A Potted History of the Early Years
In 1886 the first Burton Operatic Society was formed and this continued, in one form or another, to just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Most of the shows were staged in the purpose built Opera House, situated in George Street before, with the growing popularity of films, being converted into the Ritz cinema in 1934.
At the beginning of 1951 an item appeared in the Burton Daily Mail inviting interested people to a meeting to look into the possibility of forming a new Operatic Society. The item had been place by Miss Margaret Sheardown who felt the need to rekindle an interest the people of Burton-on-Trent had shown in all forms of Opera.
In the event enough people came forward to enable the Burton-on-Trent and District Operatic Society to be formed. Some of those showing an interest had been prominent members of the previous Operatic Society. Margaret Sheardown, ably supported by her husband, Geoff Wendon, and a small committee, then had the task of implementing the interest shown into positive action.
The main problem facing the committee was three-fold. The first of these was that they had nowhere to meet or rehearse. The second one was that they didn’t have anywhere to construct or paint scenery – a vital consideration for any production. And thirdly, if the first two obstacles could be overcome, where could a production be staged.
The first of the problems was soon overcome when part of Christ Church School, in Uxbridge Street, was rented for rehearsals. It was then decided to put the first production on at the Little Theatre in Guild Street. Although not ideal, because of its size, the Little Theatre had the advantage of having a small workshop, at the rear of the stage, where scenery could be constructed and painted.
With these obstacles overcome it was decided to put on, as the first show, the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera, The Gondoliers. This was scheduled to run in February 1952, so auditions were held and the principal parts cast. Rather uniquely, because the new Society was still feeling its way, two people shared most of the secondary parts, over the week.
The Musical Director and Producer for the first show was Margaret Sheardown. Evelyn Woodhouse was the first accompanist both for the show and during the rehearsals. For added effect there was also a tympanist.
The show was well received by the Burton public with full houses most of the week. In November 1952 the society continued with a second Gilbert and Sullivan Opera, The Mikado. For this show Margaret Sheardown continued at Musical Director but Geoffrey Sharp was brought in as Producer. By now the society had the feel for who should take the principal parts so there was no more sharing of roles.
After the First Show
Patience was produced in October 1953 then, in May 1954, the Society’s production was HMS Pinafore. By now Margaret Sheardown and Geoff Wendon had moved from Burton so Arthur Ormerod was approached to take over the role of Musical Director.
In October 1957 the Society moved to Hillside School (now Paulet High School), in Stapenhill, for its production of The Yeomen of the Guard. Hillside was one of the new breed of post war Secondary Schools built in Burton. They were generally large, able to cope with an increasing population and with spacious playing fields. But, more importantly, they had a spacious stage with a large auditorium. So, for the first time the society was able to put on a show with a sizable orchestra. Arthur Ormerod continued as Musical Director but, by now, Charles Pole had taken over as Producer.
The downside to Hillside was that the Society had to look round for somewhere to build their ever increasing lavish sets. Although not ideal they managed with a series of church and brewery buildings until, finally, in 1973, they rented premises in Ferry Street which they later purchased. Rehearsals continued at Christchurch Schoolrooms and later at Uxbridge Street Junior School, until they too could be held at Ferry Street.
After 4 years at Hillside the Society moved venues to Horninglow Secondary School, in Harehedge Lane, for a repeat production of the Gondoliers.