Book Review: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who himself composed a substantial body of
operas, did not include the subject at the Royal Academy of Music. In this new
book from Paul
(lecturer in music at the University of Birmingham), Opera
in the British Isles, 1875-1918
, the author aims to find what was
happening operatically in the British Isles. The results are somewhat
surprising both in the number of performances, the access people outside London
had to opera and the number of new works performed. Rodmell demonstrates that
there was s significant amount of opera going on, albeit of a rather variable

The book is part of a series from Ashgate
, Music in 19th Century Britain, which seeks to explore
the wealth of music and musical culture of Britain in the 19th century. To
explode the myth of the Land Without Music.

Rodmell’s book is thematic rather than strictly historical. He starts with a
survey of opera in 1875. The year was chosen as start date because it was the
year of the first appearance of the major touring company Carl Rosa Opera, the
inauguration of the project for a new National Opera House on the Victoria
Embankment and the definitive establishment of the operas of Wagner in the
repertory. Carl Rosa Opera was important as a significant company playing
London in parallel with Covent Garden. The opera house project was an
unfeasibly idealistic scheme, but one which helps to articulate the Victorian’s
concern with a national style in new operas. And Wagner, of course, represents
an important step in the modernisation of the operatic repertoire.

Rodmell also draws a strict line between grand or serious opera and operetta
or musical theatre. He considers only grand or serious opera, on the basis that
the Victorians and Edwardians were quite clear on the distinction. Most
operettas and musical comedies were produced in runs of a single show (as in
the Savoy Operas), whereas grander, more serious opera was produced on a
repertory basis with a different show each night.

The dominant centre through the whole period was Covent Garden opera house,
though even there things went through some vicissitudes. For most of the period
Covent Garden was the prime opera company in London, as such it formed the
model for many other opera companies in Britain. The main opera season at
Covent Garden was for much of this time was referred to as the Italian season.
Initially everything was in Italian, including the French operas and, at first,
the Wagner.

There was no subsidy, opera was a commercial business in Victorian Britain
(and remained so effectively until the founding of the Arts Council after the
Second World War). The view was that if you had a good product it would sell.
The other important element was class; the grand opera season at Covent Garden
coincided with the London Season and the aristocratic patrons (and their
subscriptions) were the opera house’s financial mainstay. So the repertory was
heavily influenced by the patrons’ wishes.

The operas at Covent Garden were star based, the aristocratic patrons were
interested mainly in the performances of the leads, the rest was a bit
haphazard. This created the impression that the best opera had to be an
aristocratic, star-based object. And the repertoire was essentially reactive,
new operas had usually done well elsewhere. Only when Thomas Beecham was
introduced into the mix, were new operas (ie. UK premieres as well as world
premieres) chosen with flair, imagination and an eye on what novelties would

All this meant that smaller companies had difficulty in sustaining the
model. But Rodmell has done his research and the book is full of admirable
detail and tables, both for performances in London and the provinces. These
make fascinating reading, seeing what was and was not popular. (For instance,
the most performed composers at Covent Garden in 1871 to 1874 were Meyerbeer,
Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, Bellini, Gounod and the top three operas
were Gounod’s Faust, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Sivigla and
Mozart’s Don Giovanni). So we can see quite clearly what was going on.

His description of the mechanics of opera production in the provinces makes
for interesting and illuminating reading, what with the use of locals to
stiffen the chorus and orchestra, the generally small size of ensembles and the
rather slap dash production values. As with Covent Garden it was the leads who
counted. And again this was all a commercial operation, tours needed to make
money and, unsurprisingly, most companies eventually went bust. (Rodmell lists
an astonishing 34 different companies touring the provinces in the period 1875
to 1918).

The slightly surprising thing is the number of operas by composers from the
UK that were premiered. Covent Garden did few but other companies were more
adventurous. Rodmell tables a remarkable number of premieres. The sad thing is
that most have not been revived and probably do not warrant it. Most of this
reflects the state of British opera composition, but the general choice of new
works was often unadventurous and certainly did not reflect some of the
interesting work being premiered on the continent.

The question of national opera is also addressed as it was of concern to the
Victorians. No solution was found, the National Opera House was an expensive
non-starter. Rodmell lists all the known premieres of operas by UK composers
and it is an impressive list, but they do not coalesce into a school and only a
few would seem worthy of serious revival such as those by Boughton, Stanford
and Smyth. No typically English, Irish or Scottish style ever developed and the
spirit of Wagner hangs heavy over the librettos and subject matter.

After his description of Opera in the British Isles in 1875, Rodmell has
chapters on Opera in London 1876 to 1896, Opera in London 1897 to 1918, Opera
in the Provinces, and ‘The Operatic Problem’ followed by a list of all the
operas by British and Irish composers premiered in 1875 to 1918, with details
of the opera, plot and further background. Finally there is a summary of opera
in the UK in 1918, and the amazing thing is quite how little has changed.
Rather sadly it would take a second world war to bring that about.

This book is an impressive piece of research and will be an invaluable
resource for anyone interested in the field, but there is no denying that it is
something of a dry read. As I have said, this is a book of lists (there are 14
pictures, but 31 tables). and to get the most out of it you have to enjoy
lists. There is the occasional good story or lively anecdote, but the core of
the narrative is essentially who did what and when. As such it helps illuminate
chapter in British operatic history which is little written about.

Robert Hugill

Paul Rodmell: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918
Ashgate Publishing, 364pp.
ISBN: 9781409441625


image_description=Paul Rodmell: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918
product_title=Paul Rodmell: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918
Ashgate Publishing, 364pp.
ISBN: 9781409441625
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill