William Luscombe Searelle (1853 – 18 December 1907) was a musical composer and impresario. He was born in Devon, England, and brought up in New Zealand, where he attended Christ's College, Christchurch.
Searelle began working as a pianist in Christchurch and graduated to conductor. He sang, wrote, directed, composed and conducted: at the age of twenty-two his comic opera The Wreck of the Pinafore was produced at the Gaiety Theatre in London. The comic opera Estrella, written with Walter Parke, became a smash hit in Australia in 1884. In December that year Estrella went on at New York's Standard Theatre where it enjoyed just three performances before the theatre burnt down.
Of his comic opera Bobadil one Melbourne critic wrote: “Mr Searelle is a sworn foe of dullness and a warm friend of variety”. By 1886, in spite of favourable crits, Searelle was bankrupt and turned his sights to South Africa's newly discovered gold field.
In 1889 a heavily weighted ox-wagon rumbled down the dusty streets of Johannesburg, bringing a small party of opera singers from their hotel rooms to welcome Searelle, tired from his long trek from the port at Durban. Among those to greet him were the talented Fenton sisters, Blanche, Searelle’s wife and Amy. They had first taken the train to the railhead in Ladysmith and then transferred to stagecoach for the rest of the journey. En route the Fentons spent a night with a Boer family where Amy, the nineteen-year-old prima donna, was given the bed President Paul Kruger used when he passed that way; an enormous four-poster that had a ladder at its side for climbing up into.
In the days that followed the contents of the ox-wagon filled the intersection of Eloff and Commissioner Street, where Luscombe Searelle’s corrugated iron “Theatre Royal” had been unloaded and was being hammered together. “The material blocked the road for days,” Headley A. Chilvers tells in his book Out of the Crucible, “but the blockade mattered little, for traffic passed easily by taking detours over the veld”.
Complete, it had a stage, stalls, comfortable boxes, a bar; as well as costumes and scenery and dressing rooms for the opera stars. And so, oddly, this raw, rough and dusty mining town that boasted a bar to every five men and as many prostitutes, received opera among its first serious form of entertainment. Searelle opened his first season with Maritana and The Bohemian Girl.
In this spirited town where gunmen shot up bars and later audiences became notorious for whooping and flinging their chairs around if a management refused to play the national anthem, Luscombe was bound for an eventful stay.
But this small, round, thirty-six-year-old from Devonshire had enough genius and energy to cope ably with the exuberance of these immigrant Welsh miners. As an impresario Searelle was responsible for innumerable theater celebrities coming from London; the most famous was the ex-opera star turned actress, Genevieve Ward. She arrived in 1891 describing Johannesburg as having "no pavements of any kind, yet the streets lighted by electricity, and the place but five years old".
In eleven weeks she played in sixteen plays, including six by Shakespeare; Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and Much Ado About Nothing. An exceptional feat of energy considering her 54 years of age.
Periodically Searelle went on tour and took his company throughout South Africa, Rhodesia and Mozambique.
In 1892 Searelle brought the partnership of Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter and the romantic lead Kyrle Bellew out from Australia. They toured South Africa with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet; however, their run was cut short when the Exhibition Theatre in Cape Town burned to the ground. Despite his genius and sporadic successes, Searelle was to be dogged throughout his life with litigation and debt, leaving in his wake a story of misfortune.
His first visit to South Africa was in 1887 with an Australian Opera Company where several operas were staged in Cape Town including three of Searelle’s own compositions; Bobadil, Estrella and Isadora. In his time here, ten years in all, he bought a 1600ha coal mine that yielded no coal, and he prospected for tin in Swaziland, with little success. He fought with the Boers and was finally hounded out of Johannesburg. In 1905 he staged Bobadil in America but his principals took off with his money leaving him destitute. He survived selling dusters from door to door and occasionally received a pittance from The New York Journal for poems he submitted. Nights were frequently spent on benches.
Eventually Ella Wheeler Wilcox read his poetry and together they wrote opera Mizpah, based on the biblical story of Esther (1904-5). It was put on in San Francisco but by then Searelle was too ill; dying of cancer, he could only view its success from a wheel-chair. After its premiere he was wheeled before the audience to receive his ovation. Inspired he rushed to England to stage it there but by now he was too ill and died on 18 December 1907 aged 54 before he could begin negotiations.
Birth and Death Data: Born January 1st, 1853, Died December 18th, 1907
Date Range of DAHR Recordings: 1906 - 1909
Roles Represented in DAHR: composer, lyricist
|Company||Matrix No.||Size||First Recording Date||Title||Primary Performer||Description||Role||Audio|
|Columbia||3460||10-in.||ca. Jan.-Aug. 1906||Where thou canst rest||Henry Burr||Male vocal solo, with orchestra||composer, lyricist|
Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. "Searelle, Luscombe," accessed August 4, 2021, https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/109618.
Searelle, Luscombe. (2021). In Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/109618.
"Searelle, Luscombe." Discography of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library, 2021. Web. 4 August 2021.
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