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Frederick Austin as Rodolpho in Puccini's opera La Bohème, sepia-tone photograph postcard, around 1918

Frederick Austin as Rodolpho (Puccini's 'La Bohème'), sepia-tone photograph postcard, around 1918


Fanny Moody, sepia-tone photograph, late 19th to early 20th century

Fanny Moody, sepia-tone photograph, late 19th to early 20th century

In the late 19th century, opera was mainly confined to short seasons at a major London theatre, usually Her Majesty's or the Royal Opera House. Opera continued to be a fashionable entertainment and watching the audience was as important as watching the stage. When electric lighting was installed and the auditorium lights were lowered during the performance, opera audiences complained that they could not be seen.

Until the mid 20th century, the Royal Opera House was only used for opera for part of the year and the rest of the time presented plays, pantomimes, revues and even ice shows. During World War II (1939 - 45) it was a dance hall. English singers of talent, like Eva Turner, did sing in London, but spent most of their careers abroad. The turn of the century saw a revival of interest (mostly by small, specialist societies) in 17th- and 18th-century opera, some of which had not been performed for over 200 years.

Outside London there were occasional performances by a touring opera, such as the Moody-Manners Company or the Carl Rosa Opera. In the early 20th century Sir Thomas Beecham established the British National Opera Company but even his father's money (derived from the famous pharmaceutical empire) could not keep it afloat indefinitely.

This publicity postcard shows Frederick Austin as Rodolpho in Puccini's popular opera La Bohème, with Thomas Beecham's Opera Company about 1918. Austin, one of the most versatile and accomplished musicians of his day, was professor of composition in Liverpool when he first met Beecham. 'This,' recalled Beecham, 'was my first encounter with a wholly modern and up-to-date type  of musical mind, adventurous, impressionable, and yet coolly analytical and tolerant.'

Most of the operas in the Beecham Company's repertory were performed in English and Beecham took a lot of trouble over the translations. He went over each phrase with his leading singers to see which words they could most easily sing on each note. Austin was particularly skilled at matching verbal sound to musical sound. After the Beecham Company folded, Austin went to see Nigel Playfair and over tea they devised the idea of a revival of The Beggar's Opera. Austin rearranged the music for what went on to become one of the most popular productions of the 1920.

Fanny Moody was one of the singers who began to give the lie to the old prejudice that the English singers were not suited to opera. She was born in 1866 when most opera was confined to London and limited seasons. She sang with the Carl Rosa Opera, a touring company, where she met her husband Charles Manners. In 1892 she was the first English Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. In 1898, she and her husband formed the Moody-Manners Opera Company, a poster for which can be seen in the background of this photograph. They appeared at Covent Garden, but most of their life was spent touring Britain. In the late 19th century, the musical capital of England was not London, but Manchester, and then, as now, cities like Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham all had orchestras and choirs and audiences who had a great understanding of music. Fanny sang a wide range of roles, including Wagner, although she was most suited to roles like Cio-Cio-San the heroine of Puccini's Madam Butterfly.

Lilian Baylis, black and white photograph, around 1930

Lilian Baylis, black and white photograph, around 1930


Old Vic Green Flyer, London, 1936

Old Vic Green Flyer, London, 1936

Sadler's Wells Opera

Not until the 20th century was a permanent English opera company established and the long-held prejudice against English singers and composers dispelled. This resulted not from national policy but from the passionate conviction of one woman, Lilian Baylis, at the Old Vic.

Baylis brought opera to a new audience who came to hear the operas rather than to be seen. Many of the audience were clerical and white-collar workers who had benefited from the new education systems and who were eager to explore literature, music and theatre.

Lilian Baylis was one of the greatest pioneers in the history of the British Theatre. She came to England from South Africa to help her aunt, Emma Cons - who was a social reformer and had opened the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall as a temperance theatre where she presented lectures and music concerts - run the Old Vic Theatre by putting on popular temperance concerts for the working class, offering an alternative to the pub. She then took over its management after her aunt’s death.

