Sadler's Wells ~  A Base for Touring Opera

2.  Cross

3. Grimes

4. Butterfly

5,    Sandrina

6.   Rigoletto

7.   Oedipus



Sadler's Wells Touring Opera.

The story of the Sadlers Wells Touring Opera is but a small part of the history of the Wells and the various companies that have utilised the theatre.

The driving energy behind the touring opera group developed from the vision attached to the Old Vic, primarily a drama theatre, located on the South Bank, close to Waterloo station. That theatre and the company that developed around the turn of the 20th century is closely associated with Lilian Baylis.

 1.   Lilian Baylis (1874 – 1937), founder of Sadler's Wells Touring Opera

Date: ca. 1930
Photographer: Unknown

2.    Joan Cross (1900 - 93) in the title role of the opera 'Gloriana'.  This opera was first performed at Covent Garden, in 1953, with Cross in the title role

Date 1953
Photographer Unknown.  Published in Tempo magazine, New Series, No. 28 (Summer, 1953).

3.   Sadler's Wells Opera production of 'Peter Grimes', mounted to celebrate Britten's 50th birthday. Ronald Dowd appears as the fisherman Peter Grimes.

Date: 1963
Photographer: Unknown

4.   Madama Butterfly A scene from the 1941 - 42 wartime production of the opera with Kinglsey Lark as Sharpless, Parry Jones as Pinkerton, Helen Ogilvie as Cio-Cio-San and Gladys Parr as Suzuki.

Date: 1942
Photographer: Unknown

5.   The English Music Theatre's production of 'Sandrina' (Mozart's la Finta Giardinieri) at the Wells.

Date: 1976
Photographer: Unknown
A version of this opera, using orchestral parts compiled by the English Music Theatre, was performed by Ayr Intimate Opera in 1979 as part of the Ayr Concert Series

6    Setting of the second act of ''Rigoletto' in the production for Sadler's Wells Opera by Michael Geliot.   Settings by Annena Stubs, Lighting by Charles Bristow.

Date: 1968
Photographer: Unknown.  Images from the Rank Strand Archive

7.    Scene from Stravinsky's 'Oedipus Rex', produced at Sadler's Wells by Michel St Dennis

Date:  1968.  
Photographer: Unknown.  Images from the Rank Strand Archive.

8.   Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s opera 'Boris Godunov', Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Date: 1958
Photographer: Unknown

Lilian Baylis (1874 – 1937)

'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 inspirational.'

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 in putting on 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.

While Baylis was also committed to staging affordable theatre, she saw no reason why the inhabitants of Waterloo shouldn't enjoy Shakespeare, opera and ballet. 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. This work laid the foundation for both the National Theatre and the English National Opera.

Designed by Frank Matcham, the new Sadller's Wells theatre opened on January 6th, 1931 with an appropriate production of 'Twelfth Night' and a cast headed by Richardson as Sir Toby Belch and Gielgud as Malvolio. Sir John was not impressed, it seems. He later recorded his sour impression.

Originally it was intended that Sadler's Wells should mirror the Old Vic in offering a programme which alternated drama and opera and for a time productions trundled between Rosebery Avenue and the Waterloo Road every two weeks. However, it soon became clear that this policy was not only impractical, it also made dubious commercial sense since drama flourished at the Old Vic but lagged behind opera and dance in popularity at the Wells. By the 1935/36 season opera and ballet were firmly in the ascendant and Sadler's Wells Ballet with principal dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, under the inspired leadership of Ninette de Valois became the first truly British ballet company, despite the exotic noms de danse which British dancers of that era were seemingly compelled to adopt.

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 performers from a new generation such as Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan, and the conductor Reginald Goodall.

In the decades following 1945 Sadler's Wells built itself a high reputation for opera and dance but with the departure of the Opera company to the Coliseum in 1968, it was increasingly felt that the theatre was able to play a pivotal role as a receiving house - both for foreign companies and those within the UK looking for a metropolitan shop-window. In addition, Sadler's Wells, strategically positioned at some remove from the West End hot-house, was seen as the ideal launching-pad for artists at the outset of their careers.

[Text based, in part, on Sadler Wells Archives. Rank Strand Archive and other material in the public domain.]