Opera singer Jessica Walker is exploring the lives of Victorian male impersonators in her new show, she tells Laura Davis
SHE was Burlington Bertie until the day she died – a 72-year-old woman playing a young dandy, stage pancake poorly camouflaging her crows feet.
In her last performance, she came to the end of her trademark song, prepared to walk into the wings and collapsed. She died three days later, never regaining consciousness.
That was Ella Shields, the Baltimore-born male impersonator who had cut such a dashing figure on the Victorian music hall circuit worldwide that men – and women – were compelled to send her overwrought declarations of love.
“I’d do it all over again,” she sang in Burlington Bertie from Bow, written by her husband William Hargreaves in 1915.
And, after she’d divorced him and the Great Depression hit, she would have to – over and over again in top hat and tails until the fog of obscurity swallowed her up.
Next week, it will be mezzo-soprano Jessica Walker’s turn to don a dandy’s bow tie as she performs her one-woman show, The Girl I Left Behind Me, at the Unity Theatre as part of Homotopia.
She will share the stories of the great female impersonators, sing some of their songs and ask what made them dress up as men on the stage.
“It was easy to understand the ones that were gay and were expressing a part of themselves they couldn’t at other times,” says Walker.
“In that era, there was such a prudish atmosphere and female suffrage had begun so any woman who was perceived as being mannish was very much frowned upon. It’s very interesting that at the same time it was an absolute heyday for male impersonation.”
Shields, who shared the bill at a Royal Command performance with a very young Julie Andrews in the late-1940s, is believed to be the inspiration for her performance in the 1982 comedy Victor/Victoria.
She died in 1952 – the same year as Vesta Tilley, the most famous male impersonator of all, although their fortunes had turned out very differently.
Worcester-born Tilley, whose first male role was a parody of a well-known opera singer at the age of six, married theatre impresario and Conservative MP Walter de Frece, whose father had run the Liverpool’s Gaiety Music Hall. When he was knighted for his war efforts, she became Lady de Frece, acquired a large collection of diamonds and the couple moved to Monte Carlo after his retirement.
It is the performers that met a less glamorous end, still impersonating young men well into old age, that Walker finds the most interesting.
“Performing is a bizarre thing to want to keep doing when you’re old anyway because it’s exhausting,” she explains.
“Of course it’s associated with needing the love of an audience but you sort of think as you get older perhaps your need for that decreases slightly.
“For a lot of these women who came from a certain time, they didn’t know anything else. That was all they had and they kept going until they dropped dead.”
On stage with her as her performs music hall numbers such as Burlington Bertie from Bow and Tilley’s After the Ball, as well as operatic male roles traditionally played by women, will be pianist James Holmes, former head of music at Opera North which commissioned this show.
They also worked together on Walker’s last solo piece, Pat Kirkwood is Angry, about the real life wartime star whose career was blighted by rumours she had slept with Prince Philip.
“I think I specialise in taking these slightly hidden lives of women and bringing them back and trying to work out what went wrong,” she says.
“As a performer when you look at all these people who’ve sunk without a trace of course in a way you are slightly thinking of yourself and how ridiculous it all is.”
THE Girl I Left Behind Me is at The Unity on October 31.