Ken Wills Royal Opera Programme Collection (part)

Ken Wills

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.

The posts in the series

1.  Carmen, Royal Opera, 20 January 1947

2.  Macbeth, Royal Opera, 31 March 1960

3. The Trojans, Royal Opera, 21 September and 7 October 1972

4. The Olympians, Royal Opera, 7 October 1949


  1. I knew Ken in 1955 when I appeared with him in “The Importance of being Earnest” for the Wickham Court Players, I played opposte him as Cecily Cardew – he was Algernon – also was in an Operatic Show – Waltz Time – I came to Canada in 1956 and coresponded with him – he knew my family in West Wickham – I am pleased to have discovered what an interesting life he had and knew of course his passion for Opera – my name at that time was Jean Rogers –

    1. Jean – thank you so much for taking time to reply to the blog, and sorry for taking a time to acknowledge and respond. My blog has had an influx of ‘spam’ and your comment was submerged temporarily! I haven’t done a ‘Ken Wills’ inspired blog entry for a little while – this might be the prompt I need! As well as his marvellous collection of Royal Opera programmes (which I am working on cataloguing at the moment) we have a selection of his programmes for the West Wickham Operatic Society, Croydon Histrionic Society and – I dare say, though can’t recall exactly – the Wickham Court Players. And how fantastic to do ‘Earnest’ – a great play! If I have a dig around and find it – I’ll scan and email it over if you don’t already have it in the archive!

      Thanks again for emailing – it was really heartwarming for the blog series to prompt a response.

      Best wishes

  2. Mark – I was delighted to receive your reply – Ken was part of my past, although I was 14 years younger than him, we were very close, I have many letters he wrote to me when I first was in Canada – I do not know what made me decide to look him up on the Web, but I am so glad I did and to hear all about all his achievements – I would be pleased to receive a copy of the programme, we also did “Three in a Room” for Wickham Court Players and he did one Pantomine for the West Wickham Home Guard (Robin Hood)in 1952 when I first met him – I danced for 10 years in Pantomine each year –

    I am sorry that Ken and I lost contact, the last time I saw him was in 1962 when I was home on a visit, he purchased tickets for a local Show that we went to see – I had married by then – he knew my family, (we had moved to Beckenham) and often he visited my mother –

    I am so pleased he had such an interesting life, doing all the Operas and Shows that he loved so much –

    Kind Regards,


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