While Baylis was also committed to staging affordable theatre, she saw no reason why the inhabitants of Waterloo shouldn’t enjoy Shakespeare, opera and ballet. Under her management, every Shakespeare play was produced between 1913 and 1923 and she staged operas and ballets at the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells.

Her work laid the foundation for both the National Theatre and the English National Opera. In 1928 she employed Ninette de Valois who created the ballet company that would eventually become the Royal Ballet. In 1924 Lilian Baylis was awarded an honorary Master’s degree from Oxford University (only the second woman to receive one) and in 1929, she became a Companion of Honour, an honour awarded for service to the nation.

In 1912 Baylis applied for a full theatrical licence so that people could see what she considered to be the best entertainment – Shakespeare and opera. She had no money to mount grand productions and until the 1930s, the productions were visually impoverished and the singing only adequate.

In the 1930s Baylis moved the opera and ballet to Sadler’s Wells theatre. There was now time for adequate rehearsals and with three performances a week standards improved. The repertory was based on well-loved operas by Rossini, Verdi and Wagner.

Baylis also introduced the audience to Russian opera, like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden and Tsar Sultan, most of which had only been heard occasionally in visiting Russian productions.

Baylis was very anxious to keep costs to a minimum, including money for publicity. To their great embarrassment, anyone visiting her office was handed piles of  these flyers to distribute wherever they went – libraries, buses, cafés, and so on. After 1931, when Baylis was managing the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells, all three companies alternated between the theatres. This caused massive confusion, with expectant audiences frequently turning up at the wrong place.

Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 1958

Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 1958

Baylis’ flyers were the only links that told people where to go. This flyer advertises a notable production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It starred Laurence Olivier who later made a famous film of the play. Planned tours are also detailed. All three companies were to become national institutions: the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Ballet, and the English National Opera.

This photograph is of the great Bulgarian opera singer Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov in the coronation scene of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. The actual costume worn in the photograph was owned by Christoff and given by him to the theatre.

Like the great 19th-century singers, he had his own costumes and wore them all over the world. As the costumes in 'Boris Godunov' are usually based on historical sources, this robe would have fitted into any production. Christoff was the most famous Boris Godunov of his day. He first sang the role at Covent Garden in 1949 although he clashed with the director, Peter Brook and sang the Rimsky-Korsakov version in Russian rather than the Mussorgsky original in English that everyone else was singing. The robes are not quite as elaborate or lavish as those worn by Chaliapin 30 years earlier, but are much more expensive than Sadler’s Wells Opera could afford when they first produced 'Boris Godunov' in the 1930s.

The Royal Opera House

After serving as a dance hall during World War II, the Royal Opera House reopened in 1946 as the National Theatre for opera and dance. Sadler's Wells Ballet moved in as the resident ballet company and plans were made to set up a permanent British opera company that could also play host to the great international opera stars.

Over the next ten years, the first generation of British and Commonwealth opera singers emerged - Geraint Evans, Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers. Alongside them appeared the great international singers like Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Luciano Pavarotti.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Royal Opera was noted for its high production standards. Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Tosca' gave Maria Callas one of her greatest performances. Lucino Visconti's productions of Verdi's Don Carlos in 1958 and his black-and-white production of La Traviata, set in the1890s and inspired by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. It was in Zeffirelli's 1959 production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor that Joan Sutherland became famous overnight.

Scene from Wagner's opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1957

Scene from Wagner's opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1957

In the post-war period, Britain at last produced opera composers of international standing. The Opera House commissioned operas from British composers, including Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and Harrison Birtwhistle. The Opera House continued to develop exciting new singers of international standing, including Kiri Te Kanawa and Thomas Allen. The old tradition of the prima donna standing centre stage had gone and the post-war generation were singer-actors who were part of an integrated production.

This photograph shows Wagner's opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at Covent Garden in 1957. The opera was sung in English and in the full version, lasting 5½ hours and starting at 6pm - 'Quite a strain on the stamina of Wagnerites after a hard day's work and an egg sandwich' commented veteran opera critic Philip Hope-Wallace. The production was directed by the German singer Erich Witte, but during rehearsals the tenor singing the leading role of Walther had to withdraw and Witte learned and sang the role, in English, at only two weeks' notice. One cause for congratulation was that, only 12 years after the opera company was established at Covent Garden, it could field an almost completely British cast in one of Wagner's most demanding operas.

