In the early years of the 20th Century the visionary theatre-manager and producer Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) was running shoe-string opera on Thursday and Saturday nights at the Old Vic, Waterloo, alternating with spoken theatre in cut-down English-language stagings that used an amateur chorus, an orchestra of 18, but had enough ambition to attempt occasional stabs at Wagner (semi-staged).
It was as much a social experiment as an artistic one, intended to bring high culture to ordinary working people and thereby ‘improve’ their lives. And encouraged by early success, Baylis then bought the freehold of Sadlers Wells, a redundant music-hall in Islington whose origins dated back to a 17th Century entertainment house and spa (fed by a well that still exists and can be seen) established by one Richard Sadler.
Building a new theatre that opened in 1931, she made the Wells her new hub for opera and dance, focused on core repertory works with an orchestra of 48 and singers like Joan Cross, Edith Coates and Peter Pears. Overall control eventually passed to stage director Tyrone Guthrie (1900 – 1971), but performing standards were variable and there were periodic attempts (usually driven by conductor Thomas Beecham) to subsume the company within the grander, more polished enterprise that was Covent Garden. Attempts that were vigorously resisted.
During the war the Wells was requisitioned as accommodation for bombed-out families, and its opera company (of just twenty singers) went on tour around Britain.
In 1945 it re-opened, triumphantly, with the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes which proved an unexpected success (amassing more at the box office than the Boheme and Butterfly running at the same time). But backstage disputes led some of the leading personalities involved with Grimes (including Cross, Pears and Britten) to break away and establish their own English Opera Group.
Meanwhile the Wells company struggled on, very much the poor relation of Covent Garden (which by 1950 was receiving Arts Council subsidies of £145,000 as against the Wells’s £40,000), and criticised for mediocrity – although this was clearly a matter for debate. The Guardian thought its 1950/51 season more exciting than Covent Garden’s and proof that the Wells had ‘moved into the front rank of opera houses’. At the same time there were publicly discussed proposals for the Wells to be developed into a new ‘national’ opera company, with a larger, purpose-built theatre on the South Bank of the Thames. Plans that came to nothing.
In 1960 the Carl Rosa touring opera company folded and Sadlers Wells took over its function, effectively dividing into two complementary organisations: one to service London, and one to tour the rest of the UK. But a persisting belief that London didn’t need a second opera company alongside Covent Garden wouldn’t die – leaving the Wells engaged in a longterm fight to justify its existence as a distinctive enterprise that offered London audiences something materially different to the Garden.
Over time the arguments for that distinctiveness settled on the notion that it was a ‘people’s’ opera company in contrast to the more elitist Garden; that it performed in English, with singing translations of the mainland European repertoire (something Covent Garden had previously done but no longer); that it was accordingly a national company using British artists, as against the international outlook of the Garden which flew in major stars from overseas; and that its stagings were more radical, experimental and (increasingly) provocative, in a way that fixed its reputation more firmly as a directors’ house than as a singers’ one.
In 1961 the Wells appointed the young, fiery (and at that point prickly) Colin Davis as its musical director, presiding over a double-company of some 280 employed artists and around 60 guest singers: too big an operation, now, for its Islington premises. In 1968 it moved to the London Coliseum, opening there with the curious statement of a Don Giovanni directed by John Gielgud and designed by Derek Jarman.
The 1970s proved a golden era, with Lord Harewood as managing director and Charles Mackerras in musical charge, conducting classic accounts of Janacek and period-conscious Mozart and Handel with artists like Janet Baker and Valerie Masterson. The only problem was the still surviving name, Sadlers Wells Opera, which caused confusion. So in 1974, with understandable objections from a seriously put out Covent Garden, the company officially became English National Opera.
