attempting the role of Arnold, and finding it so demanding that 'he had to go to bed for three weeks after.'

'The next time the opera was sung Sullivan took the role of Arnold — and without cuts or transpositions. It is said to include heaven knows how many B flats and C naturals and actually two C sharps. But the extraordinary thing about Sullivan's taking of these notes was that he sang them without any sign of effort whatever, with full musical tone, and as if he could, if he chose, go as much higher as any Rossini that ever was, might want him to.... '

Thomas MacGreevy, 'A County Kerry Operatic Tenor', The Irish Statesman, 1 February 1930
Here's Sylvia Beach, who organised a Sullivan 'claque' for Joyce at these Tell performance:

'He attended every performance of Guillaume Tell, applauded Sullivan exuberantly from his seat in the front row, and got up to call him back many times. The little old lady ushers with their black lace caps joined in the applause, Joyce having tipped them so generously that they would have applauded anybody, and Joyce's friends all over the house formed a 'claque'....Joyce filled the theater with Sullivan's admirers, and of course with his own admirers....
 Joyce's rather excessive technique at the Paris Opera began to do more harm than good, I fear. For one thing, it got on the nerves of the director...Sullivan was alarmed when he found himself practically eliminated from the programs. We would call up the box office and book seats for Guillaume Tell, maybe a whole box. But we made it clear that it was Sullivan we wished to hear as Tell. And if we were told it was not to be Sullivan, we canceled the booking. This happened so often that the box office got riled and stopped answering the telephone.
  With Joyce, Sullivan's cause became an obsession, and the more he failed the more he persisted in his efforts. Mrs Joyce grew so tired of it that she forbade the mention of Sullivan's name at home.'

Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company p190

Leon Edel has a vivid description of what it was like to be a member of the 'claque'. I like this especially because it's a rare account of Joyce being observed as a public celebrity, by someone who didn't then know him personally:

Leon Edel

'I saw James Joyce for the first time at the Paris Opera in 1929. I went to the opera because I knew he would be there and I wanted to have a good look at him.  From my eighteenth year, when I had obtained a copy of the banned Ulysses, he had been my personal cultural hero ....My reason for going to the opera, aside from curiosity about Joyce himself, was to respond to a call he had issued through Miss Beach. Odysseus wanted all hands on deck to applaud an Irish tenor called John Sullivan....At any rate, Joyce was organising an informal claque, and I made myself a member of it. We paid for our own tickets. I remember I went to the box office the morning the seat sale opened, and waited a couple of hours in line to obtain a good cheap seat. My student's purse contained only a few francs, but we were not to clap for our supper....After all I was to have not only the singing of Sullivan (who had to be good, if Joyce said so) but a glimpse of the Great Man himself. It was well worth the price of a couple of Latin Quarter meals....I arrived early and watched from my advantageous position....And then suddenly, at the last minute, he was there; I saw him walking down the left aisle....The first glimpse was a bit of a shock; Joyce walked like a blindman. He looked straight ahead of him, with the rigidity of sightlessness and leaning on his cane...He was immaculately dressed – black tie, boiled shirt, and the famous latinquarter hat....John Sullivan finally appeared. He was in elaborate costume and had a tenorial embonpoint. Joyce didn't let him get out a single note. He began to applaud as soon as Sullivan was sighted, and we obediently joined and stopped the show. Sullivan had his recognition then and there, as if it were the final curtain....As a matter of fact, he did have a fine voice, but it had sung better days....He could go up very high; he sustained the notes beautifully. He was however a stiff, heavy, overcostumed figure on the stage....It was when Sullivan had finished his first aria that I heard Joyce – clear, bell-like high. The banned writer sang out, right up to the chandelier, 'Bravo! Bravo!' I can hear him still....We brought down the house....Sullivan must have had more applause than he'd ever reaped in all his life; and always there came that splendid lyrical 'Bravo!' which seemed to soar high, high up to the great frescoed ceiling. At the end, Joyce stood at his seat waving and cheering as if he were leading conquering troops to a great victory.'

Leon Edel, 'The Genius and the Injustice Collector: A Memoir of James Joyce' in  The American Scholar Vol. 49, No. 4 (Autumn 1980)



On Twitter, Patrick Hawe posted a letter written by Joyce's 'biografiend',  Herbert Gorman, to the Dublin journalist Patrick Corrigan. He talks about Joyce's efforts to get Sullivan a booking at London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Oliver St John Gogarty (the model for Buck Mulligan) claims that Joyce did get Sullivan a booking to sing at a Royal Command Performance in Covent Garden. According to Gogarty, it was judged a failure (though Gogarty also calls Sullivan 'Denis' and describes him as Irish-American):

'Before half the first act was over, Their Majesties graciously rose and left the royal box and Covent Garden. What an outrage and insult both to Ireland and America! ....Joyce consequently came rushing from Paris. He entered Covent Garden Theatre in the middle of a performance and asked to see the manager. He was abusive and loud-mouthed. Margaret Sheridan was told to calm him; but he would listen to no entreaties. 'You call this an opera? It is a W.C. (water closet),' he shouted. I am indebted to Miss Sheridan for this account'

Oliver Gogarty, Intimations, 1950 (from the Music in the Works of James Joyce website)

Sullivan and Joyce
When Joyce died in 1941, Le Petit Parisien carried an interview with Sullivan in which he paid tribute to his biggest supporter:


'On the way to Montmartre, near a wood fire, a man deeply in thought rereads letters, relives souvenirs. It is John Sullivan, the celebrated tenor; unforgettable interpreter of Guillaume Tell, friend of the author of Ulysses....John O'Sullivan sighs, revives the fire that threatens to die, and remembers with emotion: 'To help a friend, he would have neglected his own work for years....The world lost a great writer, but nobody lost more than me. I will never see my friend again.''

Le Petit Parisien, January 1941, quoted by Francois Nouvion, Asile Hereditaire: The Life and Career of John Sullivan, 2012

In my next post, I will share the most outrageous publicity stunt in Joyce's whole Sullivan campaign...

*Tim Finnegan has put the whole text, with notes, of From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer, on his excellent origins of Finnegans Wake blog here.