Papers of Joan Cross - English soprano, teacher and opera administrator

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

This collection comprises papers relating to the life and career of English soprano Joan Cross.

The collection includes press reviews and programmes covering many years of her career, and correspondence, notably letters from Tyrone Guthrie, and letters and telegrams of congratulations on the award of CBE to Cross in 1951. Further items of interest include a draft autobiography with performance diary, and a list of Cross's performances from 1924 to 1957, arranged by opera and by date with details of venue and other cast members. There are also opera vocal scores, performance scores and printed music used and annotated by Cross, as well as manuscript and printed music by Lawrance Collingwood.

The papers include an extensive collection of photographs of Cross throughout her life and of her colleagues, friends and family. There are portraits of Cross, many of her in costume, and portraits of colleagues, including Vic-Wells Opera Company and Sadler's Wells Opera Company colleagues from the 1930s and 1940s. There are production photographs of operas in which Cross performed and also operas she directed. These include photographs of the 1969 production of Peter Grimes at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk; Norwegain productions of Peter Grimes in 1965, Albert Herring in 1967, Eugene Onegin in 1966 and Poppea and Cosi Fan Tutte in 1968; production of Albert Herring at the 1970 Chester Festival by the Phoenix Opera Company, and Marriage of Figaro at York Festival in 1969. There are also photographs of Joan Cross's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers with Scottish Opera in Edinburgh in 1968, with press cuttings and Cross's marked libretto. There are further photographs of colleagues involved in the production of The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946, Albert Herring at Glyndebourne in 1947 and the 1954 Aldeburgh Festival.

Administrative / Biographical History

Joan Cross was born in London in 1900. She attended St Paul's School for Girls 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 1955.

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. 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.

Conditions Governing Access

Open for consultation. Please email enquiries@brittenpears.org to arrange an appointment to visit the reading room or for further queries.

Acquisition Information

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

Other Finding Aids

The collection is uncatalogued; however a preliminary list exists. The opera vocal scores and books are listed on the Britten-Pears Foundation library catalogue.

Related Material

In the Britten-Pears Archive;

Letters from Joan Cross to Benjamin Britten from 1943 to 1976, and letters from Britten to Cross 1946 to 1957.

Letters from Cross to Peter Pears, c.1971-c.1984.

See the Britten-Pears Foundation library catalogue for details of Joan Cross's autobiography (2 draft versions id nos. 1-9800436 and 1-01052389, and corrected version id no. 1-9700292). Also, Cross's notes on Tyrone Guthrie (draft version id no. 1-9800434, and corrected version id no. 1-9800435).

See also BPF collection ref. JCA, Joan Cross additional material, for further items relating to Cross deposited from other sources.