I’ve long been thinking that, if this blog is to get a bit more interesting, then I need to branch out a bit from the current model, namely a string of my half-formed thoughts on recent opera performances. My source of inspiration, for what will hopefully become a series of occasional posts, is my partner’s late uncle, Kenneth Wills.
Kenneth was an enthusiastic contributor to the work of a range of operatic companies in the Kent area, including Kentish* Opera as a chorus member, and other such heartwarming endeavours as the West Wickham Operatic Society. He was a lifelong operagoer. When he died, a few years ago, my partner’s aunt offered to us his carefully curated collection of opera programmes, the core of which is a collection of Royal Opera programmes, some annotated, some with signatures, and all catalogued, going back to 1947. They make for a powerful account of a life dedicated to climbing those draughty stone steps from the side entrance up to the Amphitheatre of the pre-refurbishment Royal Opera House. She retained the catalogue, to share the memories, so at some point – probably when my MBA dissertation is finally out of the way – I’ll create a substitute electronic catalogue. For now though, it is interesting simply to dip in and reflect on individual performances from a life of operagoing expressed through this programme collection. I hope also that it is, in some small way, a tribute to Ken Wills’ modest but determined contribution to opera, whether through Kent Opera or through being a loyal audience member at Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells and the Coliseum.
The programmes are neatly ‘bundled’ into years, tied across with red ribbon (that was our touch to aid the filing!). The 1947 bundle, of around a dozen programmes, are an interesting mixture of Royal Opera House ‘Opera Season 1947’ and ‘Vienna State Opera 1947’. Whilst I won’t necessarily pitch into these in chronological order, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The earliest is for 20 January, 1947, exactly 11 months to the day since the theatre’s post-war reopening on 20 February, 1946. It is a performance of Carmen. As noted in Lebrecht’s book about the post-war Opera House (Covent Garden: the Untold Story), it was in fact the opening full production of the newly-founded Covent Garden Opera Company (it wouldn’t become the Royal Opera until 1968). The Queen had pitched up at opening night, six nights before Ken.
Karl Rankl conducted a cast headed up by Edith Coates as Carmen and Kenneth Neate as Don José. Of the performance, Lebrecht’s account of it sets it in the context of the effort involved in establishing an opera company in the immediate aftermath of war:
The first production for this pallid and bedraggled assembly was a sun-kissed Carmen, the most popular and passionate of operas and the one least suited to the conductor’s temperament. Pedantic and bloodless, a counter of crotchets and stickler for formalities, Rankl beat his way metronominally through Bizet’s blazing love-tangle.
Pallid and bedraggled it may have been, but this was also the time when the Opera House was more intimately connected with its surroundings, especially the fruit and veg market, next door in what is now the oh-so-chic olde-worlde tourist shopping experience. Lebrecht again: “Some men from the market doubled as extras in crowd scenes, others earned a bit on the side helping out as scene shifters.”
Edith Coates’ Carmen, sung in English (as was this performance), was caught on record in the following year, in the form of a Habañera, accompanied by the LSO. A company member from the pre-war years at Sadler’s Wells, the performance has been immortalised on YouTube.
Although Ken sometimes annotated his programmes, we have no record here of his thoughts on the performance. What we do have slipped into the programme, are newspaper obituaries for Neate and for the performance’s Mercedes, the Covent Garden veteran Constance Shacklock. For the latter, the Independent of 1 July 1999 notes that Shacklock was one of a number of members of Covent Garden’s resident company “whose only professional experience until then had been in concert and oratorio.” Although it goes on to note her ready adaptation to the new world of opera, this observation adds further richness to the picture that builds of a company very much finding its feet in those early performances. Evidently consulting his collection, Ken has appended to the obituary a note of the performances that he has seen her in, from 20 January 1947 through to 20 November 1959: “44 perfs 17 parts”.
Of Kenneth Neate, the obituary (which is by Alan Blyth) makes liberal reference to his ‘debonair’ good looks. Indeed, it notes that his
“good looks and sturdy tone were heard to appreciable effect as Don José in Carmen during the resident company’s inaugural season.”
A tribute page to him is up on line, which makes interesting reading, with many images. Both it and the obituary refer to Neate’s urgent recall to London in 1959 to stand in for an ailing tenor in the momentous debut performances of Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor. Consulting the programme collection confirms that Ken saw Neate, opposite Sutherland, in the performance of Monday, 23 February of that year (but that’s a separate blog post for some time in the future…) The originally-scheduled tenor was a small man, it is reported, and Neate is said to have “quipped to Sutherland’s husband, Richard Bonynge: ‘Tell Joan she’s now got an Edgardo she can look up to’!”
The full cast is reproduced below:
This first production played for a whopping 19 performances, from January through to June that year, as chronicled by the excellent Opera Annals blogsite. One reflects ruefully on the 22 Traviatas that the ROH are foisting upon us for the coming year.
So, all in all, the first dip into this evocative collection of performance programmes proves to be a rather significant one. Indeed, more significant than I had first realised: I had naively assumed that, since I knew that the theatre building had reopened in 1946, Ken was a year late in getting through the doors. I now realise that, on the contrary, he was very quick off the blocks. It can seem like a military operation to get affordable tickets with good views at Covent Garden these days, but it is salutary to note (via Lebrecht again) that the opening nights of this new company, back in 1947, played to 60% capacity – and that’s 60% of a capacity that was somewhat less than the refurbished theatre of today, with its extended amphitheatre stretching off into the roof. As Constance Shacklock remarked, “We were building a British opera company. We were working as a team to build something of value, something the country could be proud of.”
That they have succeeded is manifest in the average 93% capacity that the main stage of Covent Garden played to in 2008/09 (source: ROH Annual Review 2008/09). Ken Wills, and other loyal audience members, were there from the start. It is nice to be able to trace that commitment through the programme collection. When I come back from a performance, and file my programme away (or, more likely, leave it lying about for ages…), or post a blog review, it’s in the hope that a similar record of performances attended and experiences shared will be of interest to some future ‘regular’ of London’s operatic scene. And if not to them, then, in the spirit of Ken’s own archiving, I hope it’s simply of interest to me.
* Correction: originally I said Kent Opera, defunct since 1989 as a result of Arts Council cuts; in fact, Ken was connected with Kentish Opera.