Music Theatre and Dance in Britain ~ Touring Groups in the 19th and 20th Century.


In the 19th century, opera presentations in the provinces relied on the readiness of soloists to visit outlying theatres and perform works from the standard repertoire, often using members of the stock companies for the minor roles and relying on local musicians to provide scratch orchestras. 

As the the presentations became more refined in the later years of the century, small companies were formed to undertake tours of the provinces, often near self sufficient, and open to any reasonable offer from theatre managers.  In this sense, the practice already common in drama and music theatre came to apply to opera and classical music.  Importantly, the concept of live performance within a community was never doubted.

In the 20th century the practice of touring opera continued and, for many years immediately after the second world war, state subsidy played an essential role in local provision. Touring has continued into the 21st century but has become less common, with major companies establishing permanent bases from which they made occasional forays as funds and interest allowed.

Opening scene from the New York premiere of 'Peter Grimes' by Benjamin Britten at the Metropolitan Opera house in February 1948

Photographer: Louis Melancon, Metropolitan Opera Press Bureau.   Original in Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.  This version from 1949 Britannica Book of the Year, 491.


Edward Benjamin Britten, OM CH (1913 - 76)

Date : 1964
Photographer: Unknown.  ©The Trustees of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Carl Rosa
Carl August Nicolas Rosa

Date: ca1880
Photographer unknown. Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

The company was revived in 1997, presenting mostly lighter operatic works including Gilbert and Sullivan.


Richard, d'Oyly Carte.  Managing director of the d'Oyly Carte Opera Company, Impressario and business collaborator with W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Sir Alexander Gibson, founder, in 1962, and first artistic director of Scottish Opera.

David Lloyd-Jones.  Founder and first musical director of Opera North.  Image from the Naxos Website; Ruud Janssen (February 2006).

Carl Rosa Opera Company (1873 - 1960 and 1997 - 2015)

The Carl Rosa Opera Company was founded in 1873 by Carl August Nicholas Rosa, a German-born musical impresario, to present opera in English in London and the provinces.

'Arguably the most influential opera company ever in the UK', according to Opera Scotland, the company premiered many operas in Britain, employing a mix of established opera stars and young singers, reaching new opera audiences with popularly-priced tickets. It survived Rosa's death in 1889, and continued to present opera in English on tour until 1960, when it was obliged to close for lack of funds.

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Sadler's Wells and English National Opera

Sadler's Wells was a theatre in the Islinngton area of London that has served as a home for various touring companys including Sadler's Wells Ballet (after the Ballet was hived off from Covent Garden), as a base for for a touring opera companies and a replacement for the Old Vic, formerly located in the South Bank area, close to Waterloo station.

As state subsidised touring opera gradually replaced commercial ventures, Sadler's Wells became the prime London base for smaller opera companies in the United Kingdon, there being insufficient energy or finance to maintain permanent provincial companies in the immediate post-war years. 

Today, in new premises, the house is primarily associated with dance.   As a music theatre, the emphasis was in the use of English.  The Premiere of Britten's 'Peter Grimes' was staged at Sadller's Wells on 7th June, 1945 - scarcely a month after VE Day - was the company's first post war success. Britten became the first modern English opera composer of international standing.

In the 1950s, Sadler's Wells Opera's productions of the great French operettas became hugely popular, notably Offenbach's 'La Belle Helène' and 'Orpheus in the Underworld' – with Orpheus descending into Hades strap-hanging on the London underground in the rush hour.

In 1968, Sadler's Wells Opera moved from its cramped base in Islington to the London Coliseum in the heart of London's West End. In 1974 the company became English National Opera.

In the 80s, David Pountney and conductor Mark Elder developed a more radical and idiosyncratic production style. Their operas had a cartoon-style energy and were very visual. This shocked some of the more conservative members of the opera going public, but appealed to a new and younger audience.

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Lilian Baylis (1874 – 1937)

Lilian Baylis , founder of Sadler's Wells

Date: ca. 1930 
Photographer: Unknown

'As the grandmother of our national theatre, as well as of our national opera and ballet, Lilian Baylis set an agenda of crusading hard work and devotion that is inspirationa.'"

Richard Eyre.

Lilian Baylis' Old Vic provided the starting point for the formation of Britain's national ballet, opera and theatre companies and for the careers of stars such as Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft and Flora Robson.  She was one of the greatest pioneers in the history of British Theatre, coming to England from South Africa to help her aunt, Emma Cons, run the Old Vic Theatre which offered popular temperance concerts for the working class.  She then took over its management after her aunt's death in 1912.

By 1914 Lilian had gained a theatre licence and began to produce plays. In the early years of the Old Vic audiences were often sparse and conditions in the theatre were poor. Sybil Thorndike recalled playing 'Macbeth' to a house of less than a dozen. The floor was sprinkled with sawdust, the seats were wooden benches, there were no proper dressing rooms, the scenery still worked on the groove principle and there was no proper lighting system.  Under her management, every Shakespeare play was produced between 1913 and 1923 and she staged operas and ballets at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells.

In November 1937 Baylis died of a heart attack. Her three companies continued under the direction of her appointees, Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic, in overall charge of both theatres, with de Valois running the ballet, and Carey and two colleagues running the opera.  In the Second World War the government requisitioned Sadler's Wells as a refuge for those made homeless by air-raids. Guthrie decided to keep the opera going as a small touring ensemble of 20 performers.

