by Rachel O'Higgins
In June 1974, the first and only British stage production of Wat Tyler was put on at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, London. It was organised by the Keynote Opera Society, which had been established in January 1972, with the support of the Workers' Music Association. The Keynote Opera Society had been founded with the sole object of getting Wat Tyler produced on the English stage. The Patron of the Society was Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen's Musick, and the Council of the Society included a number of well-known people, such as John Amis, Sir Thomas Armstrong, Sir Robert Mayer, the composer, Bernard Stevens, and Joan Horrocks, Chairman of the WMA.
Early in 1972, the Society appealed in a letter to wealthy individuals and organisations for sponsorship, stating that "Alan Bush is now seventy-one years of age, and we feel that he has waited overlong for the production in Britain which Wat Tyler well deserves. We feel, equally, that the opera-going public should no longer be denied the chance of seeing a production. In the opinion of our illustrious Patron, our Council and indeed of many distinguished musicians known to us, this opera is worthy of the finest professional production available, and should be staged here as soon as possible". Sufficient money was raised from an Arts Council grant, various organisations and numerous individual donors. The success of the project was largely due to the work and organising skills of the Secretary of the Society, Topsy Levan, who, virtually on her own, appealed for money, organised the Council meetings and dealt with the artists and their agents, with Sadler's Wells and many other things.
Two years later, the opera was very successfully staged, receiving three performances, on the 19th, 21st and 22nd June 1974. The opera was conducted by Stanford Robinson with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the City Philharmonic Choral Society and a number of professional singers. It was produced by Tom Hawkes and the sets were designed by the scenic designer, Alan Barrett. The leading roles were taken by well-known singers of the time. John Noble sang Wat Tyler, Valerie Masterson, his wife, Margaret; Richard Angas, sang the role of the priest, John Ball, and Martin Lawrence, Archbishop Sudbury. The part of the Queen Mother was sung by Laura Sarti and her young son, Richard II, by Joseph Ward. In the second and third performances, Joseph Ward was unable to sing the part because of a severe attack of laryngitis, and his part was taken by his understudy, Robin Leggate, then a student at the Royal Northern College of Music. This was his debut as a singer; two years later, in 1976, he was invited to become a member of the Royal Opera Company, where he is still a member of the Company.
The occasion of the first night was vividly recalled by Joan Horrocks, then Chairman of the WMA, and a Member of the Council of Management of Keynote Opera Society. She wrote in the WMA Bulletin (July, 1974):
"June 19 was a particularly hectic day for me in my office, and I hardly had a moment to think about the significance of the date...and still I don't think it dawned on me fully...until I was actually facing Sadler's Wells Theatre and there, plastered all over the walls, were the striking posters announcing 'WAT TYLER, by Alan Bush; libretto by Nancy Bush'. Then, inside the foyer on a small screen above the bar, colour slides of some of the scenes were being projected. And suddenly I knew it was all true. There they were in those costumes about which we had had endless discussions on the Council - the chorus of peasants storming the prison gates; the great figure of John Ball; Wat Tyler dominating the centre stage; King Richard in his gleaming white royal robes, surrounded by the nobles in their scarlet - and that wonderful stage set with the golden lion...The foyer began to fill up - one recognised important musical personalities, critics and members of the musical public curious to hear this 'new' work...It looked like being a full house. And there was our Keynote Society Secretary, Topsy Levan, dashing around in the background, still settling those few final details..."
"The lights are dimmed, the audience is hushed. The conductor, Stanford Robinson,...walked onto the rostrum and the Overture began, reminding us of those inspiring choruses we were about to hear...From the very first bar it was obvious that we had one of the finest British orchestras - the Royal Philharmonic - playing to us, and that this veteran conductor was in full command - and full sympathy - with the music.
"When the curtain rose, it was equally obvious that we had been served well by our young and talented designer, Alan Barrett - the sets were simple but impressive. And what of the chorus? We first heard them at the end of the Prologue, gathering for a secret meeting in the Kentish forest, and singing a traditional song of the time, 'The Cutty Wren'...they were the Kentish peasants, each one of them, responding to their leader's call to action, being roused to anger, then bowed down in sorrow but confident of final victory...The principals...were well cast and did justice to their roles. John Noble, as Wat Tyler, sang beautifully and one heard all his words (most important, when the words really mean something as they do in this work). Richard Angas, as John Ball, could not have been bettered, either in voice or acting. He gave a most moving performance. Valerie Masterson, as Mrs Tyler, sang well...The duet between her and Wat was most beautiful. It was a great pity that Joseph Ward, as King Richard, was obviously unwell...On the last two nights, the role of King Richard was taken over by Robin Leggate,...who sang with great sensitivity and feeling...Martin Lawrence, as Archbishop Sudbury, filled the stage with his commanding presence and his acting - as always - was masterly.
"Seeing Alan and Nancy standing side by side on the stage acknowledging the applause, and knowing how they must have felt at that moment, was for me the final highlight of two evenings I will never forget. And I certainly retain my original conviction that Wat Tyler is perhaps the greatest of Alan Bush's compositions to date".
Many of those who saw this production wrote about it in glowing terms. Sir Thomas Armstrong, the former Principal of the Royal Academy, expressed his views in a letter to Alan Bush, dated June 26, 1974. He wrote:
"Looking back on Wat Tyler I think it was a triumph...If I'm not mistaken, the general conviction after last week was that Wat Tyler is an outstanding opera and that it ought to find its way into the repertory...Let me tell you of my admiration for the work and my joy at the measure of success that this performance achieved...it was very memorable and very moving..."
Eric Fenby, the well-known amanuensis of Frederick Delius and then a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, wrote on 26th June 1974: "It was a beautiful and moving opera". John Allen, then Principal of the Central School of Speech and Drama, wrote on 15th June 1974: "Saturday was a wonderful evening...You were marvellously well served by all your collaborators though I think I would give highest praise of all to your designer...I thought the spare strong scaffolding, beautifully lit and thereby having great texture, the simple strong shaping of the costumes, especially of the nobles, and the strong dense orchestration of the music all served to underline the strong sculptured nature of the story and thought and feeling".
Alan Bush, perhaps, summed up his feelings about the production, when replying to Sir Thomas Armstrong on 27th June 1974. He said "I never expect to witness a finer performance of Wat Tyler, though I hope to see further productions here, also of my other operas. It has been a happy time for my beloved Nancy".
Let us hope that his fervent wish to see his opera enjoy future British stage productions may be fulfilled.
© 2001 Rachel O'Higgins Alan Bush Music Trust