I simultaneously cringe at and am fascinated by Leo, The Royal Cadet. A locally-written, composed, produced, and acted operetta with weird Victorian-era humour and definite colonial under(over?)tones, it was the high point of Kingston’s nineteenth-century theatre scene and a success all across Ontario. It only stopped touring for good in 1925, when the sets and equipment were destroyed in a basement flood and the movies drew too much competition.
Premiering on July 11, 1889, Leo, The Royal Cadet was presented “under the Patronage of the Commandant and Staff, and Gentlemen Cadets of the Royal Military College.” These military ties to the theatre may seem strange, but they actually have a precedent.
In the early days of the nineteenth century, the military’s interest in theatre and Kingston’s interest in theatre both stemmed from the same source: boredom. Bored regiments and bored Kingstonians could enliven their days by putting on plays and shows in small, makeshift theatres around town, and thus provide some excitement for the actors as well as the audience. (This didn’t only happen in Kingston, by the way. It was apparently something of a military tradition. John W. Spurr, whose article I am citing, suggests it is also appropriate considering the general showiness of the military with its parades, drills, uniforms, etc.). Kingston ate up the garrison theatre offerings as well as those by amateur and touring groups, who, combined, managed to keep new plays coming through town at a pretty steady rate. Although this is fifty years or so before Leo, The Royal Cadet, it sets the stage (yes, pun intended) for its success.
By the 1870s, however, big acts began skipping Kingston on their tours. People knew why: Kingston had no good theatre space. After some years of frustration it was announced that William Martin and Son would build a new theatre on Princess Street, which opened on January 6, 1879. It sat an impressive 1,100 people, and although described as plain on the outside, the interior was deluxe:
At each side of the stage there are four boxes, from which every seat in the house can be seen. These are lighted with cluster chandeliers in front of each box, and will be fitted with damask curtains, and upholstered in crimson velvet. The proscenium is most elaborately frescoed, the effect in the light being exceedingly fine. . .
The seats were made of painted and gilt iron, and upholstered with maroon leather. The theatre was also constructed with four extra doors and one very wide staircase in case of fire. This was an especial concern as there had been a “big fire” in 1876 which destroyed the former building on the site.
From here on in Martin’s Opera House attracted a varied and sometimes unusual series of acts. For example, one was The Lilliputian Opera Company, which comprised a troupe of little people plus a nearly 8-foot tall man. Another was The Children’s Opera Company, consisting of actors between the ages of 4-16, who performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore “as good as, if not superior to, the other two companies which performed the same musical,” according to a reviewer. When Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne came to lay the cornerstone of Theological Hall in 1879, they were given a concert at the Opera House; and in 1882, Oscar Wilde stopped to deliver a lecture here.
In general, Martin’s Opera House seemed to plant a theatre bug in Kingston, and Leo, The Royal Cadet was a product of this time and place. The music was by Oscar F. Telgmann, a well-known local musician and luthier, with a libretto by George Frederick Cameron (the copy presented above also includes the scrawled-in name Charles J. Cameron). The cast was local, as were the sets and costumes. The setting was also partially local, as the story involves Leo becoming a cadet at RMC.
William Angus calls it “a simple and rather naive period piece, a specimen of the old-fashioned tradition contemporary with and influenced by the works of Gilbert and Sullivan,” combined with “a smattering of American broad low comedy.” The plot is straightforward, and centres on Leo and his girl Nellie. In short, Leo decides to become a soldier and goes to South Africa to fight the Zulus; Nellie back home thinks he has been killed but really *spoiler alert* his arm is just broken and everyone lives happily ever after. In between, the cadets and maidens spend their time lusting after one another.
That being said, Leo, The Royal Cadet is kind of interesting not only in its local-ness but also as an example of what people of 130 years ago found funny and entertaining. Don’t ever let anyone tell you the Victorians weren’t an utterly bizarre generation:
Scene III. –Enter LEO and NELLIE. LEO with piece of pie in one hand and doughnut in the other. LEO ogling NELLIE. Enter, after them, Villagers.
NELLIE. So it is settled that you enter the army? [. . .] You will go and forget all about me.
LEO. Never. Can I forget, think you, the fair hands which made this pie – the clear mind which produced this fragrant doughnut?
This introduces the Act I finale, “Farewell, O Fragrant Pumpkin Pie” which includes the line, “I love thee more than anything but pie!”
Angus also references a song which I can’t find in the libretto online, perhaps evidence of different versions of the play. Anyway, it’s a prescient little ditty called “Some Day,” which goes:
Some day girls will be electors, lawyers, judges, and MP’s/Mayors, clerks, police inspectors, bobbies, everything you please!
And the unfortunate Zulus are at least given a shade of dignity in their song:
But the justice we asked – our possession from birth/We shall take with the brand and the shield/And the whites who would trample our dear native earth/Shall yet learn how the Zulus yield!
Leo, The Royal Cadet ran for two straight weeks in Kingston, and began touring with sets, costumes, and nucleus cast. It eventually went to Ottawa, Guelph, Stratford, Utica, Toronto, and Woodstock, which called it without irony “a pretty little story of modern life aptly fitting the present time of war in South Africa.” It gave 1700 performances – not a bad run at all – and was continually followed with positive reviews.
I should mention that Martin’s Opera House, in which the play premiered, became The Grand Theatre in 1897, and then promptly burned down the next year. Still, as I’m sure is obvious, it refuses to die and is with us to this day. Although the same can’t be said for Leo, The Royal Cadet, it remains an interesting bit of Kingston ephemera.
Meanwhile, if you’re now in the mood for some light-hearted, military-themed, nineteenth century opera, La Fille du Régiment and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein are choices that are still performed today. Or you could go full 1880s Kingstonian and just put on some Gilbert and Sullivan.
December 9, 2014 update: A very detailed Wikipedia article can also be found for Leo, the Royal Cadet. It states that a revised version of the operetta was performed as recently as 2010, which I did not know!
Online libretto. This appears to be somewhat different than the version Angus discusses in his article. I think he even mentions it having four acts whereas this has three. Perhaps the play was shortened.
Angus, William. “A Spirited Military Opera of 1889.” Historic Kingston 25 (1977).
Spurr, John W. “Theatre in Kingston 1816-1870.” Historic Kingston 22 (1974).
Waldhauer, Erdmute. “Martin’s Opera House, Kingston 1879-1898.” Historic Kingston 26 (1978).