British National Opera Company
The British National Opera Company (BNOC) emerged from the collapse of the Beecham Opera Company which ceased its operations in December 1920. In its short existence from the first performance (Aida in Bradford on 6 February 1922) to the last (Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in Golders Green, London, on 16 April 1929, BNOC made an important impact on the operatic establishment of the day. After initial refusals, the Grand Opera Syndicate, who were lessees of Covent Garden, allowed BNOC to perform there. The season opened with Miriam Licette as Mimi. BNOC provided varied seasons at the Opera House from 1922 to 1924 inclusive before moving to His Majesty’s Theatre. The change of venue was necessitated by the fact that, despite the satisfactory box office receipts and favourable press, the Syndicate decided to resume the old summer seasons.
In their short stay at Covent Garden, BNOC achieved a notable first. The matinee performance of Hansel and Gretel, with Maggie Teyte as Hansel, on 6 January 1923, was the first broadcast in Europe of a complete opera (Though one source, Music Masterpieces magazine, claims that only two acts were broadcast, and the accolade belongs to Pagliacci, broadcast the following day). As a mark of the prestige which BNOC earned, several operatic celebrities were prepared to perform with the company. Dame Nellie Melba, Joseph Hislop, Edward Johnson and Dinh Gilly all appeared during the company’s London seasons. Most of the company’s activities involved touring in the provinces and it was not afraid to introduce new and adventurous repertoire. Obviously it championed contemporary British operas, such as Holst’s At the Boar’s Head and The Perfect Fool, and Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover. It even produced Pelleas and Melisande in English, featuring Maggie Teyte who had studied the rôle with Debussy.
BNOC’s first artistic director was Percy Pitt, who relinquished the post in 1924. Pitt had been music director with the Grand Opera Syndicate and went on to work at the BBC. His successor was Frederic Austin, a baritone who in 1920 arranged the music for a revival of The Beggar’s Opera at Hammersmith, which was very successful. The Board of BNOC included several famous musicians of the time: Norman Allin the bass, conductor Aylmer Buesst, Walter Hyde, tenor, Percy Pitt, Robert Radford the bass, and Agnes Nicholls, soprano and wife of Sir Hamilton Harty. A new generation of British singers and conductors began their careers with BNOC but like so many similar ventures BNOC failed for financial reasons. Essentially, a tax demand for £17,000 led to the company going into voluntary liquidation. The Royal Opera House stepped in and for three years it existed as the Covent Garden English Opera Company.
The fact that back in 1927, Columbia decided to make complete recordings of both “Cav” and “Pag” must be a testament to the popularity of BNOC. Eighty years ago complete opera recordings were a rarity though with the advent of electric recording the number began to rise. The singers on these recordings were all BNOC stalwarts, and five in particular – Miriam Licette, Heddle Nash, Frank Mullings, Harold Williams and Dennis Noble, left fairly large recorded legacies.
Miriam Licette (1892-1969) studied with such luminaries as Mathilde Marchesi (with whom Melba studied for a year), Jean de Reszke and Sabbatini (who also taught John McCormack). Unusually for a British singer of this era, Licette made her début in Rome before she was 20. Like many of her contemporaries, she was a member of both the Beecham company and BNOC before appearing in her own right in major roles at the International Seasons at Covent Garden. She appeared as, among other characters, Cio-Cio-San (sharing the rôle with Toti dal Monte and Rosetta Pampanini in separate seasons), Desdemona (opposite Renato Zanelli’s Otello), Donna Elvira (in a cast that included Elisabeth Schumann and Mariano Stabile) and Eurydice (opposite Dame Clara Butt’s only Covent Garden appearance, as Orfeo). In addition to a large number of separate recordings of arias and ensembles, Licette sang Marguerite in the complete recording of Faust under Beecham, as well as substantial extracts from Maritana. All her recordings show a pure, even and musical soprano although occasionally her English pronunciation is very much of the era.
Heddle Nash (1896-1961), like Licette, made his début in Italy after studying in Milan with Giuseppe Borghatti, who became Italy’s leading heldentenor of his day. Nash sang at the Old Vic, Sadler’s Wells and with the BNOC before also singing as a freelance artist at Covent Garden. His repertoire ranged from Rodolfo in La Bohème to Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and an incomparable David in Die Meistersinger. Nash sang at the inaugural Glyndebourne seasons and he was the leading oratorio tenor of his age. His complete recording of Elgar’s the Dream of Gerontius is the touchstone by which others are judged. He sang Faust in the first Beecham recording as well as Act IV of La Bohème under the same conductor.