Under pressure now to be more visible throughout the country and less London-centric, ENO established in 1977 a satellite company in Leeds which, four years later became the entirely independent Opera North. And with Scottish Opera (founded 1962 in Glasgow) and Welsh National Opera (active since1946 but a professional entity since only 1973) it brought the number of year-round, full-time, publicly-funded opera companies in Britain to five. Which is how it remains to this day: a small number compared to the 83 in Germany listed by the Deutscher Buhnenverein theatre association, although in fairness many of these companies are small municipal affairs that combine opera with spoken drama and are the legacy of Germany’s historic past as a collection of princeling states, each with its own court theatre and concern for cultural prestige.
People standardly assume that something called The Royal Opera, Covent Garden has been a constant, world-class presence in the operatic life of Britain for as long as history can recall. But this is not the case. In fact the company title Royal Opera (as opposed to the venue Royal Opera House with which it’s easily confused) has only been in use since 1968. And for many years what happened at the Royal Opera House was random, much of it completely unconnected with the world of high-art singing.
To start with the venue, there was a theatre on the Covent Garden site, called the Theatre Royal, as early as 1732 – built by the actor-manager John Rich from the considerable profits he amassed in staging John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera: an English low-life antidote to the high-society chic of Italian lyric theatre, and a big box-office success. As was said at the time, Beggar’s Opera ‘made Gay Rich and made Rich Gay’. And there was a certain irony in the way its comedic assault on the music of composers like Handel paid for a theatre that then housed the work of composers like Handel (who played several seasons of his operas there, alongside dance and spoken drama).
In 1808 Rich’s theatre burned down and was rebuilt to house a very mixed repertoire, from Shakespeare to pantomime. In 1847 it burned down again, reopening as the Royal Italian Opera and performing everything in Italian (even if the piece in question was originally written to be sung in French or German). And in 1856 it burned down for a third time, reopening as the building that still stands.
Its chief purpose was now (at last) the performance of opera, starting with Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. And in 1892 it acquired the name Royal Opera House, with something that looked like a resident ensemble and bore the title Royal English Opera Company. In truth, its programming was still eclectic, still including elements of panto and variety. And the opera functioned in short seasons run by independent impresarios who came and went – prominent among them being Thomas Beecham who conducted his own seasons there from 1910 to 1939.
In World War II the House became a dance hall; and it might have remained so had the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes (who published Britten) not stepped in and bought the lease – which they then sublet to a newly formed Covent Garden Opera Trust, chaired by the economist Maynard Keynes.
Formed in 1946, the objects of this Trust were to establish a ‘national centre of opera and ballet, employing British artists in all departments where that is consistent with the maintenance of the best possible standards’. In other words it was looking to create something closer to the pre-existing Sadlers Wells Opera than to the great European models in Milan, Vienna or Paris – though as several of the trustees took a dim view of what they considered the ‘parochial’ status of Sadlers Wells, they wouldn’t have welcomed that comparison.
It was to function year-round. The operas were to be sung in English. And as the Trust was to receive public funding from the newly created Arts Council – with a set-up grant of £60,000 and an initial yearly grant of £25,000 that very soon increased – there was a politically determined requirement to keep ticket prices within the reach of ordinary people. Good seats could be got for half a crown (12.5p). And it was not without significance that the first managing director was David Webster (1903-1971) whose previous career had been running a Liverpool department store.
A practically-minded, music-loving businessman who had organised concerts for factory workers during the war, attended Liverpool University, and also happened to be gay, he was not from the conventional opera-going elite. And his business plan was to build a new company from the roots up – recruiting another outsider-figure, the not so well-known Austrian refugee Karl Rankl, as his first music director.
To begin with, the English focus seemed viable. Webster’s regime opened with a joint opera/ballet production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen. He secured the services of the relatively few British singers of renown on the international opera circuit, including Eva Turner who sang a memorable Turandot in the first season. And he managed to gather some eminent foreign stars like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Hans Hotter and Kirsten Flagstad who were prepared to relearn familiar roles in English translation. But finding such singers proved increasingly difficult.
