An American Indian War Dance on the Operatic Stage in 1824

One of the best things about working with the autobiographies of opera singers is the curious and unexpected anecdotes that you frequently come across. Today I’ve been re-reading the memoirs of Henry Phillips, a popular bass singer of the early nineteenth century. His autobiography, Musical and Personal Recollections During Half a Century, was published in 1864. It’s full of fascinating and unexpected stories.


Hand-coloured lithograph | Henry Phillips as Count der Tiemar in ‘Amilie’ | Richard James Lane | London | 1839 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

One which has intrigued me especially is the account of his involvement in the first ever British production of Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1824. This opera, with its ghoulish and elaborate incantation scene, was to become immensely popular in nineteenth-century Britain. Phillips was still in the infancy of his career at this stage, and his casting in the opera was a major coup, as he was to appear on stage with the famous tenor John Braham. A new role had been created expressly for Phillips. This was because the managers of the Theatre Royal felt that the role of Caspar required both an experienced actor and an accomplished singer to interpret the difficult music. As no man existed who could fulfil both of these criteria, they split the role in two. Caspar was to be played by the actor Mr. Bennet, while a new character called Rollo was created to sing Caspar’s parts. This role was given to the young Phillips.

One of Caspar’s songs that Rollo was to sing in the first act involved him convincing the character of Max to use a magic bullet. Caspar, whose soul has been forfeited to the devil, does this in the hope that he can secretly trade Max’s soul for his own. The corresponding song for this part of the opera was to be sung by Philipps, who had been told that German productions involved Caspar doing some dance steps during this performance. However, he misunderstood and assumed he was required to do an elaborate dance. He explained:

I had been given to understand that in Germany it was customary for Caspar to make a few uncouth steps, a sort of dancing, to the symphonies of the song, but this was so imperfectly conveyed to me, that I scarcely understood it; a something of the subject gleamed across me, and a study of the situation caused me to imagine that a man placed as [Caspar] was, inducing a fellow-huntsman to use the magic bullet to save [him] from perdition, would naturally have recourse to the most desperate means to accomplish his purpose on the instant.

In other words, he imagined that his character’s desperation would compel him to dance desperately and passionately. For inspiration, Phillips turned to an unusual source. He continues:

There flashed across me a memory of some American Indians I had seen the season before exhibited at the Lyceum, in a melodrama written for them, in which they went through their war dance in the most excited and determined manner imaginable. I resolved to carry out the idea in the action of my song, but disguised my intention till the first evening of the performance, fearful lest the manager might object, if he observed it at rehearsal.

Phillips then goes on to describe his interpretation of the American Indian war dance:

The house on that eventful night was thronged with Germans; the overture encored, the curtain rose, and all proceeded quietly and well, till it came to my drinking song. Young and enthusiastic, I cared for nothing; so carrying out my intention, I danced and sang with the desperation of a man on the verge of destruction. At the termination of my song I got gloriously hissed, but there were a few demands for an encore, which being insisted on I sang it again, amid a storm of “noes” and “bravoes”. Mr. Arnold [the manager] ran about tearing his hair, and exclaiming, “That young rascal has ruined the opera!” At its termination I received a storm of hisses, which resembled a shower of sky-rockets at Vauxhall.


Tinted engraved print on paper | Edmund Kean Esq | G. F. Storm (engraver) & Frederick Meyer Jnr (illustrator) | London | 1827 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

I find this fascinating: an interpretation of an American Indian war dance in a production of a German opera on the London stage! Though I’ve looked, I haven’t been able to find anything out about the production at the Lyceum which Phillips cited as his inspiration. However, it’s clear from a trawl through newspaper databases that there was a keen interest in American Indians during the 1820s; several books on this topic were advertised. Furthermore, there are several accounts of American Indians being on display in London society. There are, for instance, reports of Indian chiefs being present at a society party just a few months after the production of Der Freischütz. On this occasion they performed a war dance for fellow guests. It was also in the 1820s that the famous actor Edmund Kean toured Canada, where he met four chiefs from the Huron tribe in Quebec. Kean presented them each with a medal and in return they made him a member of their tribe, giving him the name Alanienouidet. He was immensely proud of this honour, and often gallivanted around in full native dress. A portrait of him in this guise still exists in the collections of the V&A.


Lithograph | Der Freischütz (incantation scene) | Artist uknown | London | 1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

After the lukewarm reception of Phillips’ dance, the rest of the production fared no better. In the famous supernatural scene only one of the giant owl’s wings flapped, the skeleton horses and dogs got stuck in the middle of the stage, and the fire was held too close to the nose of the devil, which gave him a coughing fit. Phillips remembered:

The manager objected in strong terms for my mania for dancing, but it was of no use. I stuck to it like [ballet master] Oscar Byrne, dance I would, and dance I did.

Eventually audiences came around, and this scene came to be one of the most popular parts of the opera. Phillips says it was greeted with enthusiastic applause and nightly encores. In fact, it was to prove so popular that future British productions of the opera also included a wild dance scene:

I created a dance peculiar to myself, which was afterwards imitated when the opera was transplanted to Drury Lane and Covent Garden, but which fell, like all copies, far short of the mode in which I had imitated the wild and unrestrained beings from whom I took my idea. How little I thought, while viewing the uncouth and extraordinary gestures of those rude Indians, that learning their accomplishments would lay the foundation-stone of my future reputation.

Some years later Phillips found himself on tour in Vicksburg, Mississippi. While he was in town, 2,000 members of the Chocktaw tribe happened to be camping outside of the city. Phillips passed through their camp and spent some time in the home of the Chief, whose mother had been Scottish. As he was therefore able to speak English, he had been elevated to Chief as he could negotiate with the American authorities. Phillips vividly described the scene he encountered in the camp:

I shall ever remember a view I had of [the Indians]. An old woman of the tribe, very stout, covered with silver and Indian jewels, her grey hairs streaming down to her waist, was surrounded by 3 rows of young Indians, hand in hand, dancing and singing. In the centre figures this woman, who turned one way, while the rows of men moved in a contrary direction, joining her song at intervals and dancing with the wildest gestures. Myself and many about me, feared this was a sort of war prelude to an attack on the inhabitants. However, it soon became evident that the old lady, having taken a little more than was her usual habit, was merely displaying her Bacchanalian joy at its effect, which the young Indians encouraged for the sake of a frolic.

Phillip’s accounts of his time touring America are filled with similarly vivid and extraordinary anecdotes. I’ll be blogging about more of these in the future!