WHERE IT ALL BEGAN…
On April 13th 1893, a meeting took place between three music-loving members of the Nottingham Mechanics Institute under the “chairmanship” of Mr. Herbert Langham. At that first meeting it was decided to form an Operatic Society to be known as the Nottingham Mechanics Institution Operatic Society.
“To cultivate the knowledge of Operatic music and to devote to charitable institutions such funds as may result from its public performances after paying the necessary expenses”.
The founding of a local Operatic Society obviously created great interest and one can only hazard a guess at the influence that was brought to bear to enable the Society to have as its President in its inaugural year, The Duke of Portland, and to number among its Vice Presidents, Lord Belper, Lord Middleton, Lord Bentinck and Viscount Newark, and other distinguished dignitaries.
The first production “Les Cloches de Cornerville” by Robert Planguette was staged on Thursday 18th January 1894 at the Mechanics Hall. Records show a large financial loss was incurred during that first year, but the Society continued and an 1895 production of “La Fille de Madam Agnot” was staged, and proved a financial success, the debt was paid, and a small sum was handed to charity, a trend that continued into 1896 when £15 was paid to charity following a production of “Fauvette”.
From these humble beginnings was born the prestigious Society which we know and love today.
“Few there are who have any conception of the difficulties which surround organisations such as this… The heavy expenditure entailed always amounts to considerably over £200 and the inconvenience arising from limited stage accommodation – the weeks and weeks of hard practice – all go to render the task of the management anything but a happy one… The fact that after four years existence the Society is in a flourishing and sound condition speaks volumes for the executive, whose unremitting labours have conduced to the excellent results achieved”
If only they could know that 120+ years on, nothing much has changed, except the scale of the costs!
Moving to the First World War and 1914, “The Gondoliers” was chosen, and this was to be the last full show for five years, though the Society performed charity concerts throughout the War. Shows resumed in 1919, and in 1925, the Society moved to its spiritual home at the Theatre Royal with a G&S, “The Yeoman of the Guard”, and in 1930, the name of the Society changed to “Nottingham Operatic Society”.
With Hitler looming on the Continent in 1939, the Society began rehearsals for “The Belle of New York”, which was to be the last show at the Theatre Royal until 1945, but as before, the Society members continued to perform in concerts and shows at various venues raising money for the British Red Cross (Prisoner of War Fund), and it was during these difficult circumstances that the Society celebrated 50 years in 1943, with a production of “Pirates of Penzance” at the Circus Street Hall in Nottingham.
With the Second World War concluded, the Society staged “Chin Chin Chow”, which was followed in 1946 by “New Moon”, and post-war, the Society flourished, with Ivor Novello’s “Glamorous Night” chosen as the fiftieth production in 1948.
Perhaps our most famous member is Constance Shacklock O.B.E, F.R.A.M, L.R.A.M, who was an opera singer of international repute and a member of Nottingham Operatic Society during the 1930s, and ex-President of the Society. Miss Shacklock will be remembered as the Mother Superior in the long-running West End Production of The Sound of Music. It was her influence which allowed Nottingham Operatic Society to obtain the rights to be the first amateur society to perform The Sound of Music.
Towards the end of the 1950s, there were strong rumours that the Theatre Royal was to close, with television having a massive impact on live theatre audience. Whilst closure is unthinkable today, music halls were closing, the Nottingham Empire had gone, and it looked like “the Royal” would go too, and it was decided that in 1960, Nottingham Operatic Society would perform “The Merry Widow” as the “farewell” show. Obviously, the Theatre survived, following the City Council’s decision that the city must retain its theatre, and was developed into the magnificent venue we all enjoy today.
Financial difficulties which had affected Theatres throughout the previous decades began to hit the Society in the late 70s and early 80s. Inflation was rampant, and the costs of shows at the Theatre Royal was jeopardising the Society’s very existence, and after much deliberation, the decision was made in 1981 to leave the Theatre Royal, and move to the Nottingham Playhouse for a production of “Brigadoon”. However, after poor houses, the Society moved back “home” the next year for “Gypsy”.
The Society thrived through the 80s, and in 1986, the Society was directed by Robert Mandell, who took time out from directing the world famous Melachrino Orchestra to produce “Camelot”, which remains, to this day, one of our best ever productions.
The Society celebrated its centenary in 1993 with a production of “Kismet”, and its fair to say that Nottingham Operatic has never looked back, with notable shows including “My Fair Lady” in 1998, “The Scarlet Pimpernel and Evita” in 2002, and “Titanic – The Musical” in 2005. The timeless classic “Oliver” was produced by the Society in 2008 to widespread acclaim, as was the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast” in 2010.
Financial considerations again led the Society to move to the Nottingham Playhouse again for our 2012 show “Hello Dolly”, but the departure from the Theatre Royal was again a brief one, as we returned “home” again in 2013 for “Oklahoma”, with which we celebrated our 120th Anniversary, and “Annie” in 2014.
Our 2015 production of “Hairspray” was both a great box office and artistic success, playing to sell out houses the majority of the week! Nottingham Operatic Society is now financially well placed for our 2016 production of “The Producers”.
“The Producers” proved to be a fantastic company show, and although not such a financial success it brought the company the reviews it truly deserved.
Quote from Theatre Online. “I will stick my neck out by saying this is the best amateur show I have ever seen. It was of a professional standard in all aspects and a touring company could not have been any better.”
From the artistic success of “The Producers” we move onto a firm favourite for our 2017 production, and something that’s been unavailable to amateur companies for a good number of years… Eliza was back autumn 2017, with “My Fair Lady”. Moving into our 125th Anniversary year in 2018 we were lucky to be offered the UK Tour version of “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” which was made available to a limited number of amateur companies to celebrate Joseph’s 50th Anniversary.
Our 2019 production “The Sound of Music” has a special place in Nottingham Operatic Society’s history, as we last performed Rodgers & Hammerstein’s blockbuster musical in 1970, only three years after the original production starring Jean Bayless and Constance Shacklock had closed in London. We were the first amateur society to stage the show, and we are delighted to bring it back once again to the Theatre Royal in Autumn 2019, to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary.