Kitty Stephens
 

Kitty Stephens, later Countess of Essex

a miniature in the possession of the family.

Her entry in the 1980 edition of Grove's Music & Musicians

Stephens, Catherine (b London, 18 Sept 1794; d London, 22 Feb 1882). English soprano and actress, daughter of Edward Stephens, carver and gilder, of Grosvenor Square.

In 1807 she began to study singing with Gesualdo Lanza. Under his care she appeared in various provincial towns, and after 1822 took small parts with an Italian opera company at the Pantheon in London. Later that year she studied with Thomas Welsh. On 23 September 1813 she made a successful debut at Covent Garden as Mandane in Arne's Artaxerxes, following it with appearances as Polly in The Beggar's Opera, as Rosetta in Love in a Village and as Clara in The Duenna. She remained at Covent Garden until 1822, when she went to Drury Lane, returning to Covent Garden in 1828.

Catherine Stephens never mastered Italian. It was as an exponent of 'English style on Italian rudiments' that she made her name as one of the most popular artists of the day, in concerts and oratorio as well as in the theatre, in provincial cities as well as in London. She appeared in ballad operas, in new operas and dramatic entertainments by Bishop and others, and in adaptations and arrangements of operaa from abroad which, by 20th-century standards, are extraordinary. She sang Susanna in the first perforance in English of Le nozze di Figaro (Covent Garden, 1819), and had previously sung Zerlina in The Libertine, an afterpiece based on Shadwell's play, with Mozart's music, which is counted as the first performance in English of Don Giovanni (Covent Garden, 1817). On the same evening she played Ophelia in Hamlet on the occasion of John Philip Kemble's last appearance in the role (in 1814 she had been hissed for introducing Purcell's Mad Bess into this play). Stephens was one of three sopranos who sang Agnes (Agathe) in Hawes's English adaptation of Der Freischütz (English Opera House, 1824). When he was in London in 1826, Weber wrote for her the song 'From Chindara's warbling fount I come,' his last composition.1 She retired in 1835 and on 19 April 1838 she married the recently-widowed Earl of Essex in his London house in Belqrave Square. He died the next year at the age of 81. She lived in the same house until her death.

Contemporary writers agreed on the sweetness of her voice, which was rich if not outstandingly brilliant. Hazlitt, who placed her with Kean as one of 'the only theatrical favourites I ever had' , compared her 'simple, artless manner' with Braham's elaborate artifice. Leigh Hunt praised her 'exquisite vein of gentle pathos.' Her acting may have been no more than charm of personality, yet her colleague Macready, not an easy man to please, described her in his Reminiscences as 'the favourite of all', and commented on the 'correctness of judgment that never deserted her'. [Ronald Crichton]

Hazlitt loses his heart

For my birthday in 2006 Sefa gave me an old copy of William Hazlitt's Table Talk. Here is a passage about Kitty Stephens. The picture shows Kitty as Susanna in La Nozze di Figaro in 1830.

When I formerly had to do with these sort of critical verdicts, I was generally sent out of the way when any debutant had a friend at court, and was to be tenderly handled. t'or the rest, or those of robust constitutions, I had carte blanche given me. Sometimes I ran out of the course, to be sure. Poor Perry! [presumably his editor] what bitter complaints he used to make, that by running-a-muck at lords and Scotchmen I should not leave him a place to dine out at! The expression of his face at these moments, as if he should shortly be without a friend in the world, was truly pitiable. What squabbles we used to have about Kean and Miss Stephens, the only theatrical favourites I ever had Mrs Billington had got some notion that Miss Stephens would never make a singer, and it was the torment of Perry's life (as he told me in confidence) that he could not get any two people to be of the same opinion on any one point. I shall not easily forget him bringing my account of her first appearance in the Beggar's Opera. I have reason to remember that article. it was almost the last I ever wrote with any pleasure to myself. I had been down on a visit to my friends near Chertsey, and on my return had stopped at an inn near Kingston-upon-'I'hames, where I had got the Beggar's Opera and had read it over-night. The next day I walked cheerfully to town.[!!] It was a fine sunny morning, in the end of autumn, and as I repeated the beautiful song, ‘Life knows no return of Spring,' I meditated my next day's criticism, trying to do all the justice I could to so inviting a subject. I was not a little proud of it by anticipation. I had just then begun to stammer out my sentiments on paper, and was in a kind of honeymoon of authorship. But soon after, my final hopes of happiness and of human liberty were, blighted nearly at the same time; and since then I have had no pleasure in anything.

And Love himself can flatter me no more.

It was not so ten years since (ten short years since - Ah! how fast those years run that hurry us away from our last fond dream of bliss!) when I loitered along thy green retreats, O Twickenham I and conned over (with enthusiastic delight) the chequered view which one of thy favourites drew of human life! I deposited my account of the play at the Morning Chronicle office in the afternoon, and went to see Miss Stephens as Polly. Those were happy times, in which she first came out in this character, in Mandane, where she sang the delicious air, 'If o'er the cruel tyrant, Love' (so as it can never be sung again), in Love in a Village, where the scene opened with her and Miss Matthews in a painted garden of roses and honeysuckles, and 'Hope, thou nurse of young Desire' thrilled from two sweet voices in turn. Oh I may my ears sometimes still drink the same sweet sounds, embalmed with the spirit of youth, of health, and joy, but in the thoughts of an instant, but in a dream of fancy, and I shall hardly need to complain! When I got back, after the play, Perry called out, with his cordial, grating voice, 'Well, how did she do ?' and on my speaking in high terms, answered, that ‘he had been to dine with his friend the Duke, that some conversation had passed on the subject, he was afraid it was not the thing, it was not thea true sostenuto style; but as I had written the article' (holding my peroration on The Beggar’s Opera carelessly in his hand), 'it might pass.’ I could perceive that the rogue licked his lips at it, and had already in imagination bought golden opinions of all sorts of people, by this very criticism, and I had the satisfaction the next day to meet Miss Stephens oaming out of the editor's room, who had been to thank him for his very flattering account of her.

Portrait

1822 portrait of CS John Jackson (1778-1831) Oil 768x642mm

WC Macready: ‘Criticism disarmed before her, and memory seems to take plesure in lingering over her name, in recalling that fascinating power which she, with apparent unconsciousness, exercised over her audience.’ She made her debut at Covent Garden in 1813 as Mandane in Thomas Artaxerxes. She was the principal musical attraction of the theatre until 1822 when this picture was painted and exhibted at the Royal Academy as Portrait of Miss Stephens at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. The artist probably intended that Miss Stephens should appear to be singing one of the ballads for which he was particularly well-known. The music she is holding is inscribed Miss Stephens but with no indication of what it might be. The portrait remained in the possession the artist until his death and was first engraved by W Sharp in 1832 for the Musical Gem,

Footnote. As Countess of Essex, Kitty used her patronage extensively for musical purposes. She was one of the sponsors of Weber's final visit to London, and on the very afternoon of his death had rehearsed his setting of Lalla Rookh, which she was due to sing with him at a concert.


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