Opera Scotland

Leper's Flute 1926British National Opera Company

Read more about the opera Leper's Flute

The world premiere of a new opera should always be worthy of interest. 

BNOC, during its short career, succeeded in introducing a few new British works, including pieces by Vaughan Williams, Smyth and Holst.  By the time of the 1927 and 1928 tours, the company's finances no longer allowed them to present new work, so The Leper's Flute is their last introduction.

Even rarer was the launching of a new piece in Scotland.  The production was clearly mounted with scrupulous attention to detail.  There was an obvious strength in the casting, with several company stars involved. Particular care was taken over design and even lighting.  The rarity of such an event was enough to arouse press interest beyond the central belt.

However, although The Leper's Flute was given an extensive tour as far as London (reaching Golder's Green in December 1927), it has never been taken up  by any other company subsequently.

Cast details for 15 October are from a programme in the Mitchell Library collection, confirmed by one for 19 October in the Edinburgh Room of Edinburgh City Library.


A Glasgow Verdict

The Glasgow Herald of Saturday, 16 October (p11) reviewed the previous evening's premiere with a general degree of enthusiasm, though there were definite reservations about the subject:

'It was appropriate that the new opera The Leper's Flute should be first produced in Glasgow, since both Mr Ian Colvin and Mr Ernest Bryson, who are respectively librettist and composer, have Scottish connections, and Mr Bryson was born in our city, though he has been a stranger to it most of his life. 

Perhaps also a small compliment to Glasgow was implied in the choice, for the city has always tried to show a real and friendly interest in the British National Opera Company, and was actively engaged in efforts to help during the dark days of its predecessor. In any case, Glasgow opera-goers showed their interest in last night's premiere by attending at the Theatre Royal in very large numbers, a fact that is worthy of special emphasis, for curiosity in matters of art is not too commonly exhibited.

'The setting and story of the opera have already been given at some length in our columns and need not be referred to in detail. A reading of Mr Colvin's libretto leaves in the mind some feeling of unpleasantness, for the idea of compassing a revenge through the contagion of leprosy seems to lack the element of beauty or nobility that is essential in drama. It must be allowed that the effect on the stage is less disturbing than might be expected, though some slight feeling of antagonism still remains in the mind. Perhaps the most unpleasant element in the situation is the fact that the leper knowingly secures his revenge by making Cornelis his go-between, and bringing on that rather weak-natured youth the same horrible fate as deservedly befalls Juanita. The leper could have directly accomplished his whole desire earlier in the same scene when the girl lay in fear before him. Not many opera stories, of course, will stand the test, on the dramatic side, of too close an examination, but it is also in this respect, as well as in some others, that we should try to improve on past achievements.

'There are some other instances in which the machinery of the plot creaks, and in the first act there is a point soon after the first entry of Juanita and her companions where the drama halts badly and the whole effect is rather artificial. 

The leper is the great part in the drama, and the fine conception of this throws into greater relief the comparatively colourless nature of the other characters. We have need to remember Mr Colvin's statement, in his preface to the book of words, to the effect that, ''they were mostly real people who are here presented,'' when we witness the sudden and normally unaccountable fascination of Cornelis for the Portuguese adventuress and the sublime resignation with which Marie accepts the change of situation.  The reply to a criticism based on these experiences is, no doubt, that drama, and especially music-drama, cannot be evolved from the doings of ordinary people.

'Mr Bryson in setting the story has furnished music on the scale of chamber opera. The usual full orchestra is present, and is used occasionally for a few bars, but the great proportion of the music is more lightly scored than is customary in these days. The point is not urged as an adverse criticism.  On the contrary the effect of this is to impart a considerable degree of intimacy to the presentation of the story, which thus finds its appropriate counterpart in what might be called the ''family'' quality of so much of the music. Mr Bryson has used a number of themes in definite association with characters or ideas in the drama, but these are not subjected to any notable symphonic development, but are used in quotation merely, and in sequence. Harmonically and thematically the music is of normal idiom, and some of the melodic invention is of a simple and grateful appeal which makes recurrence welcome.  At times there is nothing of any great moment happening in the orchestra, but the continuity of quiet comment on the stage happenings is well maintained.