When Rafael Kubelik took over as music director in 1954, the policy was still to sing in English – but it was breaking down, under attack from all sides, including Thomas Beecham who publicly declared it impractical for an opera house of world calibre.
By this time, a new generation of world-class singers with English as their first language was in fact coming through – with the likes of Geraint Evans, Marie Collier, Josephine Veasey, and Joan Sutherland (whose 1959 appearance in Covent Garden’s Lucia di Lammermoor launched one of the great careers of 20th Century singing). But a far larger raft of international talent that Webster wanted to engage – Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, Tito Gobbi and others – were actively resistant to English. And whatever lobby there might have been for singing in translation to survive, it was effectively silenced by an interesting commercial finding reported in the Covent Garden annual review for 1959.
The finding was that on ‘English’ nights the audience was 72% full. On so-called ‘International’ nights it was 91% full – and paying higher ticket prices because the singers were more illustrious. In terms of box-office earnings, English made no sense.
When Georg Solti took over as music director in 1961, the mix of English-translation and original language still technically survived, but only just. And not for long. It was his ten-year reign that finally edged the Garden into the top tier of international companies – a fact acknowledged in 1968 with the award of the title Royal Opera.
This was the era of legendary shows like the 1964 Zeffirelli Tosca with Callas and Gobbi. And it’s worth noting that although the five most frequently staged composers during the 1960s were (as you’d expect) Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Mozart and Richard Strauss, the sixth was Britten. Sung by an incoming generation of home-grown stars like Geraint Evans and Peter Glossop.
Webster retired in 1970, to be succeeded by his assistant John Tooley. And when Solti stood down the following year his successor was Colin Davis – a controversial appointment that nonetheless delivered notable successes like the premiere of Michael Tippett’s Knot Garden in 1970, and survived through sometimes turbulent years to 1986.
British National Opera Company
Between 1915 and 1920 Sir Thomas Beecham ran an opera company that then disbanded – after which its assets (scenery, costumes, scores and instruments) were bought by a new organisation that called itself the British National Opera Company, toured the UK, and ran English-language opera seasons in, initially, His Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket but subsequently Covent Garden.
Its first artistic director was Percy Pitt, later director of music at the BBC. His successor was Frederic Austin, a baritone who had achieved fame with a 1920 edition of Beggar’s Opera that played at the Lyric, Hammersmith. And though the BNOC is largely forgotten today, it achieved considerable distinction in the 1920s under conductors like Boult, Sargent, and Barbirolli, with singers like Heddle Nash and Dennis Noble.
In 1923 it coaxed Nellie Melba out of retirement (singing in Italian while the rest of the company soldiered on around her in English). The same year it claimed the first European broadcast of a complete opera: Hansel and Gretel with Maggie Teyte. And it championed new British works by Holst (At the Boars Head, Perfect Fool) and Vaughan Williams (Hugh the Drover).
But this wasn’t to last long. In 1929 it was faced with a huge tax demand for £17000 which forced it into voluntary liquidation. Its final performances took place at the Golders Green Hippodrome. And it was then re-formed as the Covent Garden Opera Company under Barbirolli, continuing as such until 1938.
English Opera Group
In 1946 Glyndebourne staged the premiere of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia and toured the it under the auspices of the ‘Glyndebourne English Opera Group’, funded by the company’s founder John Christie. But it lost so much money that the enterprise was dissolved; and an independent English Opera Group was formed the following year by Britten, the soprano Joan Cross, tenor Peter Pears, mezzo Anne Wood, designer John Piper and director Eric Crozier.
Its declared intention was create a repertoire of new English operas – at the core of which, inevitably, would be works by Britten. And its first venture was Britten’s Albert Herring, which the EOG staged as a ‘guest’ at Glyndebourne (alongside a revival of Lucretia) and then took on tour.
But the tour proved so financially draining that everyone involved decided it would be better if the EOG had a stable base for its performances – the choice being a festival in Aldeburgh that began in 1948.
