English Eccentrics (opera)

English Eccentrics is a chamber opera in two acts by Malcolm Williamson to an English libretto by Geoffrey Dunn, based on Edith Sitwell's 1933 book, The English Eccentrics.[1] It was commissioned by the English Opera Group.[2] The opera requires the cast to make many quick changes of roles between scenes, and contrives the confrontation of several of the characters, who did not meet in real life.

Performance history


The work, the second opera by the composer, was first performed in the Jubilee Hall at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, England on 11 June 1964 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival in a production by William Chappell.[3] With the principals on stage, the 'quartet' of singers were in the pit with the orchestra, seven members of the English Chamber Orchestra, and it was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme.[3] The original festival programme called English Eccentrics simply 'an entertainment'.

The critical reception of the premiere was mixed. Opera magazine commented that "Each of the two acts ends with a 'tragic' episode – the sad affair of Sarah Whitehead convinced that the Bank of England was defrauding her and the removal of Brummell to a mental asylum. This appears an odd forcing of the essentially comic nature of the material".[3] The two more serious scenes were composed before the rest of the piece; Peter Pears had apparently told Williamson that what was wanted was an 'anti-opera'.[4] A later critic wrote "There is little dramatic thread to the piece, though some poignant little plots do emerge... This score shows Williamson on a form he was later to lose – witty, affectionate and generally deftly written. ...Pastiche of styles is matched by a pastiche of structure, with many of the scenes observing the 18th-century convention of one character leaving the stage as another arrives". He also noted the magical ending, reflective, mournful and valedictory.[5]

Revivals have tended to be by conservatoire opera groups and companies for young stage professionals, rather than established opera companies.


Role[6] Voice type Premiere cast, 11 June 1964[6]
(Conductor: Meredith Davies)
Lord Petersham tenor Raymond Nilsson
Thomas Parr bass Owen Brannigan
The Rev. Mr. Jones tenor John Fryatt
Miss Beswick soprano April Cantelo
Lady Lewson mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
Mrs. Dards soprano April Cantelo
Miss Tylney Long soprano April Cantelo
The Countess of Desmond mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
Dr. Katterfelto baritone Michael Maurel
Lord Rokeby baritone Michael Maurel
John Ward tenor Raymond Nilsson
Major Peter Labellière bass Owen Brannigan
Robert 'Romeo' Coates tenor John Fryatt
Miss FitzHenry mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
The Prompter bass Owen Brannigan
A Governor of the Bank of England bass Owen Brannigan
Young Whitehead tenor Raymond Nilsson
Sarah Whitehead (his sister) soprano April Cantelo
Alderman Birch baritone Michael Maurel
Mrs. Birch mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
Roberts the Forger bass Owen Brannigan
Bank clerk tenor John Fryatt
Lord Rothschild baritone Michael Maurel
Dr. Dalmahoy bass Owen Brannigan
Lady Jersey mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
Dr. Graham tenor John Fryatt
The Duchess of Devonshire soprano April Cantelo
Beau Brummell tenor Raymond Nilsson
Captain Philip Thicknesse bass Owen Brannigan
Mr. Worrall baritone Michael Maurel
Mrs. Worrall mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
The Vicar of Almondsbury tenor John Fryatt
Princess Caraboo soprano April Cantelo
Mr. Clanronald Macdonald tenor John Fryatt
Parish Constable bass Owen Brannigan
Dr. Wilkinson tenor Raymond Nilsson
First Nun soprano April Cantelo
Second Nun mezzo-soprano Anna Pollak
Etienne baritone Michael Maurel
Quartet: Barbara Elsy, Pauline Stevens, Ian Partridge, Christopher Keyte (two sopranos, tenor, bass)



Act 1


Prelude – Goose-weather

Scene 1: An introduction to Eccentricity – features encounters with a variety of eccentrics: Lord Petersham, Miss Tylney Long (collectors of snuff boxes and hats), the ancient Thomas Parr and Countess of Desmond, the Reverend Jones, Dr Katterfelto and Miss Beswick, Lord Rokeby and Lady Lewson with their opposing views on baths, John Ward, Mrs Dards and Major Labelliere.

Scene 2: An Amateur of Fashion – a scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Scene 3: The God of this World – Young Whitehead spends all his money on his sister Sarah, resigns from the bank and turns to crime and is hanged; her inability to comprehend the situation makes her go mad.

Act 2


Scene 1: Quacks and a Beau – Drs Katterfelto, Dalmahoy and Graham offer cures for every ill; and an introduction to Brummell, arbiter of fashion, and his entourage.

Scene 2: An Ornamental Hermit – Captain Thicknesse's attempt to write his memoirs fails.

Scene 3: A Traveller – the story of the imposter Mary Baker.

Scene 4: The Beau again – the senile decline of Brummell and death in a Caen boarding-house.


  1. ^ The W. H. Auden Society – Newsletter No. 15, Notes and Queries, November 1996
  2. ^ Covell, R. The English Eccentrics. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London & New York, 1997.
  3. ^ a b c Jacobs, Arthur. Non-Opera and Noh-Opera. Opera, August 1964, Vol.15 No.8, p531.
  4. ^ Goodwin, Noël. Review of English Eccentrics. Trinity College of Music Opera Group. Opera, August 1990, Vol.41 No.8, p999-1000.
  5. ^ Morley, Christopher. Review of English Eccentrics at Birmingham Conservatoire. Opera, May 2006, Vol.57 No.5, p590-591.
  6. ^ a b Third Programme, 11 June 1964, Radio Times, No. 2117, 4 June 1964, p49.