'One of the most effective portions of the work is the first scene of Act III, where much of the dialogue is spoken to a soft orchestral accompaniment. The conversation between the leper and the merchant is of particular interest, and Mr Bryson's music at this point helps very greatly to create and sustain the atmosphere of Mr Colvin's fine prose. Perhaps Mr Bryson might have given Cornelis something more distinctive to play as a violin solo in the first act. The rhapsodical strains furnished at this point make one think rather of the conventional lovers of music in novels and poetry than of the real student of music which Cornelis declares himself to be. The various passages played by the leper on his flute are well devised and often properly eerie in quality.

'The performance was of a high standard. First honours must go to Mr Percy Heming for his fine study of the leper. He created his own atmosphere very successfully whenever he was on the stage, and in his singing and in his speaking lost no opportunity to make his meaning clear by tone colour and cunning inflection. 

Miss Gladys Ancrum made much of the rather difficult part of Juanita, and had to rise superior in the course of the drama to one or two rather stagey situations. 

Miss Sylvia Nelis in the rather colourless part of Marie, sang with lovely purity of tone, and bore herself with becoming simplicity and resignation. 

Mr Tudor Davies, the Cornelis of the cast, also did valuable work, and the other members, all helpful to the extent of their opportunities, were Messrs William Anderson, William Michael, Dennis Noble, Miss Constance Taylor and Mr Sydney Russell (who was excellent in the speaking part of the merchant).

The staging in all the scenes was beautiful and effective, and the production by Mr George King was well devised.

Mr Clarence Raybould conducted with care.'


A Dundee perspective

The Courier of Saturday, 16 October (p4) took an interest in a Scottish work's premiere:

Great interest has been taken in musical circles all over the country in The Leper's Flute, the new opera which was produced for the first time by the British National Opera Company, at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, last night.

'The opera is the work of two Scotsmen, the libretto being by Ian Colvin, who belongs to Inverness, and the music by Ernest Bryson, who is a native of Glasgow.

'The opera is distinctive in many ways.  It has an unusually dramatic story, dealing with Cape Town in the early 18th century, and Mr Bryson has adopted a new technique throughout the opera.  There is no chorus work or concerted singing.

'The result is that the story is more cohesive than usual, but although the technique is modern, Mr Bryson's music is not startling in any way.  He has composed in a straightforward manner with flashes of brilliance, and rarely attempts to descend to tunefulness.

'The orchestration is rich and colourful, and the music is easy on the singers, but what is gained in ease is lost in effect.  One felt that in certain parts of the opera he missed great opportunities.

'Except for one or two minor faults, which will disappear with some experience, in The Leper's Flute the BNOC maintained their high level.

'The opera was enthusiastically received.'


The View from Edinburgh

The Scotsman on Wednesday, 20 October (p8) gave its opinion of the second performance:

Mr Bryson's opera, which had its second performance on any stage at the King's Theatre, last night, improves with acquaintance.   At its initial performance in Glasgow on Friday last it made a strong and immediate appeal.  The plot is novel, and the composer has responded sensitively to its characteristic qualities, making skilful use of significant vocal phrases, and maintaining a clever running commentary in the orchestra.   A second hearing, however, brought with it an increased appreciation of the fine detail with which Mr Bryson has invested his score, and the admirable feeling for colour which he displays in his use of the orchestra.

'As regards the work as a whole, it may be conceded that the idea of leprosy as an element in an opera is unpleasant - tuberculosis has hitherto been the prevailing operatic malady, apart from sundry cases of dementia.   The leprosy, however, is not unduly obtruded, and it certainly provides a striking effect of the sinister.  Last night's cast was identical with that of Friday's performance, which was noticed in these columns on Saturday, and consequently calls for little further comment.

'The rôle of the Leper is one that demands a good actor and its requirements were admirably satisfied by Mr Percy Heming.   He was very dramatic but with no forcing of the note, and the scene in the market place, first with the merchant Abdu, cleverly presented by Mr Sydney Russell, afterwards with Juanita, and finally with Cornelia, revealed dramatic art of a high order.   Juanita is in some ways a thankless rôle, but Miss Gladys Ancrum made the most of it.  As before, Mr Tudor Davies as Cornelis, Mr William Anderson, as the Governor, Miss Doris Lemon as Marie,  Miss Constance Taylor as Madame van Breda, Mr William Michael as the preacher, and Mr Dennis Noble as Dominique, all acted and sang with excellent artistic effect.

