Joan Cross papers

Scope and Content

This collection comprises papers relating to the life and career of English soprano Joan Cross. There are items covering her whole career as singer, director, producer and teacher with Sadler's Well's Theatre, the English Opera Group and the Norwegian National Opera.

The material includes scrapbooks, programmes, correspondence, writings, publications, press cuttings, scores and photographs.

The collection includes a draft autobiography and performance diary.

Sections CRS/1-17 are material received from Joan Cross; section CRS/18 is material relating to Joan Cross received from other sources.

Administrative / Biographical History

Joan Cross was born in London in 1900. She attended St Paul's Girls' School where she was taught music by Gustav Holst. She studied singing at Trinity College of Music, and in 1923 joined the chorus of the Vic-Wells opera company at the Old Vic. Here she came to the attention of Lilian Baylis who singled her out as a soloist. From 1931 to 1946 Cross enjoyed a successful career as one of the leading sopranos of the Sadler's Wells Theatre opera company. She sang many roles from a wide repertory including Mozart's Pamina, Verdi's Aida and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser as well as parts in the first British performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden and Tsar Saltan. Cross also sang Lady Macbeth in Lawrance Collingwood's Macbeth which was premiered in 1934. She only made a handful of performances at the Royal Opera House, starting in 1931 with Mimi in La Bohème and including Desdemona to Lauritz Melchior's Otello in 1934.

Cross took over the direction of Sadler's Wells Opera Company during the Second World War and was largely responsible for keeping the company together when it was forced to go on tour because their theatre was taken over as a rest centre. At this time she engaged Peter Pears, marking the beginning of their long friendship.

Sadler's Wells Theatre reopened on 7 June 1945 with the premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes in which Cross created the role of Ellen Orford. Rifts had appeared within the Sadler's Wells Company which resulted in Cross leaving to join what was to become the English Opera Group. With this group Cross premiered several leading roles which Britten had written with her in mind; the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946, Lady Billows in Albert Herring at Glyndebourne in 1947 and Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw in Venice in 1954. Cross also performed the title role in Britten's Gloriana premiered at Covent Garden on 8 June 1953. She sang, however, relatively little in the post-war years and retired from singing in 1957.

Cross was also an active director and teacher. She began directing opera in 1946 with Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden and in 1950 she staged La Traviata for Sadler's Wells. Cross produced further operas for companies in London and abroad, primarily in Holland and with the Norwegian National Opera, where she directed the Norwegian premiere of Peter Grimes in 1965. She founded the Opera School (later the National School of Opera, then London Opera Centre) with Anne Wood in 1948 where she taught movement and interpretation. She died in Aldeburgh on 12 December 1993.

Access Information


This material is made available under the standard conditions of the Britten-Pears Foundation. Readers will be required to produce proof of identity and to sign a Reader's Undertaking form.

Other Finding Aids

The opera vocal scores and books are listed on the library catalogue.

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Judith Tydeman, Mar 2004; biographical note based on obituaries from the national press.

Custodial History

The papers were received from Joan Cross and her estate, 1993-1995.

Related Material

In Britten's and Pears's correspondence there are letters from Joan Cross to Britten from 1943 to 1976, and letters from Britten to Cross 1946 to 1957. There are also letters from Cross to Peter Pears, c.1971-c.1984.

See also accessions 2242-2248 for costume designs from the estate of Joan Cross.

See accession 2934 for Joan Cross's CBE medal.

Books, annotated published music and vocal scores, and audio-visual items from Joan Cross are catalogued on the library catalogue - search by Keyword 'estate of Joan Cross' to find these items on the catalogue. For art from Joan Cross search 'Joan Cross estate'.


For further information on Cross, the reader is referred to the following articles which are available in the Archive reading room:'Joan Cross - a birthday celebration' by Lord Harewood, pages 1032-1039 of Opera, September 1990, Vol 41 No. 9.'Joan Cross - so rare a soprano' by Colin Graham, pages 164-169 of Opera, February 1994.Joan Cross, a profile by Basil Coleman in Aldeburgh Soundings, number 3, autumn 1985.Obituaries in The Times (15 Dec 1993), Daily Telegraph (14 Dec 1993), The Guardian (14 Dec 1993; Frank Granville Barker) and The Independent (14 Dec 1993; Elizabeth Forbes), and the 1994 Aldeburgh Festival programme book p. 12.