British National Opera Company

ensemble

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.