Alice Barnett

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as Lady Jane in Patience

Alice Barnett (17 May 1846 – 14 April 1901) was an English singer and actress, best known for her performances in contralto roles of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Barnett began her career by 1873 in oratorio and other concert work. Using her imposing physical stature to her advantage, she originated several of the early Gilbert and Sullivan "formidable middle-aged ladies", namely Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Lady Jane in Patience (1881) and the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe (1882). She then performed in various comic operas in Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand until 1889, earning strong critical praise. After this, she toured in several of the Gaiety burlesques before creating the role of Dame Hecla Cortlandt in W. S. Gilbert and Osmond Carr's His Excellency in 1894. From 1895, she played in Edwardian musical comedy, pantomime and non-musical plays until 1900.

Life and career[edit]

Early years[edit]

Barnett was born in London, the daughter of Charles Barnett and Fanny Kemble.[1] She was the second of three children. Her elder brother Harry Kemble Barnett (d. 1914) became a stage manager.[2] Among her theatrical antecedents were her great aunt, Sarah Siddons[3] and her great-great uncles John Philip Kemble and Charles Kemble.[2] She trained as a concert singer under Natalia Macfarren, the wife of George Alexander Macfarren, and made many appearances as a contralto soloist around Britain.[3] She sang in oratorios such as Mendelssohn's Elijah,[4] Rossini's Stabat Mater,[5] and Handel's Messiah,[6] as well as concerts of ballads and other lighter repertoire.[7]

D'Oyly Carte years[edit]

In April 1879, Barnett joined Richard D'Oyly Carte's touring Comedy Opera Company as Little Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore.[8] She immediately attracted good notices. The theatrical paper The Era wrote, "The Little Buttercup of Miss Alice Barnett comes in for the lion's share of approbation."[9] During her first tour, she was joined by another rising performer in the company, W. S. Penley, playing Sir Joseph Porter.[10]

Barnett travelled with W. S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan and Carte to New York City for the company's production there of Pinafore, beginning 1 December 1879. She then created the role of Ruth in Gilbert and Sullivan's new opera, The Pirates of Penzance, on 31 December 1879.[11] Of her Buttercup, The New York Mercury wrote, "Miss Alice Barnett, an enormous female, was well made up as Buttercup, but is far behind her predecessors here either as an actress or a vocalist."[12] She played Ruth throughout the New York run and American tour and continued to play the role at the Opera Comique when the company returned to London in July 1880.[13]

as The Fairy Queen in Iolanthe

Barnett created the next two Gilbert and Sullivan contralto roles, Lady Jane in Patience in 1881 and the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe in 1882.[14] Gilbert wrote these formidable characters with Barnett's imposing physical presence in mind, including such self-referential lines for Jane as "not pretty, massive!"[15] and for the Fairy Queen as: "I see no objection to stoutness, in moderation!"[16] The critic Louis Engel described her as "the successful violoncello-player of Patience, who measures 5 feet 10½ inches, and is most proportionately built."[17] The review of Iolanthe in The London Figaro said that Barnett, "a fairy queen of Brobdingnagian proportions, who 'nestles in a nutshell and gambols on gossamer,' invested her part with all the broad humour necessary without overdoing it."[18] The Times called her "the unsurpassable Alice Barnett".[19] In 1883, during the run of Iolanthe, she became ill and was replaced by her understudy, Rosina Brandram, as the principal contralto at the Savoy.[15] When Barnett regained her health, however, Brandram continued with the Savoy cast. Barnett, instead, played the contralto roles in D'Oyly Carte touring companies in 1884, before leaving the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the end of that year.[20]

Peripatetic performer[edit]

Barnett appeared with Lillian Russell in Pocahontas, by Sydney Grundy and Edward Solomon, at the Empire Theatre in London before travelling to America with Russell in 1885.[15] In New York, and on tour, she performed in Solomon's shows Billee Taylor, Claude Duval and Polly.[21] She then moved to Australia, where she spent three years, from 1885 to 1888, playing the Gilbert and Sullivan contralto roles (Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, Buttercup, Ruth, Jane, the Fairy Queen, Lady Blanche in Princess Ida and Katisha in The Mikado) with J. C. Williamson's opera company.[22] London's The Era noted, "Reports received lately from Australia are so full of the praises of Miss Alice Barnett in her Gilbert and Sullivan impersonations that her appearance … promises to be one of the events of the season."[23] She also appeared as Mrs. Privett in Alfred Cellier's Dorothy (with Leonora Braham in the title role),[24] Eliza Dabsey in Billee Taylor,[25] and the Princesse de Gramponeur in Erminie.[26] In 1887, she toured New Zealand with Williamson's Gilbert and Sullivan company and won praise for teaching at the various towns visited by the company.[27]

In October 1888, Barnett returned to London.[28] She appeared as Mrs Shelton in Cellier's Doris at the Lyric Theatre,[29] which was succeeded at the same theatre by The Red Hussar by Henry Pottinger Stephens and Edward Solomon. Barnett was announced beforehand as a cast member for the new piece,[30] but she did not appear. The following year, she toured the British provinces as Martha in Auguste van Biene's production of the Gaiety burlesque Faust up to Date,[31] in which The Era found her "inimitable".[32] This tour lasted for more than a year, taking in all four countries of the United Kingdom.[33] The company followed this with a production of Carmen up to Data, in which Barnett played Micaela.[34] She finally returned to London in 1894 to create another of Gilbert's formidable older women, Dame Hecla Cortlandt in Gilbert and Osmond Carr's His Excellency.[35] "Miss Alice Barnett, as the mighty Dame Hecla, fulfilled the promise of her name, bursting out into flame at the slightest provocation … excruciatingly funny."[36]

