York Opera founding member PAULINE MARSHALL has written a short history of the society to help opera-lovers through lockdown

When, in 1966, a group of young singers got together in York to form an amateur company to perform operas, they could not have imagined that 54 years later that company would not only be still in existence, but (lockdown apart) thriving and still entertaining York audiences.

The founders of City Opera Group (York Opera’s original name) had all learned their skills with the York Youth Operatic and Choral Society and had reached the upper age limit for that organisation. Although York, at that time, boasted two excellent companies performing musicals in the Theatre Royal, there was no equivalent company for opera.

City Opera group was established in 1966 and began planning its first fully staged production. This was to be Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, currently enjoying a popular revival following its successful production by the Sadlers’ Wells Opera Company.

The group was fortunate to have the services of Roy Gittins as Stage Director and no less a personage than David Blake, then a newly arrived lecturer at the recently established University of York, as Musical Director.

Orpheus was staged at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in June, 1968. During the following few years the company gradually moved from operetta to more demanding fully operatic works: Cavalleria Rusticana in 1973, and their first Verdi production, Nabucco in 1976.

More Verdi operas followed in quick succession - Macbeth and The Force of Destiny in 1978 and 1980 -then the company took a huge ‘leap in the dark’ in 1981, staging Vaughan Williams’ English Folk opera Hugh the Drover, a work which had lain dormant for many years since its initial staging in 1924 at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. City Opera Group welcomed the composer’s widow, Ursula Vaughan Williams, to their performance and received great praise from her on the production.

Two years later, with another leap of faith, they actually staged Puccini’s Turandot in the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. Much to the surprise of many this proved to be a great artistic success with many very positive reviews - and many hints that the company should consider a larger venue.

This resulted in another massive step, namely moving the main production to the Theatre Royal.

Performing in a professional theatre brought many advantages, including enhanced publicity, being in the city centre, and the enormous benefit of the expertise of theatre professionals on hand.

It also brought increased costs, however, so it was a great relief to find that audiences supported the move in 1986 with a re-run of Turandot. The newly renamed company, York Opera, could now state their aim to stage large-chorus operas in York as a regular feature of the city’s life.

They did not desert the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, however. In 1990 they staged the world premiere of Hans Gal’s comic opera Rich Claus, Poor Claus, which had originally been scheduled for performance in Germany in 1933, and in 1993 their first Britten opera, Albert Herring.

For many long-standing members and supporters, the pinnacle of achievement was the 1998 staging of Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes, in the Theatre Royal – a remarkable feat for an amateur company.

These days the company puts on two productions a year - one in the Theatre Royal and one in the Joseph Rowntree Theatre or smaller venue (opera excerpts ‘in the round’ in the National Centre for Early Music have proved very successful).

In the Theatre Royal alternate years see a ‘serious’ opera alternating with a Gilbert and Sullivan opera to avoid heavy losses. York Opera’s last three performances, for example, have been Bizet’s Carmen and G&S's The Gondoliers in the Theatre Royal and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the JR Theatre.

As to the future ...who can tell? An evening of opera excerpts ‘in the round’ has had to be postponed until 2021, and the autumn production in the Theatre Royal is looking very much in doubt. But whenever it is, it will again be Vaughan Williams’ wonderful English opera Hugh the Drover - and it will be, in part, a celebration of our country’s return to normality!