I wish I’d been there

Friday 12 July 1946

Packed a hamper – potted-shrimp sandwiches (white sliced), gulls eggs (!) and ginger pop… Took the train to Lewes from Victoria station – we looked so odd on the platform in long dresses…. Benjamin Britten has written another opera and I was off to the first night… Gosh!!!

I remember post-war London as a drab place, grey and rationed; there were few treats. But in July 1946 Glyndebourne, having housed evacuees during the war, bravely reopened its 537-seat theatre with a new chamber opera, performed over two consecutive weeks by the newly-formed Glyndebourne English Opera Company.

Despite its new theatre and sophisticated facilities, today’s Glyndebourne has not lost its traditional ‘jizz’. But that occasion must have been uniquely exciting on myriad levels. The world premiere of a new opera (the first in a mostly-Mozart house), designs by John Piper, a cast including Peter Pears – familiar as Peter Grimes et al – and, making her stage debut, Kathleen Ferrier.

Straight after the premiere of Grimes in June 1945, its director – the Francophile Eric Crozier – suggested André Obey’s 1931 play Le viol de Lucrèce to Britten as a subject for his next opera. And when Britten first heard Ferrier (singing Messiah in Westminster Abbey in 1943), he had been struck by ‘the nobility and beauty of her presence, and by the warmth and deep range of her voice’. So he cast Ferrier in the title role, with Nancy Evans (later Mrs Eric Crozier), alternating performances. According to Lord Harewood: ‘Kathleen sang it fabulously but Nancy’s performance was sexier…’.

Ferrier was certainly daunted by The Rape of Lucretia, ‘Could I even walk on a stage without falling over my own rather large feet, not to mention having to sing at the same time – that is of course if i could ever learn the music!’ but soon ‘My mind was made up. I would learn that music if it was the last thing I did…’. The score, written in four months, was completed on 26 May and the company gathered on 10 June, so the four week rehearsal period must have been challenging, probably most of all for the inexperienced Ferrier. At the premiere, according to the opera’s librettist Ronald Duncan, ‘the composer stood at the back of the auditorium looking tense’ and ‘the audience response was polite but unaware’. The audience probably didn’t know what to think.

Though Ferrier died so long ago and so tragically (of breast cancer), she is still admired affectionately by musicians and public alike. Why? For the strikingly individual timbre of her voice, her innate musicianship and clear diction, the honest charm of her commitment and enthusiasm? Surely all of these… and as her centenary closes and Benjamin Britten’s begins, I still wish I had been at Glyndebourne on that summer evening in 1946.