'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.'
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
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 Léon, Maria Jolas, Philippe Soupault and Nino Frank who talked about this extraordinary time in Joyce's career.
Shortly before her death, Lucie Léon, wife of Joyce's assistant Paul Léon, 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 Léon, James Joyce and Paul L. Léon: 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 Léons play.
ARNOLD IN GUILLAUME TELL
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:
'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)
When Joyce died in 1941, Le Petit Parisien carried an interview with Sullivan in which he paid tribute to his biggest supporter:
Sullivan and Joyce
'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.