Gustav Mahler himself in London (1892)

In 1879, Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852-1896), later Sir Augustus Harris, one of the greatest impresarios of his age, became manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1882, he managed a season of German Opera performances, put on by the concert promoter Hermann Franke and Bernhard Pollini (1838-1897), the Intendant of the Hamburg Stadttheater. The season was conducted by the great maestro, Hans Richter (1843-1916).

Early in 1888, Harris announced a season of Italian Opera, to be put on at the Covent Garden Theatre. From then on, Harris would lead a golden age of opera performance at Covent Garden, and continue to influence it until long after his death in 1896. At that time opera in London meant Italian Opera, that is opera sung in Italian, irrespective of its original language. Harris began the move to original language performances, first French, and then later German. This in turn led the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden as it was then known to be renamed the Royal Opera House, the name it retains to the present day.

In 1892, Harris decided to stage a short season of German Opera, in German, at Covent Garden during June and July. For this purpose, he approached his contact from ten years previously, Bernhard Pollini, and in effect hired a substantial part of the Hamburg Opera, excluding the orchestra, but including the sets, the costumes and their conductor, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), who had been appointed the previous year. Guest singers from the Berlin Opera were also hired. The announcement of the season that appeared in the Daily Telegraph, promised a Wagner Ring cycle with one performance on each of four consecutive Wednesdays, plus performances of Tristan und Isolde and Fidelio.

1892. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).

Putting on a season of opera in the late 19th Century was a very different proposition from doing so today. The costs had to be met entirely by the theatre management or the impresario personally. It was therefore common practice to offer the season to the public as a subscription, thereby selling as many seats as possible in advance of outgoings to pay singers, musicians and other staff. Even so, just to break even required a very high percentage of seats to be occupied every night of the season. For this German Opera season, Harris offered a season subscription priced between 40 guineas (£42) for the best seats, to £4 18 shillings (£4.90) for the balcony stalls.

For the two months before his visit, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) started to learn English from his friend Arnold Berliner (1862-1942). He noted down in a pocket book the words and phrases that he assumed would be useful in the theatre. He found the language difficult and never became proficient in it. While in London however, he insisted on trying to speak English, even though he sometimes struggled to remember words, which resulted in long pauses and some amusement. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) set sail from Cruxhaven on Thursday, 26-05-1892, bound for Southampton.

The orchestra that Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was to conduct was neither his own Hamburg Opera orchestra nor the usual Covent Garden orchestra. It had been assembled especially for the season from English players, with additional specialist players brought in from Germany. As such, the orchestra was in poor shape as an ensemble, and even some of the singers were not familiar with Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)‘s autocratic style. Mahler was aided by his assistant conductor, Leo Feld.

The first performance at Covent Garden Theater on 08-06-1892 was Siegfried. This opera was given first to allow the tenor Max Achenbach Alvary (1856-1898) to make his London début in the title role, one of his best. Harris had an immediate success on his hands. Public demand for seats was so great that he immediately arranged for a second season to run in parallel as it were, at the Drury Lane Theatre. Siegfried and the Ring cycle would be repeated on the Mondays, following their performances at Covent Garden on the previous Wednesdays, as well as additional performances of Tristan and Fidelio. He also arranged for the English première of Viktor Nessler’s Der Trompeter von Säckingen (or Säkkingen). This was a work Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) detested, having been obliged to conduct it during his time at both Leipzig and Prague. In London, the performances were conducted by his assistant, Leo Feld.

Public and critics alike were full of enthusiasm for these performances. In reading the critics’ reports in the newspapers and magazines however, it is sometimes necessary to bear in mind the personal prejudices of the reviewers concerned – for example, many were anti-Wagnerian.

There was at least one amusing anecdote regarding the season. This was the first year in which electric lighting had been installed at Covent Garden, and contrary to the previous seasons when gas lighting was in use, the lights were dimmed during the acts of the opera. This annoyed the London society ladies who regarded the whole evening as merely an opportunity to see and be seen, which the dimmed lights prevented. It also annoyed those people who could no longer read their libretto books.

Mahler used German solo singers. Stage sets were transported from Hamburg and the orchestra recruited from English musicians. Members’ from the resident Covent Garden Orchestra were not used- more on this later. Mahler had given the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, (an incomplete performance had been given ten years earlier at the Haymarket Theatre). 

Two additional performances of Nessler’s – Der Trompeter von Sackingen were, as usual, conducted by Leo Feld, the 2nd Kapellmeister in Hamburg. 1892 Opera London 08-07-1892 and 1892 Opera London 14-07-1892

Locations in London

Conducted by Gustav Mahler

  1. 1892 Opera London 08-06-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Siegfried.
  2. 1892 Opera London 13-06-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Siegfried.
  3. 1892 Opera London 15-06-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Tristan.
  4. 1892 Opera London 18-06-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Tristan.
  5. 1892 Opera London 22-06-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Rheingold.
  6. 1892 Opera London 25-06-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Tristan.
  7. 1892 Opera London 27-06-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Rheingold.
  8. 1892 Concert London 29-06-1892St. James’s Hall, Wagner program.
  9. 1892 Opera London 02-07-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Fidelio.
  10. 1892 Opera London 04-07-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Walkure.
  11. 1892 Opera London 06-07-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Siegfried.
  12. 1892 Opera London 09-07-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Tristan.
  13. 1892 Opera London 11-07-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Siegfried.
  14. 1892 Opera London 13-07-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Gotterdammerung.
  15. 1892 Opera London 16-07-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Tannhauser.
  16. 1892 Opera London 18-07-1892Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Gotterdammerung.
  17. 1892 Opera London 20-07-1892Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Fidelio.

Conducted by Leo Feld

Gustav Mahler left London on the 23-07-1892 bound for Berchtesgaden, Austria to meet up with friends and family in a villa beside Salzburg. Mahler never returned to London despite a letter that indicates that a return visit was under consideration. Mahler’s performances drew very positive responses from critics and other artists’ and Mahler too was pleased with the acclaim. George Bernard Shaw reported, ‘The gallery applauded wildly at the end of each act’ and Paul Dukas noted, ‘a conductor of genius’. Mahler said, ‘I had to take a curtain call after each act, and the entire hall shouted Mahler until I reappeared’.

The cost of performances was financed by advanced ticket sales, but, despite the financial success of the venture, Harris failed to attract his celebrated conductor for a return visit. Successful though the season had been commercially for Harris and critically with the public, Mahler had found it physically draining and artistically unfulfilling.

In 1894, Harris attempted another German season in London, but Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) asked for a fee of 1,000 marks a week, plus expenses. Harris declined, as Mahler knew he would. His summer months were much too precious to him, as these were the only times he could dedicate to composing.

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