In my last blog, I talked about Ninette de Valois and how she made Sadler’s Wells known throughout the world for ballet. The Wells was also home to one of Britain’s principal opera companies – Sadler’s Wells Opera (now English National Opera).
The company’s origins began with the opera performances given at Lilian Baylis’ Old Vic theatre. The Old Vic was granted its dramatic licence during the First World War, which enabled it to hold full opera performances for the first time. By 1920 the opera company was giving five performances a fortnight. Following the opening of Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1931, performances alternated between the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells. This alternation of opera, ballet and drama between the two theatres ended in 1934, and Sadler's Wells became the permanent home of the opera and ballet companies.
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 the company were based at the Victoria Theatre, Burnley and then, from 1942, at the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane in London. It performed at 69 different towns all around Britain. This enabled Sadler’s Wells Opera to become much more widely known throughout the country.
In 1945, the company returned to Sadler’s Wells with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (see photograph above). This was the opera's world premiere and it is now performed widely by opera companies around the world - it was a great success for the company.
Sadler's Wells Opera expanded after the war but Sadler’s Wells Theatre was now considered inadequate in size and facilities for the growing company. Plans were developed during the 1950s and 1960s for the company to move to a new national theatre and opera house which was being planned for the South Bank, London. It was intended that Sadler’s Wells would close to help pay for the new theatre. In 1967 the Government however withdrew support for the opera house part of the scheme and was therefore it was abandoned.
After this disappointment for the opera company, which felt it needed a new home, its manager (Stephen Arlen) quickly set to work in finding another theatre suited to the company’s requirements. The London Coliseum was chosen and the company moved there in 1968. Initially the company continued to be called the Sadler’s Wells Opera but was renamed English National Opera in 1974.
This was not the end of opera at Sadler’s Wells. A variety of opera companies have performed there on tour such as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was a regular visitor to the theatre from the 1930s to 1980s. In 1983 the theatre re-established an opera company of its own, the New Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. This however did not last long – the company was disbanded in 1989.
The collection includes a variety of items relating to opera at Sadler’s Wells. These include programmes, photographs of performances, publicity material (such as posters), press cuttings and some administrative files (mainly correspondence and financial records) concerning Sadler's Wells Opera, New Sadler's Wells Opera and visiting opera productions.