Wednesday, September 20, 2017

My Love Affair with Opera – Where It All Began

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I am passionate about opera.  I met my husband in 1976 and took him to his first opera on our second date – a bit of a risk, I know, but he was curious and I was only too happy to satisfy his curiosity.  To my way of thinking, the only thing riskier would be to risk spending the rest of my life with someone who did not share that passion or, worse still, belittled it.  We have been sharing that passion for 41 years. 

Tenors Are Just Such Show-Offs!!

Opera has always been a major part of and influence on my life since my earliest recollections.  But, where did it all begin for me?  I get asked that question a lot, and I usually just say, “It’s in my DNA.”  But the truth is, there is a story behind that casual response, and it’s the story of my family. 

I am told that I attended my first performance of La Traviata in utero in Toulon, France.  But to really understand the beginning of my family’s great love affair with opera, we have to cross la Manche (the channel) to London, England, to Mme Mère’s mother’s side of the family.   

Interior of the Opera House, c. 1808. (It was destroyed by fire in 1867) Drawing by Auguste Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann's Microcosm of London
We need to make a brief stop in the early 19th Century.  As a small boy, my grandmother’s father, Edward (Teddy) Lumley, spent as many evenings as possible at Her Majesty’s Opera House in the Haymarket.  In those pre-Covent Garden Royal Opera days, this was the reigning opera house in London, and the Impresario (General Manager) was none other than Edward’s favorite uncle, Benjamin Lumley – the “Majesty” in question being Queen Victoria, a true opera lover, who spent many a wonderful evening with family and attendants in her Royal Box. 

Drawing of the Royal Box
Into that Royal Box young Edward would regularly ensconce himself on evenings when the Queen was not expected.  As luck would have it, however, one night, just before curtain, Edward heard a flurry of activity behind him and turned to find himself face to face with the Queen.  Springing to his feet and bowing as deeply as his quivering knees would allow, he mumbled “Your Majesty” and backed out as gracefully as he could, only daring to look up again when he heard the click of the doors of the box.  According to my grandmother, even in his eighties her father still delighted in telling that story to anyone who would listen. 

Portrait of Benjamin Lumley, Her Majesty's Theatre Manager, by Count d'Orsay. From Lumley's memoirs (1864)
Edward’s favorite Uncle Benjamin (né Levy – The family name was changed somewhere along the line.) appears to have been the most interesting and enterprising of all the Lumley brothers.  Young Benjamin became a solicitor before turning his talents to the theater. 

Three of his major accomplishments as Impresario have assured his place in theatrical history.

Portrait of Soprano Jenny Lind by Eduard Magnus, 1862

1)   He introduced the famous “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, to the opera audiences of Europe. 

2)   He commissioned the opera I Masnadieri from composer Giuseppe Verdi.  No serious book about this great composer is complete without citing passages from the voluminous correspondence that passed between the two men. 

3)   He successfully sued a soprano for breach of contract in the precedent-setting case Lumley v Wagner, which every student of law in England and the United States studies to this day.  No doubt his early training as a solicitor came in quite handy here. 

Towards the end of his life, he published his memoirs, a signed copy of which sits on my bookshelf.  He may have been a man of the theater, but the book is written in the dry, matter-of-fact style of a legal brief.  Except for his correspondence with Verdi, it’s pretty dull going. 

Portrait of Maurice Lumley, my Great-Great-Grandfather, Painted by C. Soffler (1867)
This portrait hangs in my living room
Edward’s father, Maurice Lumley, also one of the more enterprising Lumley brothers, became a successful businessman whose interests eventually took him to New York City,

Portrait of Isabella Johnson Lumley, my Great-Grandmother, circa 1865 (artist unknown)
This portrait hangs in my bedroom.
Where, following a proper Oxford education, Edward returned to marry his American cousin, Isabella Johnson, herself an amateur opera singer and accomplished pianist.  Together they shared their love of opera with their children, several of whom had successful careers in the theater. 

Marie Anastasia Lumley, my Grandmother

My grandmother, Marie Anastasia, found her niche in the popular, light operas of the day, such as those by Victor Herbert.  Every generation since then has been connected in some way to the world of theater and opera, the ultimate theater experience in my humble opinion. 

Edward (Teddy) Lumley, my Great-Grandfather

And so, you see, for me it all began with a small boy sitting alone in a box in a darkened theater losing himself in grand passions set to the world’s most beautiful music.  What greater legacy could that little boy have left me than the gift of his passion? 


  1. Dear M-T, Thank you for sharing the enchanting history lesson, and your passion, with us. A lovely read! Suzie Kirby

    1. Dearest Suzie,

      I think about you often and wonder how you are. What a delight to hear from you. I'm so glad you enjoyed my sharing a bit of my family with you and what they have meant to me and the influence they have had on my life.

      Warmest regards,

  2. What a wonderful background. It is in your blood!
    I think opera is the most perfect entertainment. The stunning music, the glorious voices, the passion and drama. A night at the opera is my idea of a wonderful night out.

    I had great pleasure over a number of years in singing Opera choruses in a mass choir. From the majestic Aida Triumphal march, to the gentle sweet humming chorus from Butterfly and all the delights in between.

    Now we take even greater pleasure from sponsoring and supporting emerging young voices with the Australian Music Events' Opera Scholars program. On Sunday, We will be hearing 9 scholars competing to become one of the 3 finalists. Teddy Tahu Rhodes will be singing and adjudicating.

    1. Melissa, if it weren't for people like you who nurture these young singers through your support, I might worry about the future of opera, given the crass and crude culture that dominates today's society, but as long as there are people like you, this most perfect of art forms will continue to thrive.

