The recent announcement that the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival will be in Harrogate next year is excellent news, not only for those who enjoy the marvellous collaboration of Britain’s most talented operetta composer and librettist, but also those who know the importance of occupying seats in our theatres and increasing customers in our hotels and shops.
There is also every likelihood that if the organisers of next year’s festival are favourably impressed by what Harrogate has to offer, they will return year after year, so long as standards are high and service faultless. Opera and operetta have a chequered history in Harrogate, and one of local opera’s most interesting phases was during the second decade of the 20th century, when a great, but today, rather neglected English composer, EB. Farrar, worked with the Kursaal’s music director, Julian Clifford, to arrange Wagner’s music to Tannhauser and Parsifal for reduced forces, to accompany the screening of films of both operas.
The purpose of this work was to encourage wider appreciation of an enjoyable entertainment, that too many people - even today - think they wouldn’t enjoy. An important step was taken in 1929 when Mr and Mrs Albert Chapman founded a society for both the production and appreciation of Grand Opera. After the first performance - admittedly abridged - of Gounod’s Faust at the Old Swan in 1930, the society flourished until its activities were inevitably curtailed by the Second World War.
One performance that was long remembered by the townspeople was the spectacular Valley Gardens staging of Merrie England in 1935, as part the celebrations of George V’s jubilee. Although the weather could have been better, the production was judged a great success. My own memories of live opera in Harrogate involve many enjoyable concert performances, including several under the baton of the unforgettable Joe Nicholson.
However, it was thanks to Odeon Cinema manager Brenton Symmons that I experienced my first overwhelming experience of opera at the highest international standard. This was on Friday, May 26 1967, when the Odeon screened Paul Czinner’s film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. Ever since then, I have been hooked on the cinematic production of both opera and drama.
Harrogate’s Odeon Cinema continues the high standards begun by Brenton Symmons, and today’s general manager, Mr S Davis, has introduced the most wonderful series of screenings, many of them being live performances from top London and New York theatres. If there are readers who shared my initial reservations that the screenings would be spoiled by noisy teenagers munching noisier popcorn, let me say that audiences consist of true lovers of opera and drama, and in all my years of attendance, I have never once been disturbed by inconsiderate behaviour. Moreover, the screenings are usually in the larger cinema, with extremely comfortable seats and convenient intervals, and a view of the stage that is infinitely better than that from even the most expensive tickets in the opera house or theatre.
Mr. Davis’s office informs me that Harrogate has one of the highest records of attendance for cultural screenings of any cinema in the country, and that the present “season” includes performances from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Glyndebourne, and - as a most exciting innovation - the Globe Theatre in London. The cost of an Odeon ticket for such screenings is between about £13 to £20, a ridiculously low figure in comparison with the cost of a rail ticket to London, a stay in an hotel, and the £80 to £200 charge for a Covent Garden ticket.
Last year, after experiencing the Met production of Wagner’s Ring, I came away from the Odeon almost crushed by the magnificence of the performance, and vaguely resentful that the greatest artistic experience of my life now behind me. But the stunning programmes keep appearing, making the Odeon’s screenings of opera and drama a dazzling part of Harrogate’s cultural year. Harrogate has come a long way since those early efforts of Farrar and Clifford to introduce opera to the wider public.