Phyllis wrote few large-scale works. This was partly a matter of preference for the intimate and exploratory, partly because of time demands on her as a mother, and partly because of the sheer hard technical work of transposing and scoring for full orchestra, which she did without the help of assistants or today’s computers.

 

The Lodger was based on the 1913 novel of the same name written by Marie Belloc Lowndes about the ’Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888. Unusually for the period, the theme of the novel was not one of sensation, but rather one of understanding for the sick mind of a maniac. This evidently resonated with Phyllis, who considered capital punishment barbaric, and at the time of her writing the opera it was made especially relevant by the hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955 for the murder of her abusive lover outside the Magdala Tavern a few minutes from Phyllis’s house. Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and the public outcry against her execution effectively ended capital punishment. Phyllis wrote an interesting article about composing the opera which you can read here.

 

The opera was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, of which Phyllis was elected a Fellow in 1965. It took three years to write (1858-60). Phyllis produced her own synopsis of the novel, which was then turned into a libretto by David Franklin. Franklin was a well-known bass singer and radio personality, with extensive experience of opera in all its aspects that Phyllis found invaluable. Speaking of him and of the writing process, she said: ‘His great experience as a singer at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden … has been of enormous help to me. The planning of the work took more time than the actual composing. The first scene took eight hours in the original version, but we managed to whittle it down so that the whole opera lasts a mere two and a quarter hours now’ (The Times).

 

The opera had to be suitable technically for the capabilities of student performers.  Phyllis relished this challenge, but it also fitted in well with her unabashed preference for writing music that would appeal to a wider audience than the atonal or twelve-tone works favoured by the musical elite of the time. The score is therefore robustly tonal, with memorable themes, atmospheric orchestration and psychological insight and tension.

 

The staging concept was economical and effective, with a gauze curtain which could be front-lit or back-lit to show the street façade or house interior respectively.

 

A performance by an established opera company has never taken place, but it is to be hoped that the renewed interest in Phyllis’s music will encourage the professional staging of a work that all the reviews claim should be part of the repertoire of English opera.

 

Several of the reviews commented on the anticlimax of the ending, with its theme of forgiveness and with the lodger disappearing into the night. Phyllis and David Franklin evidently took this seriously, as can be seen from the attached draft description of an amendment to the final scene, strengthening Emma’s conviction that the Ripper will never kill again.

 

The reviews were enthusiastic:

 

‘There is no doubt that it revealed a new English operatic composer capable of producing dramatic suspense by means of fertile imagination and musical resourcefulness, and if that is not notable nothing in the history of English opera is. The idiom is eclectic, but her handling of whatever language she needs at the moment is so assured, so apt and so imaginative that she more than repays her debts. The introduction of a rowdy cockney birthday celebration not only provides contrast to the slow grim development of the main theme, but leads to a magnificent finale to the first of the two acts. The other most remarkable piece of music outstanding for its psychological insight is an orchestral interlude … and the ticking of the clock drives the distracted Emma to the verge of hysteria’ (The Times).

 

‘We are left in no doubt of Miss Tate’s ability to project character and atmosphere in terms of music. Her skill in this respect is to be sensed before the rise of the curtain, for unlike most modern composers, she has not abjured the help of an orchestral introduction, … owing something to Puccini, and not unworthy of the model‘ (Desmond Shaw-Taylor, The Times, 17 July 1960).

 

‘Few new operas, however lavishly mounted, have made such an impact in recent years. This should not be the last hearing of a fine dramatic story carried by powerfully operatic music’ (Review of the year’s musical events in Music and Musicians, 1960).

 

‘Other than Peter Grimes this is probably the most successful “first” opera by a native composer since the war’ (Harold Rosenthal in the Musical Times, September 1960).

 

In addition she received many letters of appreciation from laymen, such as the attached one from an American Air-Force Colonel. Such letters gave Phyllis great pleasure and encouragement.

The Lodger

CD available:

○ THE LODGER, Opera in Two Acts The BBC Northern Orchestra, conducted by Charles Groves. Owen Brannigan, Johanna Peters, Marion Studholme, Joseph Ward and Alexander Young.

LYRITA REAM.2119  Available from www.prestoclassical.co.uk

 

Scores available:

○ Conductor’s score and parts on hire from Oxford University Press

 

Audio clip performers:

Performers unknown.

