The Name is Bond – Jessie Bond

By the 1890s, Jessie Charlotte Bond was at the peak of her G&S career. She was the leading mezzo-soprano in all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous Savoy operas. She had starred in shows from HMS Pinafore to The Gondoliers, each time creating new roles with more and more importance. Jessie was a real star.

As with so many successful stage careers it all began with being in the right place at the right time.

Back in November 1877, W S Gilbert could have been forgiven for feeling rather pleased. His partnership with composer Arthur Sullivan had produced another success. Their new opera, The Sorcerer was playing to ecstatic audiences at the Opera Comique. The impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte was delighted with full houses for every performance and had agreed very favourable terms for their next venture.

The established star of the Opera Comique, Mrs Isabella Howard Paul was spellbinding audiences as Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer.  Celebrated for her clever acting and comic impressions of well know singers of the day, Isabella was at the peak of her glittering 25-year stage career. Gilbert was determined to write a suitable role for her in the new opera, HMS Pinafore.

The leading mezzo-soprano in the new opera was the role of Cousin Hebe. Gilbert set out to write a part for Hebe that would make the most of Isabella’s talents, with ample opportunity for her to include her own famous songs, impressions and comic turns.

But there was a bit of a snag. Isabella’s voice had deteriorated over the years and although still only 44, she couldn’t successfully sing the music Sullivan composed for Hebe. He wasn’t prepared to compromise a note and was reluctant to use her. Gilbert agreed that there was indeed a problem with her singing.

They hit on an ingenious plan to keep all Isabella’s clever business and special dialogue in the show, but to give the actual singing to a newcomer. Jessie Bond was charming and had a lovely voice. She was 25 and pretty. Isabella hated her on sight.

Isabella as Lady Sangazure

Jessie Bond

 

It will be no surprise to you, and it is quite astonishing that it was a surprise to Messrs G&S that, on hearing of their brilliant wheeze to give her songs to Jessie, Isabella upped and left, never to grace the stage of the Opera Comique again.

Now, excellent singer though she was, Jessie had little or no experience of acting. She had been careful to stipulate that she should have “no talking to do, only singing parts”. Sullivan had been entirely captivated by her audition and she had to be included in the cast. Just for the singing, of course. Hebe’s dialogue was cut to the one or two lines Jessie thought she could manage.

 

We think that is a bit of a shame and indeed Jessie went on to be a brilliant actor as well as a fine singer.

For our production of HMS Pinafore our creative team have given Hebe, played by the brilliant singer and actor Cat Lee, rather more to do.

Our director Paula Fraser has introduced music from other G&S operas for her to sing and to emphasise her role in the production. She has also found some of Sir Jospeh’s dialogue sits perfectly with Hebe’s enhanced role.

Instead of Hebe being in favour of the marriage of Sir Joseph to Josephine, Paula has changed Hebe’s character to be hopelessly in love with Sir Joseph and unable to leave his side. She is delighted by everything he does, is overly excited about being on ship and steals some of Sir Joseph’s thunder – which does not make him look upon her as favourably as she would like.

It is no surprise that Hebe encourages Ralph to continue in his pursuit of Josephine so that she can marry Sir Joseph herself, but will her undying devotion be enough?

Cat Lee in Iolanthe