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English Opera Group

'We believe the time has come when England ... can create its own operas.'

Original EOG production of Albert Herring, 1947. Photo: Edward Mandinian. Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia was premiered on 12 July 1946 at Glyndebourne in Sussex with Eric Crozier as the producer and John Piper the designer. Negotiations relating to this production established the ‘Glyndebourne English Opera Group’, based at Glyndebourne and financially guaranteed by John Christie. Following performances at Glyndebourne, The Rape of Lucretia was extensively toured in the UK and on the continent, to artistic interest but great financial loss. The ensuing tensions with Christie had significant repercussions and by autumn 1946 management and financial links with Glyndebourne had been dissolved and an independent ‘English Opera Group’ formed.

The group was formally launched in spring 1947, with Britten, Piper and Crozier the artistic directors, singer Anne Wood the General Manager, and a prestigious Board of Directors, chaired by the Rt Hon Oliver Lyttelton MP and including Britten’s close friend and publisher Erwin Stein and, from late 1947, director Tyrone Guthrie. Learning from the experience of The Rape of Lucretia, the directors focused from the outset on the fundamental role that financial planning had to play at every level, economics controlling aesthetic, artistic and practical plans and goals.

The English Opera Group’s manifesto made a bold declaration: ‘We believe the time has come when England, which has never had a tradition of native opera, but has always depended on a repertory of foreign works, can create its own operas…We believe the best way to achieve the beginnings of a repertory of English operas is through the creation of a form of opera requiring small resources of singers and players, but suitable for performance in large or small opera houses or theatres…It is part of the Group’s purpose to encourage young composers to write for the operatic stage, also to encourage poets and playwrights to tackle the problem of writing libretti in collaboration with composers’.

The new English Opera Group gave the premiere of Britten’s second chamber opera Albert Herring, with libretto by Crozier, designs by Piper and tightly scored for just 13 singers and 13 instrumentalists, as guests at Glyndebourne in June 1947, alongside further performances of The Rape of Lucretia. The 51 performances given by the English Opera Group in England and on the continent during that season were heavily subsidized, but the costs of touring even chamber operas were substantial, and the group faced a huge deficit, which was only offset by advances for the following year’s projects.

The directors decided to reduce the need for so much touring by creating an artistic base for the English Opera Group in Aldeburgh. The Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts was therefore launched in 1948 and until 1975 the Group’s productions were central to the festival programming. The collaborating personnel changed over the years - though notably Britten, Piper, Pears and producers Basil Coleman and Colin Graham were long-time contributors - but the underlying credo remained intact.

In its first months of operation, the English Opera Group initiated its programme in support of new British music by commissioning Lennox Berkeley to write a concert work, the Stabat Mater, op. 28, which was premiered by the Group in 1947. However it was not until 1951 that the English Opera Group began to fulfil its goal of encouraging British composers and writers to ‘write for the operatic stage’. In July 1951 at the Cheltenham Festival the Group gave the premiere of its first opera commission, The Sleeping Children, with music by Brian Easdale, in a double bill with a revival of Holst’s The Wandering Scholar. Over the next 23 years the English Opera Group commissioned and produced ten further operas for chamber forces with music by British composers: A Dinner Engagement, Ruth and Castaway by Lennox Berkeley, English Eccentrics by Malcolm Williamson, The Bear by William Walton, Punch and Judy by Harrison Birtwistle, The Grace of Todd and Purgatory by Gordon Crosse, The Visitors by John Gardner and The Voice of Ariadne by Thea Musgrave.

The English Opera Group gave the first, and many subsequent, performances of operas written by Britten, as wel as mounting revivals of operas by John Blow, Handel, Holst, Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Purcell and Tchaikovsky and presented the first British performance of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias in 1958.

The group toured widely throughout the UK and on the Continent, performed in the USSR in 1964, and in Montreal during Expo 1967. Many leading British singers were members of the group, including Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Heather Harper, Sylvia Fisher, Jennifer Vyvyan, Owen Brannigan, Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk and Robert Tear.

In 1961 Covent Garden took over management and financial responsibility for the group and in 1971 Steuart Bedford and Colin Graham were appointed musical director and director of productions respectively. In 1975 the group was expanded and re-formed as the English Music Theatre Company, the change of name reflecting a broadening of repertory to include, as well as operas, operettas and musicals. This permanent ensemble company gave regional tours, an annual season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and performed at festivals, including Aldeburgh. Its final commission was Minoru Miki’s Ada, under the title An Actor’s Revenge, performed at the Old Vic in 1979. The company ceased to operate in 1980.

Image: Original EOG production of Albert Herring, 1947. Photo: Edward Mandinian.