Between 1942 and the end of the war the company toured continuously, visiting 87 venues. It was led by Joan Cross, who managed the company and when necessary sang leading soprano roles in its productions. The size of the company was increased to 50 and then to 80.  By 1945 its members included singers from a new generation such as Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan, and the conductor Reginald Goodall.

[Text draws on Sadler's Wells Archives and other material in the public domain.]

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Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera is the national opera company of Scotland, and one of the five national performing arts companies funded by the Scottish Government. Founded in 1962 and based in Glasgow, it is the largest performing arts organisation in Scotland.

Scottish Opera was founded by conductor Alexander Gibson in 1962. In 1975 it purchased the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from Scottish Television re-opening it as the first national opera house for Scotland in October 1975 with a gala performance of Die Fledermaus. The flowing day the company revived their highly successful production of Otello, with Charles Craig in the title role.

Sir Alexander Gibson was the artistic director and principal conducter until 1986 when he was succeeded by John Mauceri.

Although Scottish Opera now has a permanent home in Glasgow, it has always included a touring element in the programme. Most of the main house productions are also presented in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and often in Inverness. in the earlier years it was not uncommon to undertake short seasons in York, Leeds, Newcastle and Belfast. There were also occasional overseas tours and appearances at the Edinburgh International Festival. Today, medium scale productions with piano accompaniment or a reduced orchestra may be presented in smaller houses in Scotland, including Ayr.

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D'Oyly Carte

As a touring company, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company originated in the collabortion between the theatre impressario, Richard D'Oyly Carte, the composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the librettist and producer, William Schwenk Gilbert.   Carte, an astute businessman, provided theatres to house the works produced by the duo and, in time, assumed responsibility for keeping the canon in the public eye.

Initially, the operas were associated with performances at Carte's Savoy Theatre. In later years, Carte and his successors introduced Gilbert and Sullivan seasons at the Savoy, an innovation that resulted in extensive touring between the London appearances.

By 1920, the D'Oyly Carte company was London based but spent much of the year touring to provincial theatres. In most years, the company appeared in a London Season and they were frequent visitors to Glasgow, Edinburgh and the North of England.

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Opera North

Opera North is England’s national opera company in the North and one of Europe’s leading arts organisations. The company tours not only throughout the North of England and to London, but also to opera houses on the continent in cities such as Prague and Barcelona, and it performs at major international festivals including Edinburgh and Ravenna.

Opera North was established in 1977 as English National Opera (North), and its first performance (of Saint-Saëns's 'Samson and Delilah') was given on 15 November 1978. It started life as an offshoot of English National Opera and had the specific intention of delivering high-quality opera to the northern areas of England which, up to that point, had had no permanently established opera company. The founding Music Director of the company was David Lloyd-Jones.

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Covent Garden Touring

Although the Covent Garden company may be seen as an international company securely based in London, there was a period in the mid 20th century when, like Sadlers Wells, it was expected to provide performances in the provinces.  This short-lived experiment took the company to provinvial theatres in the north and north east of the country, notably Leeds and Manchester.

It would appear that the touring activity was based on  scratch crews and singers or understudies from the main house.  In the period when Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells were competing for public funds, the Garden was aligned with the metropolitan audiences while Sadler's Wells, later English National Opera, concentrated on touring opera in English.

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Moody Manners

In 1898 Manners formed the Moody-Manners Opera Company with a young chorus, entirely without previous stage experience. Starting with a very small capital acquired through savings and from a few friends, they visited Langton and Manchester, before their arrival in Dublin, where the company prospered with performances of 'The Daughter of the Regiment'.

After Cork and Belfast, the company was promoted to No. 1 towns in the English provinces. As the repertory grew, and the costumes and scenery stock with it—so much so that they built a storage warehouse at Colindale to house the dresses and music, and near by a vast scenic studio which provided employment all the year round.

In 1904 they were at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh with 'The daughter of the regiment', Tannhauser, Carmen, La traviata, Mignon, Lohengrin and MaritanaTanhauser and Lohengrin were presented in Dundee in the same year.

When the company was at its zenith they staged over fifty operas.   By this time the company numbered 175, and travelled by special train, carrying their own scenery and costumes in ten 45-ft. trucks. They were known as 'The Sunday School on Tour' as the choristers, male and female, were not allowed to mix, nor were the principals permitted to fraternise with the chorus. When travelling, the chorus gentlemen were in the front coaches, principals in the middle and chorus ladies in the rear.

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Glyndebourne was founded by John Christie and wife Audrey Mildmay.  The first Glyndebourne Festival was in 1934.  In the years that followed, Glyndebourne continued to be headed by the Christie family, George Christie following in 1962 and then his son Gus, in 2000.

In the early years of the Glyndebourne Festival the house presented numerous works from Mozart’s extensive repertoire before gradually expanding to include works by other composers such as Benjamin Britten, with whom Glyndebourne enjoyed long association, as well as Verdi, Rossini and many others.

Originally the theatre was built to seat 300. It was enlarged and improved many times in subsequent years. By 1977, it held 850 people. By the 1990s it was clear that Glyndebourne needed an even larger auditorium so in 1994 a new opera house was built to seat 1,200, opening with a performance of Mozart’s 'Le nozze di Figaro'

The Glyndebourne Tour was founded in 1968 to enable the company to take operatic productions around the country, making opera more accessible to people all over the UK. ach new audiences.

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