Stephen Storace (17621796)



  • Composer
  • Performer

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
February 2023

Storace was the son of the Italian double bass player and composer Stefano Storace (c.1725–c.1781) who emigrated from Italy to Britain in 1747. He subsequently travelled on to Dublin before settling finally in London in the 1750s. There, the elder Storace found employment as a double bass player at the King’s Theatre and, during the summer months, at the Marylebone Gardens where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Trusler. She was the daughter of John Trussler who managed the gardens from 1746 to 1763. Two musical children were born to the couple: Stephen John Seymour and Anna Selina (known as Nancy, 1765–1816). The son learned the rudiments of music and the violin from his father, while the sister established herself at an early age as a singer, appearing at the King’s Theatre in Rauzzini’s Le ali d’Amore in 1776. Stephen was sent to Naples to study at the Sant’Onofrio conservatory c.1776. It was reported that he neglected his studies and was more interested in the visual arts. Nancy went to Naples in 1778 where she completed her vocal training. Nancy’s progress was rapid and the pair was performing in Florence during the autumn of 1779–she singing leading roles in operas and he playing harpsichord at the opera house. Their careers were intertwined for the remainder of Stephen’s short life.

In the early 1780s, Stephen Storace returned to Britain where he composed chamber music and songs. He appears to have briefly lost interest in music and set himself up in Bath as an artist, unsuccessfully. In 1784, Stephen travelled to Vienna where Nancy had established herself as an operatic singer and was a favourite of the emperor. She was acquainted with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) and eventually sang the role of Susanna in the premiere of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in 1786. Likely through the influence of his sister, Stephen received commissions to compose two Italian buffa operas: Gli sposi malcontenti (1785) and Gli equivoci (1786). The Irish tenor Michael Kelly (1762–1826) writes that Gli equivoci “became the rage, and well it might, for the music of Storace was beyond description beautiful” (Reminiscences, ed. Roger Fiske, 1975).[1] Although there is no proof to support the oft-repeated tale that Stephen Storace studied composition with Mozart, the influence of Mozart’s style is evident in Storace’s music.

The Storace siblings returned to London in 1787 with Kelly and Thomas Attwood (1765–1838) in tow. Attwood’s study with Mozart, more readily confirmed than the rumoured studies by Stephen Storace, had come to an end. Work was now available for the Storaces at the King’s Theatre where they performed in Paisiello’s Gli schiavi per amore. He was named the director of the opera, while she enjoyed the greatest success in the role of Gelinda. The Times July 2, 1787) recorded that Nancy was “obliged to sing her airy cavatina thrice. She never was led with greater success or more general approbation.” Thereafter, Nancy sang in various theatres in London, was a frequent soloist in the concerts in Bath organized by Venanzio Rauzzini (1746–1810) and, after 1796, performed frequently with her romantic partner, the celebrated tenor John Braham (c.1774–1856). Stephen composed the Italian buffa opera La cameriera astuta for the King’s Theatre in 1788. This was not well received and, for the remainder of his life, he composed for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He did however direct operas for the displaced Italian opera company during the 1792–93 and 1793–94 seasons after fire destroyed the King’s Theatre. He was joined by Michael Kelly as co-director.

By the beginning of the 1788–9 season, Storace had effectively taken over from Thomas Linley, the elder (1733–95), as the house composer at Drury Lane. Storace never held the title officially, because Linley, as a co-owner of the theatre, retained it until his death. It was Storace’s compositions, however, that contributed to the theatre’s success for the next eight years. His first full-length English opera was The Haunted Tower (November 24, 1789). Nancy Storace was a member of the cast and the opera proved to be a runaway success. As Roger Fiske notes, “there were eighty-four performances in the first two seasons, and for half a century it was sung all over Britain and in the States” (English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century, 1986). The complex libretto by James Cobb (1756–1818) was based on a French original, but altered to the shores of Kent in the period of William the Conqueror. The plot allowed for many of the characters to appear in disguises and for a maid to assume a position of high birth while a true lady adopts the character of her maid. The similarities to the scene in Le nozze di Figaro when Susanna pretends to be her mistress would have been immediately evident to Nancy Storace who sang the role of the maid Adela in her brother’s opera. There were also many scenic delights, including the roasting of an ox on stage, and the gothic horror of the haunted tower introduced in the last act.