Frank Mullings (1881-1953) was another leading singer with both Beecham and BNOC. His repertoire included Tristan, Radames and Otello. It is often difficult to reconcile Mullings’ reputation, based upon reading contemporary reviews, with the recorded evidence, as he sings with a commitment for which the fragile recording apparatus was ill-equipped. The timbre of his voice seems not to have been sympathetic to the early microphones [though the Columbia engineers on this recording did a very good job] but, perhaps more importantly, Mullings’ recordings suffer more than most by being played at the wrong speed (Columbia records of this age played at 80, not 78, rpm). The discerning critic Neville Cardus, who came to know Mullings well when Mullings joined the teaching staff at the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1944, wrote earlier that “Mr. Mullings acted Canio in Pagliacci far beyond the plane of conventional Italian opera of the blood and sand order. His singing is not exactly all honey, but how intensely he lived in the part! He almost persuades us that there is real tragedy about – that if the puppet Canio were pricked, blood and not sawdust would come forth.”
Harold Williams (1893-1976) was born in Sydney and moved to England to further his training and career opportunities. He excelled as a recitalist and an oratorio performer as well as appearing in opera. His operatic roles ranged form Wolfram in Tannhaüser to Iago in Otello, to the title rôle in Boris Godunov. His notable interpretation of Elijah can be heard in two complete recordings made 17 years apart (the earlier of which is available on Divine Art Historic Sound 27802). He was not afraid to sing in contemporary works – Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia for example. He returned to his native Australia from 1940 to 1946 and again in the early 1950s. He later taught at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music.
May Blyth returned to her alma mater and was Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music in her native London, after her retirement from performing. She appeared in all of the BNOC seasons at Covent Garden and appeared extensively in concerts and broadcasts. She was married to the conductor Aylmer Buesst.
Marjorie Parry was also married to a conductor: she was Mrs John Barbirolli from 1932 to 1936. she was born in Bristol and, by current standards, her vocal training was brief to say the least. She studied for a year at the Royal Academy of Music before having private lessons from a professor at the Royal College of Music. She auditioned for BNOC and was given a place in the chorus. Luck played a part and in her second season she was brought out of the chorus to sing Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. She quickly graduated to Elisabeth in Tannhaüser and Alice Ford in Falstaff. She was an acclaimed Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and although we hear much these days about young opera singers doing too much too soon, so that their careers end prematurely, the management at Covent Garden placed extraordinary demands on Parry. She was required to sing on tour five performances each two weeks, and to have no less than fourteen roles: Eva, Elsa, Alice Ford, Lola, Rosalinda, Octavian, Musetta, Jack (The Wreckers), Nedda, Liu, Marguerite, Leonora (Il Trovatore), Gerhilde (Die Walküre) and a Flower Maiden.
Dennis Noble (1899-1966) was another native of Bristol. His singing began in the British cathedral tradition and after service in the First World War he was heard by Percy Pitt who auditioned him for Covent Garden, where he made his début as Marullo (Rigoletto) in 1924. He sang regularly at Covent Garden until the theatre closed at the outbreak of the Second World War. There, he created the roles of Sam Weller in Albert Coates’ Pickwick, Anchior in Judith and Don Jose in Don Juan de Manara, the last two by Goossens. He sang with the Carl Rosa Company as well as with BNOC. Like many of his generation he led a lucrative and busy career as a concert and oratorio singer, opportunities which are no longer available to the same extent to the modern generation of singers. His recorded legacy is large and all his records are marked by immediate characterisation and crystal clear diction.
Information on Justine Griffiths has eluded us. She is not listed as a principal in Harold Rosenthal’s “Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden”. She may however have joined BNOC after it left Covent Garden, or perhaps she was specially promoted from the chorus for this recording. She did record (1935-1926) for the small Beltona record label but she is not mentioned in any of the standard reference books nor any of the biographies or autobiographies of musicians who had connections with BNOC.
Aylmer Buesst (1883-1970) was born in Melbourne. He worked with the Moody-Manners Company – a touring company founded by the husband and wife team of Charles Manners and Fanny Moody – before joining the Beecham company. He was one of the founders of the BNOC and he wrote a concise and lucid analysis of Wagner’s Ring which is well worth reading.
Eugene Goossens (1867-1958) must not be confused either with his father or his son, both also called Eugene, He was chief conductor with the Burns-Crotty, Arthur Rouseby and Moody-Manners companies which existed before the First World War. He was also chief conductor for the Carl Rosa Company from 1899 to 1915 before joining Beecham’s company. It was his son who composed the operas in which Noble created roles. Goossens made a few recordings by the acoustic process but his crowning glory was undoubtedly this Pagliacci which was recorded in the Scala Theatre in March 1927.
biographical notes supplied by Chris Ball . Strictly copyright - all rights reserved.