World premiere of Malcolm Arnold opera

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It says a lot about the BBC during the 1950s that, when Sir Malcolm Arnold offered up his comic opera The Dancing Master to be shown, they rejected it as too naughty.

Based on a 17th-century play by William Wycherley, the story is known to have had slight sexual hints and double meanings – as was typical in Restoration literature – but by today’s standards it was probably more wholesome than an episode of Eastenders.

Yet the piece was rejected once by the BBC and then again by an opera company in London, who thought it not serious enough to be an opera.

And so the Northampton composer’s labour of love was tucked away in a drawer, never again to see the light of day and certainly not to be performed...until now.

This weekend, 60 years after it was composed, The Dancing Master’s world premiere will be performed to audiences as part of the seventh annual Arnold Festival at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton.

Festival director Paul Harris said that this is believed to be the last of Sir Malcolm’s known unperformed works to be staged for the first time.

He said: “Malcolm was right at the beginning of his major film career – he had a major film career as a composer both here and in Hollywood – when he started making various trips to film studios and I think this happened at Shepperton. He met Joe Mendoza, they got friendly and they decided that because this was a time when the BBC was actually doing televised opera, the two of them would get together. Joe wrote a libretto of the restoration play The Dancing Master and Arnold wrote the music. They took it to the BBC who said it was much too bawdy.”

He continued: “The opera did not exactly stay in that drawer it had been placed in but no one has ever performed it and we like to do something exciting at the Arnold Festival every year.”

Paired with a performance of Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus, in a concert which starts at 7pm on Saturday, the opera will form just one part of a weekend of musical tributes to Arnold’s work.

The piece will be brought to the theatre by The Ealing Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John Gibbons.

Paul said: “As we have nothing to go on, we can bring our own take to the piece and the whole production. We have to produce something new and different. Not having anything to compare it to takes away the pressure. Some people still think opera is very serious but it will be very nice to change people’s attitudes. It is not that far removed from a musical.”

For a preview of the festival, see The Guide’s music pages.