The History of Opera in England
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'.
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.
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 (1939–45), 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Scene from Jonathan Miller's production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, 1997. Museum no. TM10271-1/9
Scene from Jonathan Miller's production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado
Black and white photograph
Museum no. TM10271-1/9
Ever willing to fly in the face of tradition, in 1986, English National Opera commissioned the iconoclastic director Jonathan Miller for a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Miller’s instructions to his choreographer Anthony van Laast, summed up his approach. ‘Go and see all the Marx Brothers films and don’t ask me any logical questions.’ Any satire on Japan was abandoned, and the show became a 1920s musical comedy, set in a dazzling white hotel with everyone dressed in black and white, and Yum-Yum and her friends in St Trinian’s uniforms. As Ko-Ko, Miller cast ex-Python, non-singer Eric Idle. Letters of complaint began reaching the company even before the production opened. However, all the complaints in the world could not mask the fact that ENO had a huge hit on its hands and the production was revived many times over almost two decades. This photograph shows Janis Kelly, Neryn Jones and Fiona Canfield in the 1997 revival.
Scene from Sadler’s Wells Opera's production of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, 1963
Scene from Sadler’s Wells Opera's production of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
This scene is from Sadler’s Wells Opera's 1963 production of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène. This was an hilarious satire on the French Second Empire morals and manners in the guise of the classical myth of Helen of Sparta’s abduction by Paris. Offenbach’s comic operas have never been regularly performed in Britain, being too frivolous for the grand opera houses and too esoteric for the West End. So it was a rare treat in the early 1960s when Sadler’s Wells Opera produced his three best-known works, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Vie Parisienne and La Belle Hélène. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, was in the capable shape and voice of Rotherham-born Joyce Blackham. As one review observed, La Belle Hélène showed rather more of her than the average opera. She was especially delicious performing a Victorian-style striptease after Helen awakes to find Paris in her bedroom, drifting around the room shedding her clothes, persuading herself in song that this was only a dream, or if not, it was her destiny, so either way it was all right. Everyone had a good time and one critic found her knee-length netcurtain bloomers 'uncommonly titillating'.
Sadler's Wells Opera performing Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, 1961
Sadler's Wells Opera performing Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
One way to criticise politics or society is to send up a well known story and fill it full of references that are equally valid for that story and for contemporary life. In 1858, this was what the composer Offenbach did in Paris, taking the Orpheus legend as the springboard for a series of attacks against the complacency of the middle class in the Second Empire in France. As many of his criticisms can be applied to almost any period or regime, the opera has remained extremely popular. In the Sadler's Wells Opera production, one of the most hilarious scenes was the descent into Hell – in this case via the London Underground in the rush hour. Director Wendy Toye also managed to fit in a sticking lift and a bubble bath and Mercury, messenger of the gods, had jet-propelled sandals. The costumes were reminiscent of 19th century burlesques on classical themes, updated for 1960.
Tramp costume from the English National Opera production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Greek, 1990. Musuem no. S.1097-1995
Tramp costume from the English National Opera production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Greek
Brown raincoat with attached rubber gloves, plastic tubing, syringes, rope, plastic bin liners, newspaper, and rope netting
Musuem no. S.1097-1995
Based on Steven Berkoff’s play, this was the Oedipus myth transferred to 1980s London. It became a scathing parable of the greed, poverty and intolerance of the 1980s. The plague of Sophocles’ original became the urban decay of Thatcherite Britain. Turnage’s scores were always notable for their eclecticism, and critics spotted influences as diverse as Benjamin Britten, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus, Igor Stravinsky, Puccini and Chas & Dave, but they were influences, not plagiarism, and the final effect was uniquely Turnage. Like the music, the costumes, designed by David Blight, reflected the contemporary world. This extraordinary costume is for one of the down-and-outs. It is basically an ordinary raincoat, onto which are piled layers of torn newspaper, bin-bags, rubber tubing, hypodermic syringes, rubber gloves, rope and other types of litter and urban detritus.
Sphinx Costume from the English National Opera production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Greek, 1990. Museum no. S.1095-1995
Sphinx Costume from the English National Opera production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Greek
Fake black leather jacket edged with black feathers and fringing, worn over a tight fitting black "stretch-fabric" bodice and skirt. The costume is decorated with red paint, studs, and chains
Museum no. S.1095-1995
Based on Steven Berkoff’s play, this was the Oedipus myth transferred to 1980s London. It became a scathing parable of the greed, poverty and intolerance of the 1980s. The plague of Sophocles’ original became the urban decay of Thatcherite Britain. Turnage’s scores were always notable for their eclecticism, and critics spotted influences as diverse as Benjamin Britten, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus, Igor Stravinsky, Puccini and Chas & Dave, but they were influences, not plagiarism, and the final effect was uniquely Turnage. Like the music, the costumes, designed by David Blight, drew on contemporary influences. This extraordinary punk-inspired costume for one of the bald female Sphinx has overtones of Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna, biker’s gear, and the band painted with Greek figures links it to the classical origins of the sphinx figure.
Scene from Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs, 1973
Scene from Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs
This stunning sci-fi setting for Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs was designed by Ralph Koltai for Sadler’s Wells Opera. The four opera cycle was produced over several years, but in 1973 it was standing room only when the company performed the complete cycle in English. Koltai’s sets, all gleaming rods and metallic spheres, with costumes incorporating perspex, and Glen Byam Shaw’s production, created a timeless world in which Wagner’s figures moved with unusual humanity. It reflected both the 1960s and the Apollo moon landing, as though Tolkien met Star Wars. The diagonal bridge on which Wotan stands was nicknamed the launching pad, although it did remind one critic of an aluminium pick-a-stick. By 1973, Norman Bailey was already acclaimed for his portrayals of Wagnerian heroes, but his Wotan earned him a place among the greatest interpreters of Wagner in the 20th century. Yet he sometimes yearned to be a stage actor. ‘Opera is like acting in slow motion. I sometimes long to free myself from the shackles of the music.’
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.
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.
'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.
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.