Meanwhile, in 1947 the EOG undertook its first external commission: a non-operatic Stabat Mater setting from Britten’s friend and colleague Lennox Berkeley.
No opera commission arose until 1951 with Brian Easdale’s The Sleeping Children. But then came a steady flow, encompassing eleven other works by British composers including Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement (1954), Ruth (1956) and Castaway (1967); Walton’s The Bear (1967), Malcolm Williamson’s English Eccentrics (1964), Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy (1968), Gordon Crosse’s Purgatory and The Grace of Todd (1969), and Thea Musgrave’s The Voice of Ariadne (1974).
Of all these works, only The Bear has stood the test of time sufficiently to find a frequent home onstage. And they by no means reflect Britten’s own taste: he notoriously disliked the Birtwistle.
But EOG had infinitely more success performing Britten’s own music: The Little Sweep, Turn of the Screw, Noye’s Fludde, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Church Parables and Death in Venice. For the sake of its financial health if nothing else it sometimes played established standard-repertory works like Mozart’s Idomeneo, Puccini’s La Rondine and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. And in 1958 at the Aldeburgh Festival it gave the UK premiere of Poulenc’s Mamelles de Tiresias.
In the 1970s Steuart Bedford became its music director, with Colin Graham as director of productions. And in 1975 Graham reformed the company as English Music Theatre with a broader remit to stage musicals and operettas. Notable productions included Stephen Oliver’s Tom Jones, Conrad Susa’s Transformations, Henze’s La Cubana, and a Threepenny Opera conducted in 1976 by the young Simon Rattle. But EMT only survived for five years, closing in 1980 after a final performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Well-known singers associated with the company included Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Heather Harper, Sylvia Fisher, Nancy Evans, John Shirley-Quirk, James Bowman and Robert Tear, as well as Jennifer Vyvyan.
Carl Rosa Opera Company
Carl Rosa (1842-89) was a German violinist/conductor who married a Scottish singer with the formidable name of Euphrosyne Parepa. Between them they toured opera in English across the United States. Then in 1873 they launched a London company that would continue to tour English-language opera for the next 85 years.
The company gave the British premieres of La Boheme (with Puccini present, in 1897), as well as Carmen, Manon, Lohengrin and other standard works. But there were endless money problems that led to repeated attempts to merge the company with other organisations like Sadlers Wells and Welsh National Opera. In 1960 it finally collapsed – to be re-established, on a much reduced scale and with a focus on light repertoire, in 1998.
Notable singers associated with the company in its heyday included Eva Turner, Joan Hammond, Heddle Nash, Tudor Davies and Charles Craig.
An eccentric Old Etonian landowner, schoolmaster and businessman who bought, among other enterprises, the organ-building firm of Hill, Norman & Beard, John Christie (1882-1962) inherited a country estate on the Sussex Downs near Lewes and extended it with an 80ft organ room in which he gave private concerts.
On marrying a Canadian soprano, Audrey Mildmay, who sang with the Carl Rosa Company, his house-music acquired new ambitions. And in 1934 he opened his own 300-seat auditorium on the estate, intending it to be an English Bayreuth that would stage Wagner in festival circumstances.
This was not a practical proposal, and the auditorium became best-known for staging Mozart. But as such it remained staunchly Germanophile, absorbing refugees from Nazi Germany as its music director (Fritz Busch), artistic director (Carl Ebert) and general manager (Rudolf Bing).
In its earliest years it also absorbed Benjamin Britten who premiered Rape of Lucretia there (1946) and Albert Herring (1947), but the relationship proved fractious and abortive – prompting Britten to go his own way with an independent English Opera Group.
With a season that ran only in the summer months, embracing around half a dozen works, Glyndebourne established the model for what is now known as country-house opera – performing in privileged circumstances to a privileged audience who are encouraged to wear evening dress (a practice already dying out in 1930s Britain when Christie decided to revive it) and enjoy extravagant picnics during a long dinner-interval.
