Tuesday May 21 2019

The Britten-Pears Foundation Archive is not the first place that comes to mind when looking for stories of remarkable women, but in fact it holds papers from many women who were part of Britten and Pears’ circle of friends, which included some of the most notable musicians, artists and writers of their time. One of these was Joan Cross.

Joan Cross’ life spanned most of the 20th century. She was born in London in 1900, and lived into the 1990s, moving first to rural Suffolk, then spending her final years in Aldeburgh. No doubt she was drawn to this part of the world by Britten and Pears and their festival and artistic milieu, but perhaps she also appreciated Aldeburgh as the home town of other strong-minded women, most notably Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett.

Peter Pears (right) with Joan Cross (centre) in Switzerland, about 1947.

Joan Cross had a successful career as an opera singer in the 1920s and 1930s, then took on the management of Sadler’s Wells as a touring opera company in the difficult years of the second world war, when the company had been made homeless. After the war, she had a late flourishing as a singer, creating the roles of Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes, and singing in the premieres of subsequent Britten operas in roles which he created for her, including Lady Billows in Albert Herring and Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw.  In 1948 she founded The Opera School, which in various guises launched the careers of many opera singers. Its successor institution, The National Opera Studio, is flourishing today.

Benjamin Britten with Joan Cross at Schipol airport. They were arriving in Amsterdam for the English Opera Group performances of Pucell’s Dido and Aeneas and Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento at the Holland Festival. June 1951.

Joan Cross’ papers throw light on her fascinating life. She kept scrapbooks, which are filled with reviews of her performances from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as telegrams from well-wishers and admirers, and flyers and programmes. Taken together these reveal the astonishing range and number of roles she sang, sometimes performing one opera in the afternoon at The Old Vic, then rushing across London to sing another in the evening at Sadler’s Wells. During the war years, when Cross took over the management of the Sadler’s Wells Company, she kept meticulous rehearsal books of the operas the Company took on tour, listing each town – Buxton, Leeds, Glasgow, Carlisle, Hull, moving from one to the next, and detailing which operas were performed, which singers used and giving details of any hitches or problems. Although Cross did not cast herself, she regularly stood in for other singers if they were ill.

Letter from Lilian Baylis to Joan Cross, 4 November 1932, listing the opera roles for Cross to sing in the subsequent weeks. CRS/4/7. © Old Vic Theatre Trust.

Management seems to have come naturally to Joan Cross, but perhaps not diplomacy, and she fell out spectacularly and bitterly with the management and some of the company of Sadler’s Wells in 1945. Cross’ archive collection includes letters and written accounts of this argument, which led to her leaving Sadler’s Wells. She subsequently joined Britten’s new English Opera Group, and she kept programmes of their productions, as well as letters written to her by other members of the Group and reviews of the operas.

Cataloguing Joan Cross’ papers has been interesting. They arrived at the Britten-Pears Foundation in a jumble, some stuffed into suitcases, so trying to make order out of their chaos has been a challenge, but a fascinating one. I have been doing this project as a student placement for my qualification in Archives and Records Management at University College London, and I have enjoyed wrestling with putting theoretical archival principles into practice. But most of all I have enjoyed learning about the fascinating life of this remarkable woman.

Now that they have been catalogued, Joan Cross’ papers are available for consultation in the Archive. You can find details of her catalogued papers via the online catalogue by searching with the Reference ‘CRS’.