JOAN CROSS will go down in operatic history as the first Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes and as the creator of leading roles in five other operas by Benjamin Britten. But before she ever sang a note of Britten's music, Cross had enjoyed a successful 20-year career as an opera singer. She was also an admired director, administrator and teacher whose influence on operatic life in Britain was considerable.
Born in London in 1900, Joan Cross was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, where she was fortunate enough to be taught music by Gustav Holst. She then studied at Trinity College of Music and in 1924 was engaged by Lilian Baylis for the chorus at the Old Vic, which at that time performed opera as well as drama. She was soon singing solo roles such as the First Lady in The Magic Flute and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.
When Sadler's Wells Theatre reopened in 1931, becoming the home of opera in English, Cross was one of the leading sopranos of the company. She had a wide repertory including Mozart's Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira and Pamina, as well as heavier roles such as Elisabeth in Tannhauser and Aida. In 1931 she made her Covent Garden debut, singing Mimi in La Boheme during the autumn English Opera Season. She also sang one performance of Elsa in Lohengrin. Her appearances in the summer Grand Opera Seasons were limited to one performance of Desdemona opposite the Otello of Lauritz Melchior in 1934 and one of Micaela with Conchita Supervia as Carmen the following year.
At Sadler's Wells, Cross was extremely popular with the audiences who flocked to Rosebery Avenue during the Thirties. She continued to try out new roles, some of them in operas not well known at the time. She took part in the first British performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden and Tsar Saltan, sang Lady Macbeth in Lawrance Collingwood's Macbeth, which was premiered in 1934, while Verdi's La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera, in which she sang Leonora and Amelia respectively, were then comparative rarities. However, Cross's greatest successes of those years were probably Donna Anna, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and Sieglinde in Die Walkure.
The Sadler's Wells Opera survived the first year of the Second World War intact, then in 1940 the theatre was taken over as a rest centre and the company, much reduced in size, went on tour. In 1943 Cross took over the direction and for two years ran the company herself. Probably her most momentous action during those years was the engagement of the tenor Peter Pears who, together with Britten, had recently returned from the United States. Britten came to hear Pears sing Alfredo in La Traviata and was so impressed by the standard of the performance that he decided to give Sadler's Wells the chance to create his new opera, then in the throes of composition. He also offered Cross a leading role.
Peter Grimes was first performed on 7 June 1945, the night that Sadler's Wells Theatre reopened. Pears sang the title-role, while Cross took the part of Ellen Orford. From the start Britten's opera was a great success, with critics and public alike. Ellen, the sympathetic former schoolmistress who tries and fails to reform the visionary but brutal fisherman hero, was a perfect role for Cross at that stage in her career, as she proved again in 1947 when Peter Grimes was first produced at Covent Garden, with Pears and Cross in their original parts.
By that time Britten had severed connections with Sadler's Wells, had formed his own company, the English Opera Group, and had written two chamber operas for the EOG to perform. Both of these works had excellent roles for Cross, who had also left Sadler's Wells and joined the new company. The Rape of Lucretia, given at Glyndebourne in 1946, had two casts, the first of which featured Kathleen Ferrier as Lucretia, with Pears and Cross as the Male and Female Choruses respectively. In an entirely different vein, Albert Herring, also premiered at Glyndebourne, in 1947, offered both Pears in the title-role and Cross as Lady Billows some splendid opportunities for comedy. The overbearing, slightly dotty Lady B became one of her finest creations.
Meanwhile Cross was engaged in various other operatic activities as well as singing: in 1947, the first post-war season, she produced Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden; in 1950 she staged La Traviata for Sadler's Wells. Subsequently she produced opera in Norway and Holland. In 1948 she founded, together with Anne Wood, the Opera School, which later became the National School of Opera and then in 1963 was absorbed by the London Opera Centre.
Following the death of George VI in 1952, Britten conceived the idea of an opera on Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, based mainly on Lytton Strachey's book Elizabeth and Essex. He obtained permission from the new Queen to compose the opera for her Coronation and Gloriana was given its first performance at Covent Garden on 8 June 1953, with Cross in the title-role. Whether the passion of an ageing monarch for a much younger man was a suitable subject for such an occasion has been endlessly debated. The audience at the Royal Gala premiere remained frigid, but at all the subsequent performances reception of the opera was much warmer. Everyone agreed that Cross gave a magnificent portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in her declining years.
Cross's last new role in an opera by Britten was Mrs Grose, the motherly housekeeper in The Turn of the Screw; commissioned by the Venice Biennale and first performed at the Teatro La Fenice in September 1954, the opera was a triumph for all concerned. It reached London in October, when the EOG gave a season at Sadler's Wells Theatre, and it then went on tour to various European cities. In September 1955 the EOG again gave The Turn of the Screw in London, at the Scala Theatre. It was announced that these appearances as Mrs Grose would mark the end of Cross's career as a singer.
Apart from her Britten roles, tailored to fit her voice and personality, it was undoubtedly the Mozart repertory in which Joan Cross appeared most at home. In June 1955, only a few months before her retirement, she sang the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden. I remember the occasion vividly. Though I had heard her as Ellen, as Lady Billows, as Gloriana, as Mrs Grose, I had never heard her in Mozart. It was a revelation. Though her voice was no longer as full- toned as it had been, her subtle phrasing, her impeccable line, her musicianship, were unimpaired. She gave an unforgettable lesson in style.