      Isn't it interesting to reflect that opera was once part of popular culture in Europe, especially in Italy. Where have we gone wrong??

      Let me know how Sunday's Scholars Program concert goes and what you think of the finalists. Very much value your opinion.

      Cheers, M-T

  3. Bonjour Marie-Theresee - I am a Ballet lover so Opera comes a close second. I am intrigued by your family name of Lumley ! Could you be related, in some way to Enlgand's Joanna Lumley of Ab Fab and documentary fame ? It would be fun to find out.
    Bizzz to you from Paris,

    1. Chère Anne, as you know, I also love the ballet, as did my French father. Although I studied voice, I was the only one in my family to think about a career as a dancer.

      I do believe we did find out at one point that we are related to Joanna Lumley, but I don't remember how exactly. I should probably look into that again.

      Bises to you, too.


  4. Dear M-T, What a heart warming encounter with your family! - I grew up in Germany and Operas and Operettas were part of my upbringing - Attending it live or on the radio...
    Didn't respond to your writing last month - Was just so SAD to hear how much the Bayreuth Festspiele have changed :(
    We fared well during the grateful!
    Greeting from FL ~ Rose

    1. Dear Rosie, I'm sure you have already mentioned it, but I had forgotten that you grew up in Germany. Nobody does operetta better than the Germans.

      I know what you mean about feeling so sad at the way things have devolved in the opera world. Bayreuth is just one of the more egregious examples. All in all, Dan and I were still thrilled with the experience, and delighted with the German people. They could not have been nicer. The French could learn a thing or two from the Germans about how to treat tourists, not to mention the fact that the German proficiency in English amazed us both.

      I thought about you during the hurricane and am so glad you are all fine. What a relief.

      As always, a delight to hear from you.

      Cheers, M-T

  5. The following comment was sent to me by my dear friend Anna and posted with her permission:

    "What an interesting family you were fortunate to belong to. And have the pictures and memoirs to remember.

    I went to my first opera, don't even remember, must have been about four. It was Carmen. The mezzo was my mother's friend. My parents took me to as many concerts and operas as they could after that. My husband also did not know anything about opera but he did like classical music. His first opera with me was Arabella at the Met. And he was hooked."

    1. Yes it was a very interesting family. You should see the things I left out? Wow!

      I would guess that the Arabella he saw at the Met was probably the magnificent Kiri Te Kanawa. She was the reigning Straussian soprano for many years. I miss that voice and that beautiful face and form. She was exquisite.

      As you know, we named our Miss Kiri Kat after her -- also a beauty and quite vocal.

      Cheers, M-T

    2. Oh how spectacular to know the history of your great(s) grandparents, as well as, to have paintings and writings by them. Many people are not so fortunate because the records were lost, or they were too poor to have records and paintings. As someone who appreciates history, I love it! Thanks for sharing!!

      I don't follow the opera like I do ballet, so I will use ballet as an example to say, I know of a few women who go to the ballet with a friend, not their husbands, which doesn't seem to harm the marriage, as long as both spouses don't mind it. A good friend of mine has a husband who plays tennis and handball once a mounth with a buddy because they're not an interests of his wife, my friend. She once told me she was glad he had someone else to play with. I remember when they dated, she was a very good sport and went out on the court, without a pretense of enthusiasm. I'm sure you and your husband would have accepted each other's difference interests, but thankfully, you both love opera! Great when interests are shared!

  6. Dear Debra, I knew you would be particularly interested in the little story about Great-Grandfather Teddy and Queen Victoria.

    I do agree w/your friend that husbands and wives should have separate interests. Dan is an avid golfer, and I have absolutely no interest in it, but it gives him great pleasure. We belong to a lovely country club where he plays and I enjoy the 19th hole (Club House and bar) w/my girlfriends.

    But, although he loves playing and watching golf, there is no question that his greatest passion (after me) is the opera, which we share -- a good thing, because it's a very expensive "hobby."

    Always enjoy your comments so much. Thanks for stopping by.

    Cheers, M-T

  7. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    What a delightful story about your genetic passion for Opera! You can be so very proud of this, even if Benjamin Lumley's writing skills stood in the shadow of yours!
    Growing up as a little gril in the 50s, I always admired my Dad's Operette books... He has been always dreaming about going to the conservatory of music. Being a 1st tenor since age 17, first in the Church choir and later in the big Men's choir, he got to sing many a solo at weddings and other events. My Dad is now for 79 years a singer and an honorary member still of the big choir, even though is no longer active but sings with an elderly choir.
    Mom was a 1st soprano and for a bit over a year now I'm a 1st soprano in a ladies choir. Lots of fun and we do steps and perform for special events.
    So that's my entire music history and for my Dad, sure WWII put a big dent into his dreams. Personally I've always preferred an Operetta over Opera but we sure did enjoy the tour of the Operahouse in Vienna, in September of 1996.
    My Pieter has been an Operette singer in his younger years. He very fondly still speaks about those days.
    Sad that at that time there hardly were photos, let alone videos from that era, for listening once more...
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful story!

    1. Mme Mère sang in her church choir into her 80s, as well. She had a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice.

      I love operettas, too. The war had a great effect on many singers' careers. Mme Mère put her career on hold to work for the government as a translator, but she did sing for "the boys" as a Canteen Girl at the social gatherings for the GIs. She had fond memories of that. Met her best friend for life as a Canteen Girl and later my father.

      So glad you enjoyed the story of my family. As I've already said, you should see what I left out!! Even more interesting.

      Big hugs, ma chère amie,


  8. Hi I am so happy I found your site, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Aol for
    something else, Regardless I am here now and would just
    like to say thanks a lot for a marvelous post and
    a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t
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    1. So glad you found me. Please stop by again.

      Cheers, M-T


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