Friday June 21 2019
This month’s featured acquisition relates to the English Opera Group (later the English Music Theatre Company) and recently recorded oral history interviews with three former members; stage manager John Richardson, singer Michael Bauer, and stage and general manager David Patmore.
In Spring this year a trainee archivist at University College London undertook an oral history project to record the memories of former members of the Group, thus complementing the Foundation’s ongoing work to catalogue the Group’s papers which are held in the Britten-Pears Archive. The recorded interviews have been deposited in our archive where they will be transcribed and made available to researchers in our reading room.
Visitors to the Archive building this month can view, in the foyer display case, items Richardson kept from his time as stage manager, from 1967 to 1969, which he has now kindly passed on to the archive along with his memories. On display are programmes and press reviews from productions he worked on, as well as a wooden glockenspiel hammer made by percussionist James Blades for one of the young servants, treble David Morgan, to use on stage in the first production of Britten’s The Prodigal Son in 1968. Richardson explained that ‘Ben was very particular about the dynamics giving David a personal lesson and writing the pencil notes in my note book’.
At his oral history interview Richardson talked about the numerous tasks of the stage management team, including managing props, photocopying and distributing revised rehearsal schedules and score changes, and ensuring a smooth running performance. Whilst cataloguing the Group’s archive I have come across evidence of this hard work in the paperwork the stage managers left behind. Items such as prop and costume lists, setting and running plots, time books and stage management production scores which are now available for researchers to consult.
Stage management’s copy of the vocal score was interleaved with blank pages on which the team wrote copious notes – such as technical cues, singers’ calls, and pre-show and prop checks as well as detailed descriptions and diagrams to be able to remind singers of their rehearsed positions and movements on stage.
Singer Michael Bauer had a long association with the Group, singing Peaseblossom in the first production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a boy in 1960 and then returning after college as a baritone, taking numerous roles throughout the 1970s until the company folded in 1980.
Bauer’s first memories of Britten were of the composer hearing him sing at his Suffolk school and selecting him as the 5th boy to take part in his opera. Bauer went on to sing, amongst many other roles, that of the boatman in the 1973 premiere of Death in Venice, John Shears in the revised version of Paul Bunyan in 1976 and Lord Dobe in the company’s final commission Minoru Miki’s An Actor’s Revenge in 1979.
David Patmore worked with the Group in stage and then general management from 1969 until 1974. Interestingly, he was able to shed light on the Group’s close working relationship with the Royal Opera House, explaining that the Group used the management, press and technical infrastructure at Covent Garden, thus keeping the costs down, avoiding many of the overhead and salary costs that a resident opera house encounters – this allowed Britten and the Group more freedom to experiment. He added ‘so as far as the Arts Council was concerned this was a very, very good deal, because they got really high standards for not very much money’.
Patmore and Bauer both worked with the Group through the early 1970s when Britten increasingly took a less active role due to failing health. They spoke about why and how the Group changed direction and focus at this time, driven forward by producer Colin Graham, and evolving into the English Music Theatre Company by 1975. Bauer said that ‘Colin’s idea was to have an ensemble theatre… he created this group that were all equal’, and Patmore remembered that Graham’s ‘emphasis was on music theatre, i.e. the drama’ and on broadening the repertoire and style of music performed. Both recalled that lack of money due to an ever decreasing annual grant from the Arts Council throughout the 1970s was a major factor in the Company folding.
All three interviewees had many vivid, interesting, informative and often entertaining memories to share of their experiences with the Group, of the many colleagues they worked with, of productions and touring with the Group. We are delighted to add to our oral history collection these invaluable first-hand accounts of many aspects of the Group’s work, the people involved and operas produced which researchers can now use alongside the paper records.
The Britten-Pears Foundation runs an ongoing oral history programme capturing memories of people who knew and worked with Britten, Pears or their associates. Richardson has previously donated other material from his time as stage manager, in particular photographs, some in colour, of productions he was involved in. These can be viewed on the online archive catalogue under ref no. MSC51