Kelly, Michael (1762–1826), actor, singer, and composer, was born 25 December 1762 in Dublin, eldest of the fourteen children of Thomas Kelly, wine merchant and deputy master of ceremonies at Dublin castle, and his wife, formerly a Miss McCabe, from Co. Westmeath. Displaying an early aptitude for music, he was educated by Italian teachers and made his operatic debut at the Fishamble Street Theatre on 17 May 1777 after the leading tenor in Niccolò Piccinni's ‘La buona figliuola’ became ill. He was an immediate success and sang the title role in Michael Arne's ‘Cymon’ at the Crow Street Theatre later the same month.
Wishing to continue his musical education abroad, he arrived in Naples 30 May 1779 to study singing with Fedele Fenaroli, and the following year went to Palermo, where he trained under Giuseppe Aprile. He was engaged by the Vienna court theatre in the summer of 1784, and over the next three years he performed in numerous operas, working with Christoph Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with whom he became friends; he later claimed that Mozart dissuaded him from studying counterpoint. At the première of Mozart's ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ on 1 May 1786 Kelly sang the roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio. Having decided to pursue a career in London, he made his debut at Drury Lane on 20 April 1787 in Charles Dibdin's ‘A school for fathers’. His mother died that summer, and he returned to Ireland, where he played twelve nights at Smock Alley and gave concerts in Limerick and Cork. A radical in politics, he visited revolutionary France on several occasions in the early 1790s. In 1793 he was temporarily joint manager of the King's Theatre, London, and the following year was made stage manager.
Kelly was unsuited to acting and had more success as a singer, but even though he was sometimes called ‘the Irish nightingale’ he was never considered a first-rank tenor. In 1797 he became musical director at Drury Lane, and composed the first of many works for performance there. These lacked any real distinction, except for the extracts he lifted from continental compositions; according to Thomas Moore (qv), ‘Poor Mick is rather an imposer than a composer’. Nevertheless, a number of his works proved popular, including ‘Blue Beard’ in 1797–8 and ‘Pizzaro’ the following season. On 1 January 1802 he opened his own music saloon, where he sold music and, following in the footsteps of his father, wine. His friend Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv) commented that the sign should read ‘Michael Kelly, composer of wines and importer of music’.
The death of his common-law wife, the actress Mrs Crouch (Anna Maria Philips), in October 1805 affected Kelly greatly and he decided to retire from performing. In the summers of 1810 and 1811 he returned to Dublin to run an opera company, and his final known stage appearance was at his Dublin benefit, 1 October 1811, when he sang one of his own songs, ‘The bard of Erin’; he was declared bankrupt the same autumn. Continuing to work as a theatre impresario, during his final years he suffered ill health due to gout. His Reminiscences were published in two volumes in 1826; these were ghost-written by Theodore Hook from ‘rough illiterate materials’ (A biographical dictionary of actors . . ., viii, 299) supplied by Kelly, who was furious with the finished product; despite many inaccuracies and embellishments, the work proved popular and became an important source for music historians, especially Mozart scholars.
Kelly died 9 October 1826 at Margate in Kent, and was buried at St Paul's, Covent Garden, London. He did not marry, and is believed to have left no children. Several of his family also achieved some success in the theatre. His brother Mark (1767–1833) was an actor in London, and was the father of the renowned singing actress Francis Maria Kelly (1790–1882). Another brother Joseph (c.1770–1817) acted in Dublin, and was later killed in a duel. In 1955 Naomi Jacob wrote a novel, The Irish boy, based on Michael Kelly's life.