High hopes

The previously mentioned Thistlethwaite archive throws a completely different light on the nature of amateur music making in the UK during the twentieth century, showing that amateur operatic productions could be astonishingly daring and ambitious in their scope and design. Lee Thistlethwaite’s papers were presented to the UL by his son, Frank. Lee was a cotton trader and manufacturer based in Manchester; he was also a talented amateur oboist, who played in the Hallé orchestra, and a baritone, who had sung semi-professionally.  He was passionate about amateur music-making and founded the Burnley Operatic Society.

Bert Loman’s design for the Burnley Operatic Society’s 1933 production of Tannhäuser.

There is a jaw-dropping letter in the archive from a Manchester set construction company:

Dear Sir,

Re;- Tannhause[r]  and Barber of Seville.

As requested by your Mr. Thistlethwaite we have pleasure in enclosing revised sketches for the above and hope they are satisfactory. We are sorry to hear that you think the terms quoted are rather high, but when you consider that we have to paint Tannhauser specially for you, and the whole job will take us three weeks to complete, there is very little margin considering one scenic artist and a carpenter will be employed for its execution…..

The ambition of the company was huge – how many amateur operatic companies today would even contemplate staging Wagner? Despite problems with set constructors, the two operas were performed to generally rapturous reviews at the Victoria Theatre, Burnley, in November 1933.

Lee Thistlethwaite as Dr. Bartolo in Burnley Operatic Society’s production of The Barber of Seville.

Many of Burnley Operatic’s earlier productions had almost certainly received substantial assistance from the Hallé Orchestra, whose members were transported in from Manchester to join the enthusiastic amateurs, members of the Municipal Symphony Orchestra, who formed the corps of the orchestra, the only time in the year when the Victoria Theatre was able to employ a full orchestra. Thistlethwaite’s press cuttings include clippings from the Burnley News, which was happy to report that “patrons will be glad to know that local musicians have been engaged wherever possible.” There was however a caveat: rising costs meant that the orchestra was slimmed down, and this caused some problems with the brass frequently overwhelming the strings in Tannhäuser, and the singers in Barber of Seville. Although Burnley Operatic were clearly enthusiastic about using amateur musicians both onstage and off, professional musicians remained vitally important as the backbone of the orchestra. The single largest payment in the 1933 accounts is for the wages and other expenses of the orchestra: £153, 5s, 2d.

The overall cost of the two productions was just over £470 (equating to around £26,000 in modern money). The company made a surprisingly small loss of £80, and continued to stage daring productions including Cavelleria Rusticana, and I Pagliacci in 1934, and The tales of Hoffman in 1936. A production of Samson and Delilah however in 1937 was a step too far for the Burnley opera-going public, and the amateur company was left with a massive loss of £130.

The 1930’s were evidently a golden age for music in the Lancashire town. In 1934, a light opera society had also been founded in Burnley. Although both societies were popular they were in direct competition to each other, competing both for cast and crew, and, perhaps more importantly, for audiences. The light opera company’s music appeared to be more palatable to the theatre-going public, and Lee Thistlethwaite’s Burnley Operatic Society closed. The enthusiasm of the town for operas and musicals is however evident – Burnley Light Opera Society is still going strong, and has successfully staged a musical every year, except during war time.

The Thistlethwaite archive provides a glimpse into a world of operatic production, which is both familiar and surprising, revealing amateur productions which were ambitious and fearless in their aspirations.  Although musical life in the cities was of vital importance, this archive demonstrates that music in the provinces was equally vibrant, with a real hunger for the glamour of the stage, and the sound of the symphony orchestra.  A brief flavour of this can be found looking through the Concert Programmes Database where details of many of the programmes at Cambridge University Library are now available online.  They provide a snapshot of this lively period in British musical life.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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