Kelly, Michael (17621826), singer and composer, was born on 25 December 1762 in Dublin, the eldest of the fourteen children of Thomas Kelly and his wife, a Miss McCabe from co. Westmeath. His father was master of ceremonies at Dublin Castle and a wine merchant.
Kelly was brought up in a musical household. He had piano lessons from Morland and Cogan and singing tuition from Passerini, Peretti, and San Giorgio. He attended Italian operas and performed in amateur musical theatricals. He made his professional début as a treble in 1777, replacing an indisposed castrato as the Count in Piccinni's La buona figliuola. That summer he also took the title role in Michael Arne's Cymon for three nights at the Crow Street Theatre, followed by a benefit performance as Master Lionel in Charles Dibdin's Lionel and Clarissa. The famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini gave Kelly lessons during a visit to Dublin in 1778 and advised his father to send him to Italy to study singing.
Kelly set sail on a Swedish merchant ship on 1 May 1779 and arrived on 30 May in Naples, where he lived under the patronage of Sir William Hamilton (17301803), British envoy to the court of Naples, and in the care of Father Dolphin, a Dominican. He studied at the conservatory of San Maria di Loreto. In 1780 he continued his studies with the castrato Giuseppe Aprile, who took him to Palermo; there his voice matured into a tenor. In 1780 or early 1781 in Leghorn he met the young English composer Stephen Storace and his younger sister Nancy, a buffa singer, with both of whom he formed a lifelong friendship. He accepted various singing engagements in Italy, including Florence and Venice, and he went briefly to Graz.
In 1783 Kelly, along with Nancy Storace, Francesco Benucci, and Stefano Mandini, was offered a contract by Emperor Joseph II to sing opera buffa at the Burgtheater in Vienna. He sang secondary roles in works by composers such as Paisiello, Martín y Soler, Salieri, Sarti, and Storace, and took the double role of Don Curzio and Don Basilio in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in 1786. Kelly devoted almost a hundred pages of his Reminiscences to his four years in Vienna, providing a lively account of the cultural and social whirl, with personal recollections of the musicians and passing comments about the music he heard and performed.
On 24 February 1787 Kelly set off for London in the company of Stephen and Nancy Storace, their mother Elizabeth, Harry Vane (later Lord Barnard), and the young composer Thomas Attwood. They travelled through Salzburg, where they visited Mozart's father Leopold, and Paris, where they went to the opera and probably acquired opera scores. Kelly arrived in London for the first time on 18 March.
Kelly joined the company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He made his début there on 20 April 1787 as Lionel in A School for Fathers [Lionel and Clarissa], partnered by as Clarissa. That summer, after receiving news of his mother's death, Kelly and the Crouches travelled to Dublin, then toured the English provincial theatre circuit. For the remainder of their professional lives Kelly and Anna Crouch performed at Drury Lane during the London theatre season and toured professionally during the summers; in some years they included a visit to France, where Kelly attended the opera and purchased opera scores for use in London.
In 1787 Kelly began to share accommodation with Anna Crouch and her husband in a seemingly amicable arrangement. The Crouches separated in 1791; Kelly and Anna Crouch performed together until she retired in 1801, and lived together until her death in 1805. He had no children; his niece, , became an actress and singer.
Most of Kelly's new roles at Drury Lane were composed for him by Storace, who was acting house composer between 1788 and 1796. When Kelly played Sir William in Storace's The Haunted Tower (1789) he was partnered by Anna Crouch and joined by Nancy Storace and Jack Bannister as the principal comic characters. For the next seven years these four singers played together in almost all of Storace's mainpiece operas, including The Siege of Belgrade (1790), The Pirates (1792), The Cherokee (1794), and his posthumous work Mahmoud (1796), which Kelly may have helped to complete.
On 16 April 1790 Kelly gave the première of Storace's afterpiece No Song, No Supper for his benefit performance because John Philip Kemble had rejected it for inclusion in the regular repertory; it became a staple of the theatre well into the nineteenth century. In 1793 Kelly and Storace became joint acting managers of the Italian Opera company at the King's Theatre; Kelly then continued as stage-manager for most of his professional life.
In 1789 Kelly earned £11 a week at Drury Lane; by 17956 this had risen to £16, where it remained for at least ten years. He increased this substantial income by performing in concert series such as the Academy of Ancient Music, the Concerts of Ancient Music, and the annual Handel celebrations at Westminster Abbey. He also made occasional appearances with the Italian Opera company.
After Storace died in 1796, Thomas Linley's son William was appointed as house composer at Drury Lane. When he proved unsuccessful, Kelly began to compose for the theatre, starting with A Friend in Need and Blue Beard (both 1797) and Of Age Tomorrow (1800). Some of his musical manuscripts were destroyed in the fire that demolished Drury Lane in 1809. He claimed to have written sixty-two operas, though not all were entirely his own work. He had a lyric gift but little technical skill, and sometimes allowed others to harmonize or orchestrate his melodies. Kelly was an adherent of the simpler style of English opera, in which the action takes place in the spoken dialogue and is interspersed with songs and simple ensembles.
1802 was a busy year for Kelly. On 1 January he opened a music shop and publishing business at 9 Pall Mall (next door to the King's Theatre), which went bankrupt in 1811. He also took over supervision of the music at Drury Lane and, in the summer season, at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket.
When Kelly retired from the stage on 17 June 1808, he included No Song, No Supper in his final performance. He continued to manage the King's Theatre and direct the music at Drury Lane until 1820. In his last years, immobilized by severe gout, he lived under the friendship and patronage of George IV.
Kelly was remarkable for using full voice at the top of his range rather than the falsetto favoured by other English tenors. Boaden described its amazing power and steadiness; his compass was extraordinary (Boaden, 1.35052); other commentators were less enthusiastic. His acting was not notable but he was a popular performer, and retained his Irish accent. He was a very personable character: in Boaden's words, a very kind and friendly man, popular for his good humour and cheerful spirit. His most important legacy is his Reminiscences (1826), ghosted by Theodore Hook, and generally accurate and detailed. His errors, for which he has sometimes been criticized, are, in the generous words of John Taylor, all of a trifling nature, and hardly worth notice (Records of my Life, 3029). The Reminiscences give an invaluable picture of eighteenth-century musical life and personalities.
Kelly died on 9 October 1826 in Margate, and was buried in London in the churchyard of St Paul's, Covent Garden. He left no will.
M. Kelly, Reminiscences, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1826); repr., R. Fiske, ed. (1975) · M. Kelly, Reminiscences, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1826); repr. (1968) · A. H. King, Kelly, Michael, The new Grove dictionary of opera, ed. S. Sadie, 2 (1992) · Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA, 8.291300 · J. Taylor, Records of my life, 2 (1832), 3029 · J. Boaden, Memoirs of the life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols. (1825), vol. 1, pp. 35052
J. Neagle, line engraving, repubd 1796 (after T. Lawrence), BM · H. Meyer, stipple, pubd 1825 (after A. Wivell), BM; repro. in Kelly, Reminiscences (1826), frontispiece; versions, NPG, NG Ire. · C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1825 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NG Ire. · C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1825 (after J. Lonsdale), BM, NG Ire. · S. De Wilde, oils (as Cymon), Garr. Club · S. De Wilde, watercolour, Harvard TC · T. Hook, pen-and-ink drawing, BM · W. Loftis, watercolour (as the Mask in The island of St Marguerite), Folger · W. Loftis, watercolour (as William in The haunted tower), Folger · J. Lonsdale, oils, Garr. Club · ten prints, Harvard TC · theatrical prints, BM, NPG