William Alwyn’s opera Miss Julie, received its London concert premiere at the Barbican on Thursday 3rd October 2019. It was one of Alwyn’s favourite works, but had a long and difficult history. Its concert staging was of particular interest for those working in the Music Department at the UL, where the Alwyn Archive is held; and so knew something of its long history.
As early as the 1930s, Alwyn had become interested in Strindberg‘s play, and thought about turning it into an opera. At the time, he had recently finished his first opera, an Irish confection, The Fairy Fiddler, which had rather more in common with Brigadoon, than the red-blooded Miss Julie.
Alwyn’s career as a film composer was just taking off, he had a young family, and a steady and busy job at the Royal Academy of Music. So perhaps it’s not surprising that early thoughts of adapting Miss Julie were put to one side.
In 1954, the idea surfaced again, only to be dashed when composer and librettist discovered that they had very different ideas about the play, and its transformation into an opera.
It would be nearly another 20 years before Alwyn produced his first draft of the libretto. Along with Miss Julie, her lover Jean, and Kristin, Jean’s fiancee, Alwyn created a new character, Ulrik the gamekeeper, mentioned but never seen in Strindberg’s original. Ulrik also substitutes as the mocking villagers of the original play, so providing a neat chamber opera, with no need for a chorus. Alwyn hoped that this would make the opera more attractive to producers, as a relatively cheap option to stage.
Two years later, in August 1973, Alwyn wrote to composer and friend, Elisabeth Lutyens, to say that the work was progressing well, and that the first scene was nearly finished. This mention of the first scene makes it clear that Alwyn has moved away from Strindberg’s intention to make the play flow in one act; instead Alwyn splits the action in two, ending the first act with the consummation of Miss Julie and Jean’s relationship, and revealing the tragic consequences that spring from that act at the end of the opera. It makes operatic sense, even if it is against the spirit of Strindberg’s original intentions.
By the following March, the second act was nearly complete. While William hastened to finish the work, his wife, Doreen Carwithen, who was a huge supporter of his work, and a passionate advocate for Miss Julie, was busy getting it prepared, and writing hundreds of letters (many of which, including multiple photocopies, now sit in the William Alwyn Archive at Cambridge University Library) to opera companies, singers, and broadcasters, throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
On 17th February 1977, the BBC recorded Miss Julie at Brent Town Hall. Cambridgeshire based singer, Jill Gomez took the lead role, with Benjamin Luxon as Jean, Della Jones as Kristin, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Ulrik.
Reviews of the broadcast were mixed, but Alwyn was relieved that the work had finally been performed to a wider public, and, perhaps not surprisingly after the long gestation of the opera, hit a patch of composer’s block, following the premiere.
William and Mary (Doreen Carwithen hated the name, Doreen, and preferred to be known as Mary) were also thrilled that the broadcast led to a further recording by Lyrita records. Recorded in January 1979, the cast had to fight their way through a veritable Scandinavian blizzard, as the replacement Ulrik, John Mitchinson, fought his way with the aid of a snow-plough from Gloucestershire to London, to make the recording. The recording was favourably received with some critics reminded of Puccini or Janacek (William must have been thrilled, as they were two of his favourite composers), but still a theatrical premiere remained a distant dream. For William, it was to remain a dream, as he died in 1985 never having seen his opera staged.
Following William’s death, Mary threw herself into promoting his legacy. Top of her list was a theatrical premiere of his neglected opera. Finally, in 1992, an opportunity arose. Una Stewart, an American living in Copenhagen, with a background in opera production, had become interested in the work, and it was finally agreed that Miss Julie would receive its theatrical premiere in Ballerup, Denmark, by Opera-Fabrikken.
Events leading up to the premiere were difficult – some of the back-stage crew went on strike, while one of the singers had costume problems. Although the premiere did not entirely fulfil Mary’s hopes, it did reinvigorate her desire for the work to receive a theatrical premiere in the country of William’s birth. A London premiere was as far away as ever, but she was approached in 1996, about the possibility of staging the work at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the following year.
William and Mary had lived in Suffolk for 20 years, it had become their haven, and it seemed curiously fitting that William’s opera should finally get its UK staging just an easy drive away from their home. Miss Julie was staged on October 15th, 1997, at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, with Judith Howarth in the leading role. Benjamin Luxon, beloved by both William and Mary for his portrayal of Jean in the original BBC radio production produced the opera. It received good reviews; but despite its success, the story might have ended there.
More recently, however, there has been renewed interest in Miss Julie. An orchestral suite, arranged from the opera, was recorded by Naxos, and Kate Royal’s sumptuous recording of the aria, Midsummer Night, was well received. This week, Miss Julie finally gets its London premiere, admittedly it is a concert performance, rather than staged, but for an opera that is set in one place, among claustrophobic surroundings, this seems not inappropriate. Alwyn’s Miss Julie has had a troubled life, and never quite received the adulation that its composer felt it deserved. Perhaps with this week’s concert it finally will.
This article was previously published in an expanded edition on the William Alwyn blog, From Ariel…