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William T. Carleton Opera Company

by Stephen E. Busch

William T. Carleton (né Celli, 1848-1922) has an extraordinary record as an operatic baritone and director of his own opera company. Performing in an age that idolized the prima donna, he nonetheless received consistently laudatory reviews and recognition from his peers. During his company's first appearance in Denver in 1884, one reviewer remarked that "Carleton is to our mind the equal of Galassi, and if his name were Carletelli the world would admit it." Many people at that time considered the Italian Galassi the finest operatic baritone in the world.

Unlike Emma Abbott who had relatively few years of professional singing before forming her English Opera Company, Carleton sang grand opera and so-called light opera, including Gilbert and Sullivan shows, for nine years before he started the William T. Carleton Opera Company in 1884. [In some advertisements: The W. T. Carleton Opera Company; or, the Carleton Opera Company; or, the William T. Carleton English Opera Company. His groups always sang in English.]

In the spring and fall of 1877, when he was 29 years old, Carleton sang principal baritone roles for the Kellogg Company in The Star of the North, Ernani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Mignon. Il Trovatore, and Faust, all in Philadelphia. He continued there with Kellogg during January, February and March, 1877, with baritone roles in Fra Diavolo, Faust, Martha, Marriage of Figaro, and The Flying Dutchman, in the latter singing with Julie Rosewald. The New York Times spoke of him as "that young and gifted artist." The following winter he was touring with the Anna Granger-Dow English Opera Company, going as far west as Utah.
W. T. Carleton
This writer has no record of his activities during the 1878-1880 period. Perhaps he traveled to England, his native land. He was married and had four children; their home was in Flushing, New York.

In 1881 Carleton played Colonel Calverley in Patience for its New York premiere run. Two months later, still doing Patience, he replaced James Barton as Archibald Grosvenor. In March and April, 1882, he took on the title role in Claude Duval for D'Oyly Carte. By this time he had proven his ability as an operatic performer and apparently had never received what might be called a negative review. Rather, reviews praised both his singing and acting abilities. 

1883 was spent forming a small opera company for touring. Just as Carleton demonstrated his versatility as a singer, so he prepared for small and modest sized casts, depending on his travel route and town/city populations. For smaller audiences he would use no chorus, but the principals would sing the choruses, and a piano would substitute  for an orchestra. A reviewer's response in Bozeman, Montana, represents the consensus of the small towns to these skeleton operatic performances: "Of course the performance lacked a chorus, but considering the fact that a whole opera company cannot be hauled over this country successfully, Bozeman people are pleased with principals alone, especially when they are as good as the Carletons, both in acting and singing." In Cheyenne, Wyoming: "They were beyond criticism. Their rendition... fairly enraptured and delighted the audience, and at times seemed to drive it wild with enthusiasm."


In a later tour to larger towns with a slightly larger cast, having added a small chorus and orchestra, even the Denver press responded positively to one of Carleton's groups in a production of Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour-Major: "The quality is so strong that the lack of numbers is not noticed save by the eye..." Among the small cast was Dora Wiley who had been billed as a prima donna for the J.H. Haverly Opera Company while in Colorado Springs in February, 1883. Another exceptional talent with the cast was Jesse Bartlett-Davis who was soon to sing with Theodore Thomas' National Opera Company and the Boston Ideal Opera Company. A few years later Carleton would have quite a turnover in personnel, but not because of disgruntlement on either his or his singers' part. Carleton's wide-ranging singing experiences before forming his Company brought him into contact with many young singers, and he seemed to have a knack of picking those who were "on the way up." J.K. Murray, a popular American baritone, began his career in various concert and opera companies before, a writer noted, "finally getting into the Carleton Opera Troupe."

Strauss "Indigo"The Carleton Opera Company had its busiest traveling years between 1884 and 1896. He was in Denver in September, 1884; December, 1885; April, 1887; February, 1888; September, 1890; and May, 1894. Most of these appearances were in the Broadway Theatre, though he did perform in the Tabor Opera House as when his group gave Strauss' Indigo on February 15, 1892. The Rocky Mountain News said: "No essential feature was lacking... in fact, a better ensemble has rarely been given by any opera company in Denver." His group had one night stands in the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen, in November 18, 1890, and February, 8, 1892, when he was on the Silver Circuit. While on the Circuit in 1890, he also played in the Tabor Opera House, Leadville, on November 19 and 20, the day after he had been in Aspen. Between 1884 and 1896, Carleton's groups had at least 22 engagements in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana with Denver appearances usually running a full week.

Emily Soldene's first operatic venture happened to include Carleton in the cast. In her autobiography [2nd ed., 1897] she spoke of him as "the now well-known impresario of English opera in America."

He died at home on September 25, 1922 at 74 years of age. He was a "noted singer in his day" said the Times obituary notice. A son, William P. Carleton, "has been well known on the musical comedy stage for years."
Note: For Carleton's early career in England where he was born, see "Celli" in Kurt Ganzl's The Encyclopedia of The Musical Theater (1944), an extraordinary reference on opera on musical comedy, especially involving persons of British birth or heritage.
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