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Sadler's Wells Opera

Posted 2 Dec 2015

Sadler’s Wells Opera (SWO), renamed English National Opera (ENO) in 1974, used to tour Scotland on a regular basis, providing Scottish audiences with some memorable performances. Many older opera goers have fond memories of their performances in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s. SWO first came during the war, when their London base was closed. Between 1941 and 1976, the company gave in Scotland 480 performances of 62 operas by 29 composers, and now you can find cast details on the OperaScotland database.

During the war, Joan Cross took a troupe to a number of factory towns in the North West from the Vic-Wells base in Burnley. It was then that they made their first Scottish visits (to Glasgow and Edinburgh) performing in 1941, 1942 and 1944. Under wartime conditions, the SWO stagings were naturally very limited but by all accounts were well received. In Glasgow in March 1941 Madam Butterfly was played to the sound of the Luftwaffe bombing Clydebank.

Sadler's Wells had had a long and varied London history of presenting drama in which Lilian Baylis played a renowned part as company founder-manager. But opera was Baylis’s first love, and in 1918 she was instrumental in ensuring that opera was produced not only in English but in a translation that could be heard and understood by the less well off in society. Her policy was that diction was therefore paramount, as was keen pricing. Over a period of years the company was built up and moved from a point where productions were ‘ramshackle’ to one where they offered satisfying productions on tour across the UK.

The Scottish scene was one ripe for development. After the war, Scottish Opera had not yet been founded and there was heavy dependence on visiting companies. Scots interested in opera were able to attend performances put on by Carl Rosa (seemingly at an increasingly poor standard as touring became more and more expensive), and after 1947 by visiting companies at the Edinburgh Festival. The only indigenous contribution came from some of the amateur companies that existed in those days. Some such as Glasgow Grand were both ambitious and notably successful. However, decision makers in the Arts Council and elsewhere became increasingly aware of the need for subsidy for professional opera in general, including touring opera in the provinces. After a political and increasingly public dispute, Carl Rosa personnel were almost entirely absorbed by Sadler’s Wells, and Sadler’s Wells subsidised on the basis they would have not only a London season but also carry the main responsibility for the provision of opera to the provinces.

When SWO resumed performances in Scotland in 1957, Dundee and Aberdeen were visited. Unfortunately Dundee was dropped from the rota in 1961 when the King’s Theatre (known at the time as the Gaumont) was closed to performance. For over a decade, SWO continued making regular visits to Scotland, but from 1968 most of their performances were being presented in their new base of the London Coliseum, and their touring season was limited. Furthermore the fledgling Scottish Opera was going from strength to strength and arguably had a stronger call on the public money available. A two week season in Edinburgh in 1972 and a ‘Ring’ cycle in Glasgow in 1974 (‘Scottish’ performances which were held for the first and only time under the name of English National Opera) ended SWO’s Scottish visits.

It has long been our aim for OperaScotland to list performances and casts comprehensively, company by company. We now believe that our details of Sadler's Wells and ENO performances in Scotland are complete.

OperaScotland is particularly indebted to recent ENO archivist, Clare Colvin, for her help in ensuring our list of SWO performances in Scotland is accurate. She has helped us also with cast lists and various other queries to plug the many gaps in our record.

To complete the task we have sourced information also from reviews, advertisements, programmes and books.

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