Wartime Opera in Britain

At the beginning of the war Britain had two permanent opera houses, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells. At the outbreak of war, the Royal Opera House was taken over as a dance hall. Sadler’s Wells was able to continue its activities with seven productions in the first year after war had been declared (including Gounod’s Faust, Bizet’s Carmen, and Verdi’s La Traviata and Othello). However, when the blitz began the theatre was taken over as a bomb shelter and refuge for the homeless, and the opera company instead began touring the areas most affected by the blitz. For security reasons these performances, which were intended to boost national morale, received no advance publicity. The company moved temporarily to the Victoria Theatre, Burnley and the New Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane.

Sadler’s Wells’ director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie wrote of the 1940 series, ‘For a time, opera cannot be grand,’ and, unlike the lavish opera productions that continued to be staged and toured by German opera companies during the war, opera in Britain was simpler in style. To overcome the problems inflicted by rationing, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York sent over a ‘bundle for Britain,’ containing necessities such as tights and shoes to be used for costumes.

The British taste for German operas remained unchanged, demonstrating a national ability to divorce music from politics. Similarly, performances of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly continued in Britain throughout the war, despite having been dropped from the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Marseilles Opera in France following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1942. There was also a surge in interest in Russian opera following the Russian response to German attack in December 1941. Ukrainian-born conductor Anatole Fistoulari, who had escaped to London following French defeat, collaborated with three Russian emigrés: designer Feorge Kirsta, entrepreneur Eugene Iskoldoff and investor Jay Pomeroy, to deliver a sell-out programme of Russian operas. The performances were plagued by scandal, with Russian soprano Kyra Vayne claiming that prostitution, gangsterism and clashes between singers threatened the performances. Nevertheless, such scandals increased the British appetite for entertainment. The Carl Rosa Opera Company, founded in 1873 by German-born impresario Carl Rosa, also provided regular entertainment across the UK during the war period, and employed a number of European refugees including Peter Gellhorn and Walter Susskind. Joan Hammond, one of the most popular opera singers in wartime Britain, became something of a national hero. Throughout the war the Australian-born singer toured the country, sang at the Proms and performed frequently on the radio.

Sadler’s Wells reopened on 7 June 1945, with the premiere performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, with Peter Pears in the title role. The Royal Opera House had become a Mecca Dance Hall during the war, and was set to remain this way until Boosey & Hawkes intervened. Consequently, there was no company that could take up residence, and the Royal Opera House was instead reopened with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Sleeping Beauty, in February 1946, whilst a new resident contemporary opera company was built up from scratch.

By Daisy Fancourt


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Bade, P. (2012) Music Wars 1937-1945 (London: East and West Publishing Ltd.) 

Donaldson, F. (2013) The Royal Opera House in the Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury)

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Stansky, P. and Abrahams, W. (1994) London’s Burning: Life, Death and Art in the Second World War (London: Constable)