In 1952, the Opera Club was born from the imagination and enthusiasm of Joyce Hooper and her many friends. The show chosen to be the first for the newly formed Opera Club was to be ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, with Elsie Short as Producer. It was to be performed in the Market Hall, Redhill, on the site of which now stands the Harlequin Theatre.
Ron Potter was in the cast of that first show and recalled:
“An audition date was set and you could sing whatever you chose. Rather recklessly, I picked ‘A wandering minstrel’ and, amazingly, was accepted for the chorus. I was slightly less amazed when I discovered that the only other tenor in the chorus was a gentleman some 40 years older that I was. And so, I found I was the youngest man in the show, the rest being middle-aged local shopkeepers and professional men. Still it was GILBERT and SULLIVAN and that’s what really mattered.”
Elsie Short and Joyce Hooper provided a formidable team until 1958, when C. William (Billy) Morgan took over the production. He had been with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and sadly died just after the 1962 production of “The Yeomen of the Guard”, after which Leonard Osborn took over production in 1963. He had been principal tenor with the D’Oyly Carte for fifteen years, and commanded loyalty, respect and affection from Opera Club performers with his ability to act any part better than any of us were able to do. To watch him directing a scene was a Master Class in itself, and those of us fortunate enough to be in one of his productions, however traditional, counted it as a true experience to learn stagecraft from him.
Joyce decided to retire as Opera Club musical director after she formed Surrey Opera, and in 1972 her place was taken by Chris Pratt who stayed with us for six years. Rosemary Pidgeon directed several productions after Leonard Osborn returned to the D’Oyly Carte as Principal Director, and we welcomed Angela Barker as our Musical Director in 1978. An innovative director, Peter Hahlo, took over production in 1980 with a lively version of “The Pirates of Penzance” and, as copyright on the Savoy Operas was now lifted, this was the preview of many shows to come.
1981 was our last show at the Market Hall, and we took the decision to move to Warwick School while the Harlequin Theatre was being built, during which time Leighton Camden and Doris Rolph directed shows for us. In 1983, the Opera Club was invited to bring Peter Hahlo’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” to Polesden Lacey Open Air Theatre for the National Trust, which was the first of many occasions we have performed there.
Our last show at Warwick School in 1985 was “Iolanthe” with our new director, Alison Cooper, who had performed as a principal with the Opera Club since 1973, having become a member whilst still at school.
January 1987 took us to the new Harlequin Theatre and, for the first time, our show “The Mikado” was sponsored by Toyota (GB) Ltd, and we have since also received sponsorship from Das Air Cargo and insurance company St Paul. We owe a great debt of gratitude to our joint Presidents, Eddie and Mary Waller, who fought so hard to improve the theatrical life of the Borough, and to Brian Cooper who was instrumental in ensuring the new theatre had additional facilities not included in the original plans.
Since that time, we have enjoyed the combined talents of Alison Cooper and Angela Barker at Redhill and Polesden Lacey, and have added shows other than those of Gilbert and Sullivan to our repertoire, such as “The Beggars Opera”, “Brigadoon” (with Clive Bowden as Director), “Orpheus in the Underworld” directed by Nigel Wood and more recently “Chess”, directed by Gillian Jarvis. We have drawn in new members from across Surrey and beyond who admire the standard we aim to achieve – amateurs with a very professional approach. We have taken part in Mayors’ charity concerts at Donyngs with the East Surrey Operatic Society, and have performed our own set of “Sounds Familiar” concerts, singing all styles of music. “Sounds Familiar Gold” in 2002 marked our 50th Anniversary and involved founder member Ron Potter as a sprightly “Sir Joseph Porter”.
Adapted from “Fifty Years of the Opera Club” by Janet Hazell