'Mr Clarence Raybould was again the conductor.   There was a large and very interested audience, and at the close there were many recalls of the principals.'


BNOC in Scotland 1926

The company spent three weeks in Glasgow and two in Edinburgh - 1927 would see them venturing further north.  Wagner and Puccini led the field, with four operas each.  There were a total of four works by three composers of the French school.  Verdi was represented by one middle-period and two late masterpieces.  Notably there were two recently composed British works - something BNOC would never achieve again.

The 20 operas performed in Scotland on this tour were:

Mozart (Marriage of Figaro);  Wagner (Tannhäuser Tristan and IsoldeMastersingers,  Parsifal);  Verdi (Rigoletto,  Aïda,  Otello);  Gounod (Faust,  Romeo and Juliet);  Offenbach (Tales of Hoffmann);  Bizet (Carmen);  Leoncavallo (Pagliacci);  Puccini (Bohème ToscaMadam Butterfly,  Gianni Schicchi);  Humperdinck (Hansel and Gretel);  Vaughan Williams (Hugh the Drover);  Bryson (Leper's Flute).


The performance schedule was as follows:

Glasgow, w/c 27 September:  Mon 27  Aïda;  Tue 28  Carmen;  Wed 29 m Faust;  Wed 29 e Madam Butterfly;  Thu 30  Parsifal;  Fri Oct 01  Tosca;  Sat 02 m  Hansel and Gretel;  Sat 02 e  Tales of Hoffmann.

Glasgow, w/c 04 October:  Mon 04 Romeo and Juliet;  Tue 05 Otello;  Wed 06 m  No Perf;  Wed 06 e Bohème;  Thu 07 Marriage of Figaro;  Fri 08 Mastersingers;  Sat 09 m Aïda;  Sat 09 e Rigoletto.

Glasgow, w/c 11 October:  Mon 11 Parsifal;  Tue 12  Gianni Schicchi & Pagliacci; Wed 13 m Romeo and Juliet;  Wed 13 e Hansel and Gretel;  Thu 14  Tristan and Isolde;  Fri 15 Leper's Flute;  Sat 16 m Madam Butterfly;  Sat 16 e Tannhäuser.

Edinburgh, w/c 18 October:  Mon 18 Romeo and Juliet;  Tue 19 Leper's Flute;  Wed 20 m Hansel and Gretel;  Wed 20 e  Otello;  Thu 21  Parsifal;  Fri 22  Aïda;  Sat 23 m Hugh the Drover;  Sat 23 e Tannhäuser.

Edinburgh, w/c 25 October:  Mon 25 Rigoletto;  Tue 26 Gianni Schicchi & Pagliacci;  Wed 27 m Madam Butterfly;  Wed 27 e Tosca;  Thu 28 Tristan and Isolde;  Fri 29 Hansel and Gretel;  Sat 30 m Parsifal;  Sat 30 e Bohème.

Performance Cast

Cornelis van Breda owner of Oranjizicht

Tudor Davies (Oct 15, 19)

Maurits Pasques de Chavonnes Governor of the Cape

William Anderson (Oct 15, 19)

Rev. Pieter Slotsboo Predikant

William Michael (Oct 15, 19)

Capt. Dominique Pasques de Chavonnes

Dennis Noble (Oct 15, 19)

Leper called Angria

Percy Heming (Oct 15, 19)

Madam van Breda mother of Cornelis

Constance Taylor (Oct 15, 19)

Marie van der Meer

Sylvia Nelis (Oct 15)

Doris Lemon (Oct 19)

Señora Juanita de Castro

Gladys Ancrum (Oct 15, 19)

Abdu a fruit merchant

Sydney Russell (Oct 15, 19)

Performance DatesLeper's Flute 1926

Map List

Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Glasgow

15 Oct, 19.30

King's Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

19 Oct, 19.30

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