Until recently many people hadn’t heard of the actor Ira Aldridge, a black Shakespearean actor. Aldridge was at one point, in the mid-nineteenth century, the highest paid actor in Russia. I came across his story when I started researching my novel, set in 1850s London, and decided to use his experiences as a template for my fictional family, the Johnsons. After successful runs of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet in London and New York, Aldridge has once more returned to popular consciousness. Much is made of his achievements on the stage but little is spoken about this mixed race family who lived in Victorian London, especially his two daughters who had interesting lives of their own.
Ira was married to his first wife, Margaret for around 40 years but their union was childless. It was with his mistress, Swedish opera singer Amanda Brandt, that he had his five children (the couple married after Margaret’s death in April 1865). His sons did not live up to their father’s success but the two daughters who lived beyond infancy are another story.
Irene Luranah and Amanda Ira Aldridge followed in their mother’s footsteps, both becoming opera singers. Luranah was the more successful in terms of performing, while Amanda became known as a composer, writing under the pseudonym Montague Ring.
The tragedy is that Luranah, born in 1860, had the potential to become just as famous as her father. Both girls were schooled in Belgium before returning to London to study music. Luranah’s voice was the better of the two, and she began to make herself known in opera circles. Her father may have been black, but it is known that Richard Wagner, famed for his racism and anti-Semitism, saw him perform and indeed looked forward to it. Wagner died in 1883 and so it was his widow Cosima who auditioned and then cast Luranah to perform in the Ring at Bayreuth in the summer of 1896. She arrived in Bayreuth for rehearsals before falling ill, resulting in her inability to perform. Luranah recovered at an expensive spa near to Bayreuth, the price of such an establishment suggesting that it was Cosima Wagner who paid the bill. Indeed, there is written evidence that Luranah was on friendly terms with Wagner’s daughter, Eva, a woman who was later buried with her coffin draped in a Nazi flag.
Luranah had missed her chance. She returned to London and performed in odd recitals but, for whatever reason, Cosima Wagner never again invited her to perform. Later on she suffered from ill health, cared for by her sister Amanda, and committed suicide with an overdose of aspirin at the age of seventy two.
Amanda Aldridge was born in 1866, the year before her father died. After studying under the likes of famed Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and the composer Sir George Henschel at the Royal College of Music, Amanda worked as a concert singer and voice teacher. Like her sister, she suffered with voice issues and concentrated on teaching as well as publishing her original compositions. Several of her students went on to fame in their own right, such as Paul Robeson, a man often mentioned in the same breath as her father. Amanda watched Robeson play Othello, her father’s most famous role, in London’s West End in 1930, and presented him with the gold earrings worn by Ira on stage. She died in March 1956 at the grand old age of 89, the last of the Aldridge clan so far as we know.