Saturday, 29 December 2012

English opera - the fabulous 50's

Wat Tyler - Sadlers Wells, June 1974
Wat Tyler (John Noble).
In 1951 Vaughan Williams' opera The Pilgrims Progress was premiered at Covent Garden. The composer was 79 and had been working on the piece on and off since the 1930's. But rather than a magisterial summing up of a career, critics found themselves presented with a work which didn't quite seem an opera at all. It did not help that RVW had found Covent Garden's presentation unsatisfactory, particularly in the Apollion scene. The composer felt vindicated when the University of Cambridge's production of the opera in 1954 showed it up in a far better light, but the opera's reputation never quite recovered. The production of RVW's opera was part of the general celebrations for the 1951 Festival of Britain with the idea of celebrating British music as well. Quite a number of operas were written, but few were performed and the whole era has gone down as something of a wilderness, with Britten a lone voice (Billy Budd was also premiered at Covent Garden in 1951). Undoubtedly Britten was a genius, but other composers from this era created a genuine body of interesting operatic work which still deserves re-investigation.

When I was a student in Manchester in the late 1970's, I just missed Alan Bush's opera Wat Tyler which received its only British stage production at the Sadlers Wells Theatre in 1974. The Royal Northern College of Music was involved in the production and the role of Richard II sung by Robin Leggate who was a student at the college. Wat Tyler was written for a Festival Britain competition in 1951, it is the first of Alan Bush's four operas and has a libretto by his wife Nancy. It seems to have been well received (there is further information on the Alan Bush Music Trust website).

I came to know Dr Bush and his wife many years later. I was looking for copies of his music for workers' choirs when I was directing the Pink Singers, but we talked about his operas and I became even more interested in them. (Mrs Bush was most amusing on the topic his final opera, Joe Hill - the Man who Never Diedthe only one to which she did not write the words; here the American playwright was most distressed at how so few of his words could be heard) I have yet to witness even a concert performance.

Bush was amongst a group of composers, all of whom wrote operas for 1951. The Arts Council held a competition, as part of the Festival of Britain. The first round was anonymous so that the committee reviewed the scores without knowing who they were by. This meant that for the top three they ended up with a naturalised German, a naturalised Austrian  and an Australian! The operas chosen were Berthold Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci, Arthur Benjamin's A Tale of Two Cities and Karl Rankl's Deidre of the Two Sorrows.


Goldschmidt was a German refugee whose composing career never really recovered after his move to the UK. His opera was based on Shelly and though it received some interest abroad it was definitely written in English for an English audience. Goldschmidt did enjoy something of an Indian summer at the end of his life, having his music performed and re-discovered and Beatrice Cenci is on disc, though the plot is rather gruesome.


Benjamin was in fact a student of Stanford's and his opera would be performed later in the 1950's. Karl Rankl was in fact the music director at Covent Garden, another refugee. I'm not certain whether his opera has ever been performed in its entirety.

The committee selecting the operas rather panicked when they learned the composer's nationalities and hurriedly chose another opera from the next three. Lennox Berkeley's Nelson was not selected, rather oddly it seemed to modernist for them. Nelson is one of those operas which has existed on the fringes for years. It was premiered in 1954 and was compared unfavourably to Britten's work of the period (notably Turn of the Screw). Though it has been revived more recently to more positive effect.

It was Bush's Wat Tyler that was chosen to be added to the pile. Though Bush, whilst being English and coming from the musical establishment, was in fact a committed communist which surely would not have endeared him to the committee. And in fact, it was in East Germany that Bush's opera would be taken up first.

The competition was in some ways badly conceived. It dragged on somewhat, so that performance of the winning operas would not have been possible in 1951, and afterwards neither the will nor the money seemed to be there.

There are other operas from the period too, not involved in the competition. George Lloyd's John Socman was successfully toured by the Carl Rosa opera for instance, and Covent Garden commissioned Arthur Bliss's The Olympians (with a libretto by J.B.Priestly) and premiered it in 1949. Both of these seem to have come to grief for non-musical reasons such as under rehearsal or back-stage intrigue. Other composers who wrote works include Egon Wellsz, Inglis Gundry and Wilfred Mellors.

Not all these operas are masterpieces and perhaps some are genuinely real duds. But it would seem that we need some brave company to make a concerted effort with the operas from this period. There were a remarkably number of operas created in the UK in the 1950's, most of which seem to have been neglected for the wrong reasons. We tend to think of mainstream opera as pretty much dying in the second half of the 20th century, with one or two notable exceptions. Here is proof that there was a lively culture of thought and interest in the genre. Isn't it time for a reassessment.

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