Monday, 7 November 2016

79 Opera singer William Samuell

Opera star’s promising career cut tragically short
An earlier article concerned the tragic death in Swansea in 1918 of the brilliant 26-year-old soprano, musician and composer, Morfydd Llwyn Owen.  Two years previously another fine singer had died young; this time it was a 31-year-old Swansea baritone named William J. Samuell.

He was born in 1885 at 16 Mackworth Terrace in St Thomas – the only son of a manager at the wagon works in the docks.  Samuell sang in Fabian’s Bay Congregational Church choir before taking up competitive singing, which led to winning medals and awards.  His favourite recitation solos were Longfellow’s narrative poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ (first published in 1842) and ‘The Raft’. 

Samuell was a baritone with a fine technique who studied singing at the Royal College of Music under Frederick King, himself a baritone, and became an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.  Samuell was part of Beecham’s Comic Opera tour around Britain of 1910-11, making his operatic debut as Dapertutto in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, and winning favourable notices for the three roles played.  In January 1911 he was especially applauded at Swansea’s Grand Theatre, and similarly in March at Cardiff’s New Theatre.

He joined the Quinlan Opera Company, which had been founded that year in Liverpool by musical impresario Thomas Quinlan to give the provinces and further afield Britain’s dominions (this was pre-Commonwealth) the opportunity to hear grand opera on the same scale as at Covent Garden.  It was a huge undertaking with a total of 163 people in the company - including an orchestra of 55 musicians, three conductors and its own chorus of 60 singers.  The Quinlan Opera Company performed in February 1912 in South Africa, at Cape Town and Johannesburg, en route to a ten-week visit to Australia, with five weeks in Melbourne and five in Sydney.  Fifteen operas were presented, four of them new.    

From their tour of North America, the Canadian press reviews describe how this Swansea man excelled in the part of Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on a play by Victor Hugo.  The Manitoba Free Press said, “Mr Samuell seemed actually to sink entirely his own identity in that of the jester.  Into Rigoletto’s paternal tenderness he put a fitting amount of emotional power.  His voice was highly gratifying, both in quality and in quantity, and his singing had the impressiveness of his acting.”  The Winnipeg Saturday Post wrote, “In the title role both voice and acting were brought into play in such a masterly fashion that the Rigoletto of Tuesday evening will never be forgotten by those who witnessed the sinister working out of the father’s curse which had been laid upon him.”  The Montreal Herald considered that “As Rigoletto, he was easily the star of the evening”, while the Winnipeg Tribune commented, “His version, both vocally and histrionically, was quite equal to the famous jesters of 40 years ago, surpassing some of these great names, for Mr Samuell is true to pitch - even in moments of intense emotional excitement there was no deviation.”

He joined the Boston Opera Company, but though that company presented a wide array of works, and was admired for its artistic excellence, amid the upheavals of the First World War it went bankrupt in 1915.  Samuell returned to Britain where he made some recordings for HMV, before his sudden death from typhoid in London in early 1916.  His body was brought back to Swansea, where crowds lined the road from High Street Station to Dan-y-graig Cemetery for the burial, with his headstone paid for by public subscription. 

On 9 March 1916 Swansea’s Albert Hall (then a major concert hall) was the venue for the William Samuell Memorial Concert, which featured three soloists, the Swansea Ladies Choir and the Swansea District Male Choir. 

A career that might have rivalled that of Bryn Terfel had been cut short.

(With thanks to Bob Rees)

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