t h e   r o s a   t r o u p e


J. W. Turner

James William Turner, born at Sutton-in- Ashfield, Nottingham, on 5 June 1842, was one of a musical family who presumably received some basic tuition from their father who was a prominent local singer. James began by singing treble at local concerts and progressed to a fledgling tenor in minstrel shows. He began about 1862 with Harry Templeton’s African Opera Troupe and a year later embarked upon a tour of the Far East with a Christy minstrel troupe which reached Australia in early 1865 after performances in China, India and other faraway places. He remained with them until the end of the year when he joined the Howson family troupe and made his operatic debut as Elvino in Sonnambula at the Haymarket Theatre, Melbourne, on 23 January 1866. He appeared as Henri Herberte, his stage name since his minstrel days. The troupe sailed from Sydney for California about three months later. Turner remained with them for a time and then made his way across America although little is known of what he did or what name he used during this period. He sailed home from New York in April 1868.

Once home he began to seriously pursue a career as a singer under his own name. An introduction to Henry Wylde, the founder of the London Academy of Music, led to advanced tuition with Francesco Schira, and appearances at Wylde’s concerts. He also became a favourite in London music halls, offering ballads and extracts from popular operas. He was eventually recruited by the Rosas, making his debut as Thaddeus in Bohemian Girl at Saint George’s Hall, Bradford, on 27 January 1874, with Satanella and Faust quickly following before the season ended prematurely on the death of Parepa.

Turner returned in the following season and during the twelve years from 1874 to 1886 accumulated over 500 performances in twenty two operas, despite missing two seasons and giving only a few performances in three others. He also sang the leading tenor roles in Bohemian Girl, Satanella, Faust, Trovatore, Maritana, Sonnambula, Crown Diamonds, Mignon, Carmen, Dame Blanche, Rigoletto, Esmeralda, Flying Dutchman (Erik & Helmsman), Joconde (Lucas), Pauline (Glavis), Lily of Killarney, Siege of Rochelle (De Valmour) , Merry Wives of Windsor ( Fenton), Stradella (Barbarino), Cadi (Birotteau), Cox and Box (Box). The illustration depicts him as Myles in Lily of Killarney. Turner left the company in May 1883 to sing elsewhere but despite this he was able to assist with three Bohemian Girl performances over the next two seasons. The last, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 19 June 1886, was his final Rosa performance.

He had departed in 1883 to join the Royal English Opera Company, formed a year earlier largely by former Rosa personnel. They were initially successful but by late 1884 the company was in decline. Turner came to their rescue in 1886 and the Turner Opera Company was born. He was now both tenor and impresario and he would remain successfully so for many years. Other Rosa singers would eventually follow this path but he was the first one to really take on a long term managerial role. He was still singing and managing in his sixties; his last appearance in opera was probably at the Dalston Theatre London in October 1911. By then he could look back upon travelling around the world as a young man and by turns being boy soprano, minstrel man, music hall favourite, opera singer, and finally impresario. The major omission is that although he was active well into the sound recording era he never made any commercial recordings. But one cannot do everything!

This important figure in Britain’s operatic past died at his home at Yardley near Birmingham on 17 January 1913 and was laid to rest in Sutton cemetery.

The Trust wishes to thank Turner researcher Dennis Foreman for help in the preparation of this note. 

© 2017 John Ward