Ballad operas were fashionable in Leeds during the 18th Century at the Assembly Rooms. These were not operas as we know them today. Essentially light entertainment, the dialogue was interspersed with musical numbers selected from popular songs of the day. John Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera' (1728) set the fashion which continued in vogue until the 1760s. Plays were the staple fare of Leeds' first theatre on Hunslet Lane, which opened in 1771 and closed in 1867. Frequently they were followed by 'a comic opera' – similar in form to the ballad opera.
Grand Theatre opens
However stage opera on a 'grand' scale began with the opening of the sumptuous Italianate Grand Theatre and Opera House on November 18th 1878. Mapleson's Italian Opera Company, 'direct from Her Majesty's Theatre' London, appeared there in the following year with fully staged productions of Weber's, 'Der Freischutz', Gounod's, 'Faust', Mozart's, 'Figaro' and Bizet's 'Carmen', French mezzo soprano Madame Zelia Trebelli (1838-1892) sang Carmen. She later became the New York Metropolitan Opera's first interpreter of the role.
Leeds premiere of Verdi's Otello
In 1892 the Carl Rosa Company gave the first Leeds performance of Verdi's 'Otello' (premiered at La Scala, Milan, in February 1887) at the Grand Theatre conducted by Eugene Goosens I. The production, 'with entirely new scenery, dresses and appointments' was sung in English. The following year Carl Rosa now Royal Carl Rosa company's Grand Theatre season included Auber's, 'Fra Diavola', with full band, chorus and ballet. Also advertised were, Gluck's 'Orpheus and Eurydice' & Mascagni's 'Rustic Chivalry', Donizetti's, 'Daughter of the Regiment', Bizet's 'Carmen' and Wagner's 'Tannhauser'.
Moody-Manners in Holbeck
In 1903 the Moody-Manners Opera Company, formed by husband and wife soprano Fanny Moody and bass Charles Manners in 1898, toured the provinces when touring opera was at the height of its popularity until 1916. In 1903 they performed 'Carmen' at the Queen's Theatre, Holbeck. Madame Fanny Moody sang Carmen with leading Irish tenor Joseph O'Mara as Don Jose.
The first Ring Cycle in the provinces
Another significant development came in 1911 when Ernst Denhof's Company staged at the Grand Theatre 'for the first time in its entirety in the English Provinces, Wagner's 'Ring Cycle' sung in English with some of the leading Wagnerians of the day including Madame Gleeson White, Florence Easton, John Coates, Walter Hyde and Frederick Austin with Michael Balling conducting a huge orchestra of 82 musicians drawn from the Scottish and Covent Garden Orchestra'. The Moody-Manners company performed Saint-Saens' biblical opera, 'Samson et Dalila', the first of a number of performances of the opera at Francis Laidler's 1700 seat, Theatre Royal in Lands Lane in the same year.
In 1913 Denhof Opera Company returned to the Grand Theatre with a second 'Ring Cycle' this time conducted by Thomas Beecham.
1918 saw three different companies present Puccini’s 'La Boheme' and 'Madame Butterfly' in Leeds: Royal Carl Rosa and the Beecham Opera Company at the Grand and Joseph O'Mara's at the Theatre Royal.
BNOC is launched
1922 was a significant year, which saw the launch of the British National Opera Company (successor to Beecham's company) at Francis Laidler's other theatre, Bradford Alhambra. The following year the BNOC booked into the Grand Theatre with Verdi's 'Aida', Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly', Saint-Saens’ 'Samson and Delilah', Humperdinck’s, 'Hansel and Gretel', Wagner’s, 'The Valkyre' and his sacred music drama 'Parsifal'. BNOC continued to make annual visits to both the Grand Theatre and Theatre Royal. The Company's 1925 week at the Theatre Royal was typically ambitious: Verdi's 'Rigoletto', 'Aida' and 'Otello', 'Samson and Delilah'.
Barbirolli in the Opera House
In 1929 a fortnight at the Theatre Royal saw operas conducted by the 30 year old John Barbirolli: Wagner's, 'Mastersingers of Nuremberg'; Puccini's 'Turandot', 'Madame Butterfly' and 'Tosca'; Verdi's 'Falstaff'. Eugene Goossens conducted Wagner’s 'Lohengrin', Gounod’s 'Faust' and the popular double bill 'Cavaliera Rusticana' and 'Pagliacci'. Note the popularity of the Wagner music dramas during the 1920s. Sadly, the BNOC had ran into financial difficulties and was taken over as the Covent Garden English Company in 1929 but survived as such for only three years.
After which time the bulk of touring opera in Leeds was provided by the Carl Rosa Company and then Sadlers Wells with two full companies (one for touring) assumed responsibility for most of the provincial touring opera in Great Britain. Artistic and particularly orchestral standards occasionally left much to be desired. Yorkshire Post critic Ernest Bradbury noted in his review of Sadler's Wells' 'Cavaliera Rusticana' and 'Pagliacci' at the Grand in 1950: 'One felt that much of the orchestral playing need not have sounded so slovenly and that the lower strings, particularly cellos and basses, might have endeavoured to give us the impression that they were all engaged in the same task'.
Bradbury also noted that the Grand Theatre's orchestra pit had recently been altered to accommodate 75 players. The touring opera orchestras rarely number more than 45. Reviewing a 1954 Carl Rosa performance of 'Tannhauser', Bradbury wrote: 'The opera's first Leeds performance for over 20 years…the Grand Theatre was filled. Occasionally untidy and somewhat crude orchestral playing from a brave team about one third the size Wagner intended'.
Covent Garden on tour
From the late 1950s until 1962, Leeds' annual ration of Sadlers Wells was supplemented by the Covent Garden Opera (later the Royal Opera) who would typically bring five productions on tour. Their 1961 visit included, 'Der Rosenkavalier', 'Aida', 'Carmen', 'Peter Grimes' and 'La Boheme'. Replicas of the Covent Garden scenery were reproduced in the company's paintshop for smaller proscenium openings in provincial theatres. The productions were usually shorn of the famous singers who had appeared in the principal roles at Covent Garden. Writing in the Yorkshire Post after 'Der Rosenkavalier', Ernest Bradbury acidly commented: 'A half-sized orchestra…lighting in the last act was abominable…with the Marschallin picked out in a blue spot like some pantomime fairy princess'.
A comment in Bradbury's review of 'Aida' was equally telling: 'Soprano Amy Shuard (as Aida) brought to the stage a presence and vocal artistry such as we can rarely savour in the provinces'.
|Click images to enlarge|
Programme for Mapleson's Opera Company
Opening performance from Wagner's Ring Cycle, 1911
Madam Gleeson White from Ernst Denhofs production
The O,Mara Opera Company, 1921
Carl Rosa Company production, 1925
Parsifal cast, 1923
Conductor, Michael Balling