Great Opera Vocalists – Elizabeth Billington

This celebrated English singer was the daughter of Carl Weichsel, a native of Freiberg in Saxony, and principal clarinet at the King’s Theater. Her mother was for several years a favorite singer at Vauxhall Gardens, London, and elsewhere. Elizabeth was born in London, probably in 1768. She and her brother Carl were from the earliest possible moment trained to music, and on March 10, 1774, performed on the pianoforte and violin at their mother’s benefit concert at the Haymarket Theater. At fourteen years old she appeared as a singer at Oxford, and at sixteen became the wife of James Billington, a double bass player. Immediately after their marriage they went to Dublin, where Mrs. Billington commenced her career as a stage singer in the opera of “Orfeo ed Euridice.”

On her return to London she obtained a trial engagement of twelve nights at Covent Garden, where she appeared February 13, 1786, as Rosetta in “Love in a Village.” Her success was such that the managers immediately engaged her for the remainder of the season at a large salary. She speedily attained a position at the Concert of Ancient Music, where she disputed with Mara for supremacy. Mrs. Billington remained in England until 1794, when she went with her husband and brother to Italy. At Naples Sir William Hamilton, the English ambassador, induced Mrs. Billington and her brother to perform in private before the King, who immediately prevailed on Mrs. Billington to sing in public at the San Carlo Theater. Accordingly in May, 1794, she made her appearance there in Francesco Bianchi’s opera “Inez di Castro,” written expressly for her. Her success was complete, but her triumph was suddenly interrupted by the death of her husband. On renewing her performances she met with the most favorable reception, and sang successively in operas composed for her by Paisiello, Paer, and Himmel.

In 1796 she went to Venice, where, being attacked by illness, she performed only once. She and her brother next visited Rome, and all the principal places in Italy. In 1798 she married a M. Felissent, from whom, however, she soon separated. In 1801 she returned to England, and as the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden competed for her services it was arranged that she should perform at each house alternately. She accordingly appeared at Covent Garden Theater, October 3, 1801, as Mandane in Arne’s “Artaxerxes,” still retaining the name of Billington. From this time until 1809, when she retired from public life, her services were in constant request. Once afterward she quitted her retirement to perform at a concert given in Whitehall Chapel on June 28, 1814, in aid of the sufferers by the war in Germany. In 1817 she was reconciled to her husband, and quitted England with him for her estate, situated near Venice, and there she died, August 28, 1818. Mrs. Billington’s compass was extensive (three octaves from A to A in altissimo), the upper notes being exquisitely beautiful. She excelled in passages of execution, but her powers of expression were limited. This limitation, however, was compensated by her natural and artistic gifts.

The reader may also be interested in seeking information regarding the following. All will be found treated in Grove’s well-known “Dictionary of Music and Musicians.”

Francesca Margherita de l’Epine. Catherine Tofts Anastasia Robinson ( ?-1750) Margherita Durastanti (c. 1695-?) Faustina Bordoni Hasse (1700-83) Lavinia Fenton (Beswick) ( ?-1760) Regina Mingotti (1728-1807) Nicolino Grimaldi called Nicolini (c. 1673-?) Giovanni Battista Rubinelli (1753-1829) Luigi Marchesi (1755-1829) Girolamo Crescentini (1766-1846) Josephina Grassini (1773-1850) Charles Benjamin Incledon (1763-1826) John Braham (1774-1856)