Scene from Berlioz's opera The Trojans, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1969

Scene from Berlioz's opera The Trojans, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1969

In 1969, Covent Garden marked the centenary of Berlioz's death by staging a magnificent production of his epic opera The Trojans. It told of the fall of Troy, of Aeneas' escape to Carthage, his love and eventual desertion of Queen Dido and her death. This was the first time Berlioz's masterpiece had been given in full in London. It ran for five hours and the cast totalled 155, including 20 principal singers and 30 dancers. The conductor was Colin Davis, one of the world's greatest interpreters of Berlioz. 'In his hands' eulogised one critic, 'the music glowed into triumphant life and defied incomprehension.' The spectacular designs were the work of Greek designer Nicholas Georgiadis. He made a visual distinction between Troy and Carthage. Troy was classical, linear and sombre against  a dark sky. Carthage, as seen in this photograph, was bathed in a golden light with elegant, splendidly rich costumes.

This photograph shows the ballet in the triumph scene from Margherita Wallmann's production of Verdi's Aida at Covent Garden in 1957.
Scene from Margherita Wallmann's production of Verdi's Aida, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1957

Scene from Margherita Wallmann's production of Verdi's Aida, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1957

Not content with being the first woman to direct a full length opera at Covent Garden, Wallmann also choreographed the ballets and drilled the 60 volunteers from the Welsh and Scots Guards who were appearing as the triumphant Egyptian army to the strains of Verdi's famous march. Queen Victoria first gave permission for guardsmen to be used as extras at Covent Garden and the tradition continued well into the late 20th century. Wallman had had a long and varied career. She had to give up her dancing career in Vienna when she broke her hip, but became a  major choreographer in the free-dance European style. She became choreographer to MGM and worked on Garbo's films in Hollywood, but she hated working without a live audience and abandoned Hollywood for Europe and a successful career as an opera producer.

English National Opera

In 1945 the Sadler's Wells Opera returned to Sadler's Wells and concentrated on producing opera in English. Their first great success was the world premiere of Peter Grimes which heralded the arrival of Benjamin Britten. Britten became the first English opera composer of international standing.

In the 1950s, Sadler's Wells Opera's productions of the great French operettas became hugely popular notably Offenbach's La Belle Helène and Orpheus in the Underworld – with Orpheus descending into Hades strap-hanging on the London underground in the rush hour.

In 1968, Sadler's Wells Opera moved from its cramped base in Islington to the London Coliseum in the heart of London's West End. In 1974 the company became English National Opera.

In the 80s, David Pountney and conductor Mark Elder developed a more radical and idiosyncratic production style. Their operas had a cartoon-style energy and were very visual. This shocked some of the more conservative members of the opera going public, but appealed to a new and younger audience.

Scene from Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 1963

Scene from Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 1963

Lesser-known operas were revived, including the controversial Mazeppa. Gilbert and Sullivan fans were also surprised by Jonathan Miller's The Mikado, which was performed as a 1930s musical comedy with Yum-Yum and her friends dressed in St Trinians-type costumes.

The premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes on 7 June 1945 at Sadler's Wells was one of the most important nights in British opera history. Premiered only a month after the end of  World War II, it showed that, for the first time, England had an opera composer of international importance and it radically affected the subsequent development of music in the United Kingdom. It is an unmistakably British work, drawing on Britten's passion for the Suffolk coast and seascape, so hauntingly captured in the unforgettable sea interludes which punctuate the action. This photograph is of the Sadler's Wells Opera production of 1963, mounted to celebrate Britten's 50th birthday. Ronald Dowd appears as the fisherman Peter Grimes, the rough, proud visionary, outcast by public opinion and hounded by the mob. Britten spent his life experimenting with the operatic form. While he wrote large scale works for the major opera houses, he also developed the small scale chamber opera, children's operas and  the church parables. All used different musical forms and resources and experimented with different styles of staging.