It is possible that Storace convinced Cobb to begin the opera on the stormy coast of Kent so that he could make use of a revised version of his Viennese overture to Gli equivoci which contains music descriptive of a storm. Storace wanted his overture to set the stage dramatically for what was to follow, rather than being just a curtain-raiser. He achieved this by having the opening chorus being connected to the overture, rather in the manner of what Gluck achieved with his Iphigénie en Tauride (1779). Storace could not have known of the Gluck opera, but he would have been aware of Gluck’s views on the appropriate role for an operatic overture from his time in Vienna. Typical of the English operas of the period, the score of The Haunted Tower makes use of some music by other composers, including an aria by Sarti and Richard Leveridge’s famous song “The Roast Beef of Old England.” Still, the overall planning of the score reflects Storace’s skill and imagination. The Argus (November 26, 1789) wrote that the “brilliancy and spirit of the first Act, may be said to inebriate the musical soul.” The success of The Haunted Tower cemented Stephen Storace’s position as a pre-eminent theatre composer, and encouraged the theatre to present more works with dramatic storylines tinged with gothic elements. These played to Storace’s ability to integrate music and drama, in contrast to the earlier traditions of English opera where the music was essentially decorative.

Between 1788 and 1796, Storace composed music for sixteen libretti: six mainpieces, nine afterpieces and one prelude. The titles of some of the mainpieces—The Siege of Belgrade (1791), The Pirates (1792), and The Iron Chest (1796)—reveal the growing interest in libretti depicting high drama. These stories resonated with contemporary politics, and appealed to audiences, thus setting Storace’s operas apart from those of William Shield (1749–1829) at the rival Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The Pirates proved to be almost as popular as The Haunted Tower. As Roger Fiske notes, the libretto was attributed to Cobb, but “must have been largely devised by Storace, as it is laid in and around Naples and shows many signs of local knowledge” (English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century, 1986). The plot shares some similarities with Mozart’s Die Entfűhrung aus dem Serail, with its contrasted pairs of lovers caught up in a foreign land. Nancy Storace was given the chance to portray another servant character who helps resolve the plot situations. The audience on opening was enchanted by the visual effects and the quality of the music.

Storace may have been pressed for time when he composed the score because of his commitments at the King’s Theatre that season. Several of the set pieces were taken from his earlier Gli equivoci and altered as necessary to accommodate the new English text. The opera was once again a pastiche, but critics praised Storace’s taste in his selection of borrowed music.

In point of musick and scenery the Pirates will prove an all-powerful force. Storace, in the Overture, and several of the Airs, has excelled his former most favourite compositions. The Overture, which was encored, has an uncommon share of variety and sublimity in it, and some of the Airs are beautiful in the extreme. The selections from Anfossi, Bianchi, and Guglielmi, were made with taste. The Scotch Airs, sung by Mrs. Crouch, in the third Act, was exquisitely charming, and Storace’s finales to the first and second Acts were most masterly compositions. (Diary or Woodfall’s Register, November 22, 1792)

The critic draws attention to the action finales in which the plot is forwarded as much by the music as the text. Storace had likely learned this technique in Vienna through his association with Mozart. Furthermore, Storace had a mastery over a variety of musical styles, from simple ballads to elaborate arias and complex ensembles. Luckily, some of his music has been recorded. A concert version of Gli equivoci was broadcast by the BBC on December 10, 1977, with Steuart Bedford conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and a cast of singers performing in an English translation. This is available on YouTube and allows the listener to hear the power of Storace’s music. An example of his success in the ballad tradition is the song “Lamentation of Marie Antoinette,” likely composed after the execution of the French queen in 1793.[2]

Storace became unwell in March 1796 and died shortly after the premiere of The Iron Chest. His final opera, Mahmoud, was left incomplete and his sister, and possible Michael Kelly, completed the score to make it stage worthy. Had Storace lived longer, he might have exerted a powerful influence over the development of English opera. As Jane Girdham writes, “as an individual, Storace tried to elevate the state of English opera. That he did not succeed is a fact of history. Nevertheless, in his attempts to achieve new heights of dramatic opera in England, Storace gave us some exciting and attractive music” (English Opera in late Eighteenth-Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane, 1997).

[1] Dictated to Theodore Hook when Kelly was in his old age and possibly unsure of memory, the veracity of these memoirs cannot always be trusted.

[2] Centaur CRC 3073. Sung by Caroline Schiller, soprano, with Capella Savaria, conducted by Mary Térey-Smith. The orchestration was made by the conductor from the original keyboard score.