But more important, the privileged circumstances extended to rehearsal of the operas. Having developed from the charming, knockabout amateurism of an English aristocratic houseparty, Glyndebourne became a byword for meticulous standards of preparation – in circumstances of prolonged arcadian bliss that other, hard-pressed, year-round opera companies couldn’t offer. It set standards. And with wealthy supporters, it flourished without public subsidy – which meant it was answerable to no one but itself, and was free to pursue its own distinctive manner of presentation, programming and casting.
The lack of state support did in fact mean that it couldn’t pursue the biggest international stars seen on the Covent Garden stage. But it became adept at spotting singers on their way to stardom, catching names like Montserrat Caballe, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in the early days of their careers. It also built a loyalty among the likes of Sena Jurinac, Richard Lewis, Elisabeth Soderstrom and Janet Baker who became house favourites, as well as nurturing young British singers in the Glyndebourne Chorus – which was, and remains, essentially a training chorus through which singers of distinction often pass before establishing themselves as soloists.
Intimate Opera Company
Founded in 1930 by the baritone Frederick Woodhouse, Intimate Opera was a small-scale touring company, based in London, that specialised in the revival of chamber-scale works by composers like Arne, Dibdin and Purcell which would be done with minimal staging and piano accompaniment.
It launched humbly, with a 1930 production of Arne’s Thomas and Sally in Tooting, but had grander ambitions – managing to run a season in New York in 1938, and giving the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Poisoned Kiss at Cambridge in 1936.
The composer and broadcaster Antony Hopkins took over from Woodhouse in 1952, and some of his own works had Intimate Opera premieres.
New Opera Company
Established in 1957 by the opera administrator Peter Hemmings (1934-2002) out of a company he ran as a Cambridge student, the NOC was a modest venture with an off-the-scale record for introducing unfamiliar works to the British public.
Developed with conductor Leon Lovett, musicologist Brian Trowell and stage director Anthony Besch, it presented through the 1960s/70s the UK premieres of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, Hindemith’s Cardillac, Shostakovich’s The Nose, Martinu’s Julietta, Szymanowski’s King Roger …alongside many brand new British works.
Functioning in collaboration with Sadlers Wells, and later ENO, it was a favoured client of both the Arts Council and Greater London Council until 1984 when it completely lost its public funding and was forced to close.
Welsh National Opera
The name Welsh National Opera dates back to the 1890s but it was more a matter of aspiration than actuality, with nothing much to show of permanence or substance until 1946 when a company was formed in Cardiff for a double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci.
It was largely amateur but, through association with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, attracted attention in the 1950s for productions of the less-known Verdi operas. With growing ambitions, the company settled into the New Theatre, Cardiff and made occasional tours over the border to England – though that proved difficult with an amateur chorus who had day jobs. And at the same time it began a policy of engaging major professional soloists – starting in the 1950s with singers like Heather Harper and Joan Hammond, progressing through the 1960s with Gwyneth Jones, John Shirley-Quirk, Geraint Evans and Margaret Price, and eventually drawing in names from abroad like the baritone Tito Gobbi and conductor James Levine.
But it wasn’t until 1973 that the company became fully professional and truly equipped for an international reputation under conductors James Lockhart, Richard Armstrong and Charles Mackerras, working alongside the stage director Michael Geliot. Golden years with a distinguished 1980s Ring Cycle at their heart.
Scotland was a country that featured often enough in opera (Lucia di Lammermoor, Macbeth, Maria Stuarda, Donna del lago…) but didn’t stage very much of it until 1962 when the conductor Alexander Gibson (1926-1995) established the embryonic Scottish Opera with a production of Madam Butterfly at the Kings Theatre, Glasgow.
Gibson had been music director of Sadlers Wells in the late 1950s before returning to his homeland to run the Scottish National Orchestra. Scottish Opera grew from that activity, with Peter Hemmings as general administrator. And Gibson remained in musical charge until 1987.