Regional opera

Although many people still think of opera as elitist, there is now more opera being performed than at any other time in English theatre history. The growth of opera in the late 20th century was not restricted to London. Welsh National Opera began with occasional performances in 1943. Scottish Opera was founded in 1962 and Leeds-based Opera North was founded in 1975 as a northern base for English National Opera. It is now an independent company.

Janet Baker and James Bowman in Peter Hall’s Glyndebourne production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, 1970

Janet Baker and James Bowman in Peter Hall’s Glyndebourne production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, 1970

Glyndebourne

The most famous opera company outside London is Glyndebourne, with its theatre attached to the country house of the Christie family. Glyndebourne is famous for its long intervals when the audience picnic in the gardens. The first theatre was built in 1934 by John Christie for his opera-singer wife, Audrey Mildmay. In the 1930s conductor Fritz Busch and producer Carl Ebert, gave British audiences the opportunity to experience Mozart's work. It was here in 1934 that Cosi fan tutte was first performed in its entirety in England – nearly 150 years after its first performance.

First produced in 1561, Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto has a typical Venetian opera plot of the period, where the gods fall in love with humans, and come to earth in disguise with all the resulting confusions and identity crises. Peter Hall and his designer John Bury wanted to make the Baroque stage live again, but using modern methods and materials. They caught what one critic described as ‘the spirit of baroque wonder and extravagance’ involving real stage machines and cunning transformations, worked by the age-old system of men, ropes and counterweights. Raymond Leppard’s version of Cavalli’s score and Hall’s enchanting production helped build new audiences for the lesser known early operas and thus widen the standard operatic repertory.

Scene from the English Opera Group production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring, 1947

Scene from the English Opera Group production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring, 1947

Albert Herring was Benjamin Britten’s first comic opera, composed for the newly formed English Opera Group. It was premiered by them at Glyndebourne in 1947. The original cast, seen in this photograph, included Britten's long-term collaborators Peter Pears and Joan Cross. Glyndebourne established a close relationship with Britten, and his works were among its most acclaimed productions. Albert Herring is a mother-dominated youth, elected as the May King of a Suffolk village when no sufficiently virtuous girl can be found as the May Queen. By the end of the opera, Albert has become far less inhibited and is no longer eligible for May King. Britten spent his life experimenting with the operatic form. While he wrote large scale works for the major opera houses, he also developed the small scale chamber opera, children's operas and church parables. All used different musical forms and resources and experimented with different styles of staging. Albert Herring has an orchestra of only 13 players, which Britten skillfully made to sound like a symphony orchestra.

Experimental opera

Scene from Covent Garden's production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, 1963. Museum no. TM/424

Scene from Covent Garden's production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, 1963. Museum no. TM/424

New and experimental works that needed smaller stages than the international opera houses emerged from smaller companies. The English Opera Group was set up in 1946 by Benjamin Britten to stage his experimental small-scale chamber operas. Kent Opera revived rare works by Handel, like Atalanta, which had not been seen for over 200 years, and commissioned new works, notably Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera. The experimental Opera Factory worked to make opera less artificial and relate to real people. It caused great controversy with its sexually explicit production of Cosi fan tutte set on a Mediterranean beach. Pavilion Opera have for over 20 years presented opera anywhere with a room, chairs and a grand piano.

In Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva attempts to seduce his wife’s maid, Susannah, who is engaged to his valet, Figaro. The teenage boy Cherubino develops a passion for the Countess, while the elderly Marcellina, egged on by her employer, Doctor Bartolo, tries to force Figaro to marry her. While basically a comic opera, in that all ends well, The Marriage of Figaro contains much sadness in characters like the Countess, remembering her early love for her husband. Ultimately, the opera is timeless and universal in its themes of lost love, lust, adolescent infatuation, betrayal, jealousy, bitter vengeance and forgiveness. This photograph from the 1963 Covent Garden production shows Mirella Freni as Susanna, Geraint Evans as Figaro, Monica Sinclair Marcellina and Michael Langdon Doctor Bartolo, in one of Mozart’s famous ensemble numbers, where each character sings of his or her own feelings. In The Marriage of Figaro there are no fewer than fourteen such ensembles, creating an extraordinarily rich texture and complexity of character and mood.

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