After a brief run at the Gaiety Theatre in The Shop Girl, in the summer of 1895,[37] Barnett again travelled to America, where she toured in His Excellency with George Edwardes's Lyric Company.[15] In 1896, she returned to England, touring in The Telephone Girl, by Augustus Harris, F. C. Burnand and Gaston Serpette,[38] after which she again went to America in November of that year for De Koven and Smith's The Mandarin.[15] Barnett's husband, John Thanet Dickens, died at their house in south London in August 1896.[39]

Last years[edit]

In 1897 Barnett toured Britain with The Telephone Girl.[40] Beginning in December 1897 she appeared in the Drury Lane pantomime, Babes in the Wood, with Dan Leno.[41] In 1898, Barnett played Becky Blisset in Billy by Adrian Ross and Osmond Carr, starring with Little Tich.[42] The production visited major provincial cities but did not come into the West End. Later in the same year, she appeared with Marie Studholme in Edwardes's production of A Greek Slave,[43] playing the part of Melanopis, in which she toured until May 1899.[44] She then appeared in a third successive touring production, a revival of The Telephone Girl.[45] Later in 1899, Barnett returned to the West End as Madame Rouge in Drink, at the Adelphi Theatre,[46] followed by a farce, Willie's Mrs, at the Strand Theatre. The Era described the play as "a crude and unexpert attempt at farcical comedy," but Barnett received excellent notices for her performance.[47]

Barnett died in London in 1901 of bronchial pneumonia following an operation.[15]


  1. ^ General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes, volume 2, p. 18
  2. ^ a b Parker, p. 1048
  3. ^ a b The Musical Times obituary, May 1901, p. 338
  4. ^ The Era, 27 April 1873, p. 7
  5. ^ The Northern Echo, 16 January 1874, p. 1
  6. ^ The York Herald, 20 December 1878, p. 6
  7. ^ See, for example, "Provincial Theatricals", The Era, 8 February 1874, p. 5; and "Mr. H. P. Matthews's Concert," The Era, 11 February 1877, p. 5
  8. ^ Rollins and Witts, p. 30
  9. ^ "Provincial Theatricals", The Era, 27 April 1879, p. 7
  10. ^ "Provincial Theatricals," The Era, 12 October 1879, p. 7; and The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 14 October 1879, p. 2
  11. ^ Rollins and Witts, p. 32
  12. ^ Quoted in "Public Amusements", Reynolds's Newspaper, 28 December 1879, p. 4. The paper was kinder about her Ruth in Pirates, writing, "Miss Alice Barnett is a grand prima donna."
  13. ^ Rollins and Witts, pp. 7 and 32
  14. ^ Rollins and Witts, p. 8
  15. ^ a b c d e f Stone, David. Alice Barnett at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte, accessed 14 June 2010
  16. ^ Iolanthe, Act I
  17. ^ Engel, Louis. "The Musical Week: Perola". The World, 25 October 1882
  18. ^ "Savoy Theatre". The London Figaro, 2 December 1882
  19. ^ The Times, 2 April 1883, p. 7
  20. ^ Rollins and Witts, p. 52
  21. ^ "The Drama in America", The Era, 16 May 1885, p. 7
  22. ^ "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 17 July 1886, p. 6; and Theatre Royal, Sydney programme booklet, April 1888
  23. ^ "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 12 December 1885, p. 8
  24. ^ "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 12 November 1887, p. 8; and 22 September 1888, p. 10
  25. ^ "The Stage in Australia", The Era, 26 March 1887, p. 13
  26. ^ "The Drama in Australia", The Era, 24 March 1888, p. 16
  27. ^ "Amusements in Australia", The Era, 3 September 1887, p. 7
  28. ^ The Era, 27 October 1888, p. 2
  29. ^ "Doris at the Lyric", The Era, 27 April 1889, p. 11
  30. ^ "Stage and Song", The Pall Mall Gazette, 22 October 1889, p. 1
  31. ^ "Theatrical Mems", The Bristol Mercury, 4 March 1890, p. 3
  32. ^ The Era, 14 June 1890, p. 14
  33. ^ The Era, 26 April 1890; 6 December 1890; and 31 October 1891
  34. ^ The Era, 26 March 1892, p. 19
  35. ^ "His Excellency," The Era, 3 November 1894
  36. ^ The Bury and Horwich Post, 5 March 1895, p. 7
  37. ^ "Advertisements and Notices", The Standard, 9 July 1895, p. 4
  38. ^ "The Telephone Girl", The Era, 30 May 1896, p. 11
  39. ^ The Era, 29 August 1896, p. 14.
  40. ^ "Provincial Theatricals", The Era, 23 October 1897, p. 22
  41. ^ "To-night's Entertainments", The Pall Mall Gazette, 8 December 1897, p. 1
  42. ^ "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 26 March 1898, p. 7.
  43. ^ "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 30 July 1898, p. 7
  44. ^ "Amusements In Blackpool", The Era, 27 May 1899, p. 22
  45. ^ The Era, 29 July 1899, p. 8
  46. ^ "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 23 December 1899, p. 12
  47. ^ "Willie's Mrs", The Era, 24 March 1900, p. 14


  • Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W H Allen. ISBN 0396066348. 
  • Parker, John (1925). Who's Who in the Theatre (Fifth ed.). London: Pitman. OCLC 468965019. 
  • Rollins, Cyril; R John Witts (1962). The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A Record of Productions, 1875–1961. London: Michael Joseph. OCLC 504581419. 

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