22 November 2013 is the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, composer, conductor and pianist. With a career that spanned over 40 years and a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces, he is a central figure of 20th-century British classical music. Britten had a direct connection with both Sadler’s Well Theatre and Islington. On 7th June 1945 one of his most renowned operas, Peter Grimes, premiered at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and he and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, also lived in the borough from 1970 to 1976.
The opening season of Peter Grimes was not only the first of Britten's operas to be a critical and popular success, it was the return of The Sadler’s Wells Opera Company to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre venue. During the Second World War the company spent much of its time on tour as a result of the wartime closure of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Temporarily the theatre and its companies were based at the Victoria Theatre, Burnley and from 1942 at the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London.
In 1945, the company returned to Sadler’s Wells and took the bold step of opening with a new, modern opera by a relatively unknown British composer. Joan Cross, who was the manager of the Sadler's Wells Opera at the time, played the female lead, Ellen Orford, and Peter Pears played the title role.
The opera was acclaimed by public and critics, and was a great success for the both the company and Britten. Today Peter Grimes is one of his most performed operas. As explained in our previous blog (A Grimey Affair 28 July 2012) the relationship between Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and Britten was to sour, but that is not to take away from the success of the original production. The archive holds various items about the original production such the opening night’s programme, press-cuttings, photographs, and a commemorative booklet of the production. All are testimony to the success of the premiere of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells.
To make an appointment to visit the Sadler's Wells Theatre Archive contact the Islington Local History Centre where you can see these items and over 330 years of theatre histroy.