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Fan letter

Phyllis's notes on amendments to scene

Original costume design drawings

First performance

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Dark Pilgrimage was an opera commissioned for BBC TV and was first broadcast in June 1962. It was produced by Charles Lefeaux and had a libretto written by David Franklin, with whom Phyllis had previously collaborated on her opera The Lodger. It was a brave and original project aimed at engaging an audience unfamiliar with opera. The reviews were mixed, with some criticising elements of the libretto, a modern reinterpretation of the Orpheus legend (described in detail in the Radio Times article shown on this page). But there was much praise for the music and for the BBC. Martin Cooper reviewed it in The Telegraph “… The corporation has hit upon a composer whose whole musical output proclaims a free, unprejudiced attitude to popular music and an originality both of ear and of mentality … Miss Tate, who has always shown a remarkable gift for giving apparent simplicities a personal twist, is equally at home in the opening fairground sequence, in a high-powered tragic operatic scene and finally with a five-man nightclub band which accompanies Eurydice (Euralie) in two authentic hit numbers … this musical versatility is astonishing and each style is carried off with complete assurance.’ The star performer of the show was Margaret Tynes,

a renowned American soprano whose trademark was her ability to sing in many styles. The Virginian virtuoso was an inspired choice for the lead role for this screening at peak time to six million viewers. The jazz ensemble was led by Shake Keane, a member of the groundbreaking Joe Harriott Quintet.

Dark Pilgrimage

Scores available: Unpublished

○ Score held in the British Music Collection at Heritage Quay, University of Huddersfield. Score not currently available online.

Score also held at the BBC Music Library, email MusicLibrary@bbc.co.uk for further information.

 

Recording available:

○ Recording of original production can be viewed for research, by appointment, at The BFI Research Centre. Programme reference: Television Opera: Dark Pilgrimage by Phyllis Tate, 5 July 1962 LMA5190Y

Research Viewings, BFI, 21 Stephen Street, London W1T 1LN

tel:  +44( 0)20 7255 1444

email:  researchviewings@bfi.org.uk

web: bfi.org.uk/archive-collections/searching-access-collections/research-viewing-services

 

Audio clip performers:

Margaret Tynes as Euralie, Nigel Douglas as Mel, jazz ensemble led by Shake Keane and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Leonard.

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Radio Times article

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The most ambitious undertaking of the 1966 Cheltenham Festival was to stage two new one-act operas for three evenings at the Everyman Theatre. One was by Gordon Crosse and the other by Phyllis Tate. The What D’ye Call It was based on a tragi-comi-pastoral farce written by John Gay in 1715. The libretto for the opera was written by V. C. Clinton-Baddeley.

 

In the July 1966 edition of the Musical Times, Phyllis wrote an article about the project:

 

‘Let it be confessed at the outset that the writer of this work is something in the nature of a chameleon, with a predilection for continual change of mood and scene. To write, for instance, three symphonies or six string quartets would be dreary and inhibiting in the extreme. For me, each work must be an adventure into unexplored territory, and it is this factor that does much to compensate for the inevitable hard labour once one has committed pen to paper. Having saturated myself with crime and Victoriana in The Lodger, a complete reversal to something lighter and of a different mood was indicated. By a lucky chance I happen to own a now out-of-print edition of the works of John Gay and The What D’ye Call It was among the collection. Immediately I felt that this play-within-a-play had possibilities as an opera-within-a-play and that it offered real scope for a vivid and imaginative production. It is also an extremely original example of eighteenth-century humour and possessed far more substance than is at first realised.’

 

It was the first venture outside London and Sadler’s Wells for the New Opera Company, conducted by Leon Lovett. He described the work as ‘mainly an opera framed by dialogue, with a small orchestra, including a saxophone and percussion’. The Gloucester Echo (8 July 1966) reported: ‘The main theme of the rather complicated plot is the successful attempt by the Steward to make Squire Thomas marry the former’s daughter, whom the squire has seduced. This is done by putting on a tragi-comic opera in which the characters are portrayed by the protagonists in the play. Miss Tate is able to exploit the amusing burlesque scenes which make up most of the opera. They include the appearance of comic ghosts and Kitty’s rather cowardly attempts at suicide. In almost every case, the composer rises to the challenge of the comic situation. The Cheltenham Arts Festival committee should be congratulated on their efforts. May we have more operas, especially if they are as good as what we heard last night.’

The What D’ye Call It

Scores available:

Conductor’s score and parts available on hire from Oxford University Press

 

Audio clip performers: The New Opera Company and The Delphos Ensemble, conducted by Leon Lovett

Article in Country Life 1966

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