John Clark, better known as Signor Brocolini (September 26, 1841 – June 7, 1906), was an Irish-born American operatic singer and actor remembered for creating the role of the Pirate King in the original New York City production of The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, in 1879-80. First a journalist, then a baseball player, Brocolini began his singing career in the 1870s and performed into the 1890s, taking his stage name from the borough of Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up, and Italianizing it.
Life and career
The son of native Scots John and Lillian Clark, Brocolini was born John Clark in County Cork, Ireland. Fleeing the Great Potato Famine, the family moved to settle in Brooklyn, New York, about 1853. Young Brocolini became an avid baseball fan and player. By his teens, he was also learning the printing trade from his father.
Journalism, baseball and singing beginnings
He began his career working for newspapers, soon becoming a reporter in Brooklyn. In the spring of 1865, immediately after the American Civil War, Brocolini moved to Detroit, Michigan. He began there as a proofreader for the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune and, at the same time, played first base for the newly revived Detroit Base Ball Club. In July 1865, he married Lizzie Fox, the daughter of a blacksmith. The couple had a son, Kingsley. The Advertiser and Tribune reported closely on baseball, and Brocolini eventually began to write editorials. He also became club director of the Detroit team. Brocolini helped his team to become the dominant club in Michigan and the region.
In 1868, Brocolini returned to Brooklyn and continued his journalism career, writing editorials for the Brooklyn Eagle by 1875. He also began to sing in concerts. He appeared as bass soloist at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in December 1868, and soon thereafter at various churches and other venues. On February 1, 1872, still under the name John Clark, Brocolini sang in a concert, at the Church of the Messiah in Brooklyn, held to dedicate a new organ. By 1872, he was leading the newly formed Brooklyn Operatic Association and performed in The Pearl of Baghdad, an opera by John M. Loretz. Through the early 1870s, he became increasingly well known as a singer in New York City. Finally, in 1875, his friends at the newspaper decided to raise money to send him to study singing in Milan, Italy. Brocolini wrote, "The complete change in my life was effected in less than three hours.... They put in what money they could themselves, called on my wealthy friends in Brooklyn for subscriptions, and in less than three hours they raised $5500 for me."
With a big sendoff from Brooklyn, including a banquet attended by Mayor John W. Hunter, among others, Brocolini sailed for Milan and soon decided to adopt his new stage name to honor the borough in which he grew up. In Italy, he studied voice with Signor San Giovanni, and by the next spring (1876), he had been engaged to sing at Her Majesty's Theatre in London.
Brocolini was the only American up to that time, other than Adelina Patti, to start an operatic career in London. Mentored by Sir Michael Costa and James Henry Mapleson, he sang principal bass roles at Her Majesty's and toured with Thérèse Tietjens in 1876. For the next several years, Brocolini sang opera at Her Majesty's, the Royal Opera House and on tour, and in oratorios throughout Britain.
Brocolini joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in October 1879 in Liverpool, England, playing Dick Deadeye in H.M.S. Pinafore with one of Carte's touring companies. In November, he traveled to New York to appear as Captain Corcoran in the first authorized American production of Pinafore at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, which premiered on December 1, 1879. He then created the role of the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance on December 31, 1879 at the same theatre, earning a good notice from The New York Times. He continued to play the Pirate King in New York and on tour through June 1880. After Carte's production closed, Brocolini played the Pirate King in a non-D'Oyly Carte production, including in Boston the last two weeks of July.
Brocolini rejoined D'Oyly Carte and E. E. Rice in a tour of Billee Taylor in April 1881, playing Christopher Crab. The tour continued into the summer of 1881, later under the auspices of the Rice-Goodwin Lyric Comedy Company. In non-D'Oyly Carte companies, Brocolini played in Pinafore and Patience at Haverley's Theatre, Brooklyn, in February 1882, and then toured as the Pirate King, Christopher Crab, and Captain Corcoran with the Boston Comic Opera Company. At the Fifth Avenue Theatre in October 1882, he again played Christopher Crab in Billee Taylor. From late 1882 to the spring of 1883, he appeared with Collier's Standard Opera Company in the role of Strephon in Iolanthe, the first work produced at the Boston Bijou Theatre. With Collier's at the Bijou, he next appeared in Pounce & Co., and then in The Sorcerer, as Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre.
In early 1884, Brocolini played King Hildebrand in New York's first production of Princess Ida, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, produced by E. E. Rice. He next traveled to Australia, where he appeared with the Williamson, Garner and Musgrove Royal Comic Opera Company beginning in April 1885 in Melbourne with La Petite Mademoiselle by Charles Lecocq. He reprised the role of Strephon in Iolanthe in Melbourne and Sydney until June 1885. In October 1885 he appeared in "Stradella" at the Bijou Theatre in Boston.
He returned to America to tour as Pooh-Bah in The Mikado from November 1885 through May 1886. In late 1886, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, he reprised the roles of Pooh Bah and King Hildebrand. In early 1887, he toured in New England, with producer John Stetson, playing the roles of Colonel Calverley in Patience, King Hildebrand in Princess Ida, and Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore. He also formed his own company to produce Pirates in Boston in the summer of 1887. By this time, Brocolini had begun to suffer from acute rheumatism, which forced him to reduce his performing schedule over the next few years.
Brocolini continued to sing in comic operas into the 1890s. He performed his usual roles in revivals of Ruddigore and The Mikado in 1888 with the Stetson Opera Company. He also played the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers in 1890 in Brooklyn, and appeared in Patience in 1892 with the Brooklyn Amateur Operetta Company. After that, his worsening rheumatism forced Brocolini to retire from opera, although he continued to sing concerts. In 1890, Brocolini had returned to Brooklyn, where he became the music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle. Beginning in 1894, he trained and conducted choirs in Brooklyn, founding The Brocolini Choir. He also wrote articles on music and composed a number of musical works, including the cantata, The Triumph of the Cross, other church music and some operettas.
- At the time, Brooklyn was still an independent city, only later becoming part of New York City.
- Morris (2007), p. 47
- Morris (2007), p. 49
- NY Times obituary dated June 9, 1906
- Morris (2007), p. 61
- Morris (2007), p. 51
- Morris (2007), p. 52
- Morris (2007), p. 53
- Morris (2007), p. 54
- Stone, David. "Signor Brocolini" (Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte site)
- Morris (2007), p. 55
- The Musical World, December 15, 1877, p. 453
- Morris (2007), p. 56
- The Musical World, April 27, 1878, pp. 87, 109, 285, 316, 363, 388, 408, 573, 731, and 838
- Morris (2007), p. 57
- Morris (2007), p. 58
- Morris (2007), p. 59
- Folio, p. 290 (1882, White, Smith & Perry)
- NY Times notice for Princess Ida, February 10, 1884
- Moratti, Mel. Information from the Australian Theatre in Melbourne site
- Morris (2007), p. 60
- Morris (2007), p. 62
- Signor Brocolini at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte
- Morris, Peter. "From First Baseman to Primo Basso: The Odd Saga of the Original Pirate King (Tra La!). Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture. Edmonton: Spring 2007. Vol. 15, Iss. 2, pp. 46–65, 169
- Morris, Peter (2008). But Didn’t We Have Fun: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870. Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 1-56663-748-1
- NY Times obituary