Inspired by a collection of Royal Opera programmes going back to 1947, this series of posts delves into the collection to reflect on the performances – and performers – they contain, marvel at some of the annotations and press clippings, and generally celebrate a life spent in musical endeavours.
Kenneth (Ken) Wills was an enthusiastic contributor to the work of a range of operatic companies in the Kent area, including Kentish Opera Group and West Wickham Operatic Society, both as chorus member and occasional solo performer, as well as, for West Wickham, latterly a vice-president. 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. An electronic catalogue of them remains a firm intention; for now, it is enough to pull out some gems from time to time.
About Ken Wills
The collection contains not only Royal Opera programmes, but an extensive selection of programmes from amateur and pro-am companies such as West Wickham. In May 1988, Ken performed the role of Frosch in a Kentish Opera Group performance Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Thanks to that, I am able to reproduce his biography from the programme:
KENNETH WILLS has been a member of the Kentish Opera Group since 1977 (Force of Destiny) but active in amateur dramatics since joining the Wickham Court Players in 1949. He subsequently acted with West Wickham Dramatic Society and Theatre 62 (Toby Belch, Malvolio, Caliban, etc.) and from 1963 with Croydon Histrionic Society, in some thirteen Shakespeare productions at the Ashcroft Theatre. His parts included Ross (Macbeth) and Stefano (The Tempest). He last appeared in a production of Nicholas Nickleby in 1984. Before this he was a member of the West Wickham Operatic Society 1954-1976 as a chorus member and as principal and producer, appearing in the complete cycle of Gilbert & Sullivan works. His parts included Shadbolt, Colonel Calverly and Sir Despard Murgatroyd. Productions directed for West Wickham include The Bartered Bride, Beggar’s Opera, Die Fledermaus (twice) and Gipsy Baron (twice). He returned to appear in their jubilee production of Die Fledermaus at the Churchill Theatre [Bromley]. His dramatic activity is now limited to the Kentish Opera Group and the Church Dramatic Group at Emmanuel, West Wickham.
The archive of the rather richly-named “Croydon Histrionic Society” is at Croydon library, so I must take a trip some time. Still, plenty to sift through in Ken’s collection, but for now just to add a note from a programme for a performance of Princess Ida for West Wickham Operatic Society from 1972:
Ken Wills again assumes the mantle of Producer and brings his own interpretation and ideas to bear on one of the lesser-known operas of the Gilbert and Sullivan series. He has included the full text of the libretto rather than make the cuts made by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in latter years.