Cross, Joan (1900–1993)

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Cross, Joan (1900–1993)

British soprano, opera administrator and teacher who was highly respected in British musical circles. Born in London, England, on September 7, 1900; died in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 12, 1993; never married.

Closely identified with the music of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976); created the role of Ellen Orford at the 1945 world premiere of Britten's opera Peter Grimes; also created major roles in other Britten operas, including Albert Herring, Gloriana and The Turn of the Screw; was a founding member of the English Opera Group; began directing operas at Covent Garden (1946); founded the Opera School (later the London Opera Centre, 1948); honored as a Commander of the British Empire (1953).

Much more than a talented singer during her long career, Joan Cross left a permanent mark on British musical life. An artist of strong convictions, in the last decades of her life she delighted in discussing the pluses and minuses of the contemporary musical scene while lunching at one of Aldeburgh's charming pubs. She had much about which to reminisce as a key figure in the popularization of the music of Benjamin Britten, a pioneer of British opera, and one of the most inspiring and influential singing teachers in the United Kingdom.

Born in London on September 7, 1900, Cross studied first at St. Paul's Girls School, where one of her teachers was the noted composer Gustav Holst. Her advanced musical training took place at the Trinity College of Music, first studying violin but soon studying singing with Dawson Freer. Upon graduation, her first job was singing in the chorus of Lilian Baylis ' Old Vic Theater. Her interest in opera came late—Cross did not attend her first opera, Gounod's Faust, until she was 18. She initially found opera to be dull until hearing Puccini. Thrilled by his music, she decided to aim for a career in the theater.

Remaining at the Old Vic, Cross was a seasoned singer by the late 1920s, having appeared in numerous opera productions of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. By 1931, she had advanced to the position of principal soprano of the Sadler's Wells Opera, a new theater bravely inaugurated by Lilian Baylis in the depths of the world economic depression. In that year, Cross made her debut as Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme. Throughout the 1930s, she was a mainstay of the Sadler's Wells company, constantly adding new and demanding roles to her repertoire. In addition to standard roles, she appeared in a number of premieres of contemporary works including Arthur Benjamin's The Devil Take Her, as well as in rarely performed older works such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden and Tsar Saltan. By the start of World War II, she had become a major vocal artist and enjoyed a reputation as one of the most popular performers on the Sadler's Wells operatic stage. During this period, she also sang occasionally at London's prestigious Covent Garden Opera House, performing the star roles in a number of operas including Carmen, Lohengrin and Otello. She sang a number of other demanding Wagnerian roles and, in March 1939, successfully added the role of the Marchallin in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier to her large repertoire.

The beginning of World War II in September 1939 did not halt Cross' determination to continue her career in music. Even though the Sadler's Wells theater was bombed during the Blitz, she and her colleagues continued to perform in war-scarred London. In the fall of 1940, the Sadler's Wells singers began touring, not only to avoid the dangers of further bombardment but as part of a morale-building effort in other British cities and towns. The tours were fraught with problems inherent in being on the road as well as with the unique dangers of modern warfare directed against a civilian population, but Cross and her colleagues came through the ordeal with flying colors. Critical notices were usually highly enthusiastic, and she starred in a number of new productions including Smetana's The Bartered Bride and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

Soon after the Sadler's Wells Opera departed from London to tour the provinces, its executive director, Tyrone Guthrie of the Old Vic Theater, appointed Joan Cross manager of the company. Cross had already taken on an informal administrative role after the death of Lilian Baylis in 1937, and Guthrie's conviction that she possessed strong talents in this area was quickly proven to be correct. As excellent an administrator as she was a singer, Cross was known to be decisive, fair and often witty. During these years, she used her position to strike a blow on behalf of affordable and accessible music for average citizens, a concept in which she strongly believed. From 1943 to 1945, she ran the company under the most difficult of conditions, bringing opera to regions starved of the arts in wartime. Cross spent most of her time on the myriad details of administration, appearing on stage only on those occasions when a singer was ill or had been kept from showing up in the theater by a bombing raid.

In 1945, Cross' decision as Sadler's Wells manager to reopen the opera house in London with a work by a contemporary composer, Benjamin Britten, set the stage for the final and most important phase of her career. She had met Britten through his companion, Peter Pears, and was deeply impressed by the shy young composer. Britten had just completed the score of his opera Peter Grimes, which Cross first heard in a dingy Liverpool attic with Britten playing it for her on the piano. Then and there, she determined that this would be the work with which the postwar Sadler's Wells Opera would begin its season. Though many of the Sadler's Wells singers received the Britten score with little enthusiasm, regarding it as too modernly dissonant, Cross retained her belief that Britten's score was a masterpiece of "new music." Within the opera company, opposition to the new opera was fierce. One faction whispered the absurdity that Cross was planning to use the opera to advance her career. Another objection was grounded in the fact that both Pears and Britten had been conscientious objectors during the just ended war, and also that both men were gay and lovers. Totally indifferent to such opposition, Cross pushed ahead, determined to make operatic history. Peter Grimes received its world premiere performance on June 7, 1945, with Cross in the role of Ellen Orford. The critics praised her singing and acting; they declared Britten's opera to be the dawn of a new era in British music.

Despite the brilliant success of the premiere of Peter Grimes, the bitter divisiveness among her colleagues that had led up to the premiere performance could neither be forgotten nor always easily forgiven by Cross. Severing her links with Sadler's Wells, she threw in her lot with a new company soon to be known as the English Opera Group. After 1945, she became increasingly identified with the music of Benjamin Britten. In 1946, she created the role of the Female Chorus in Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia. The next year, 1947, she created the role of Lady Billows in his Albert Herring. In 1953, she created the star role in yet another Britten opera, Gloriana. This work, which premiered at Covent Garden in 1953 as part of the national celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II , was a profound psychological study of Queen Elizabeth I .

In 1955, Cross sang the last of her five Benjamin Britten operatic premieres, creating the role of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose in his The Turn of the Screw. That same year, she starred as the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden, a performance that prompted the critic Andrew Porter to write, "Joan Cross's Countess … is a wonderful example of a character created through the music." In September of the same year, she appeared on stage for the last time, singing the role she had created only a few months earlier, that of Mrs. Grose. Noting that even during Cross' last stage appearance she remained "in fine voice," opera critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor lamented her decision to retire, pointing out how her skilled and subtle performance of Britten's opera had assured its success with the audience. Cross' performance in The Turn of the Screw was recorded by Decca in a definitive interpretation conducted by the composer.

Following her retirement as a singer, Cross pursued a new facet of her musical career. Within weeks of her last stage appearance, she was busy managing a production of Cosi fan tutte for the Opera Studio. In 1956, she produced Britten's Albert Herring, and on the reputation gained from this and other successes she found herself increasingly in demand as an opera director. Cross worked on various productions not only in the United Kingdom but also in Canada, The Netherlands, and Scandinavia. By passing on her decades of stage experience, she was able to play a significant role in the artistic growth of the Norwegian National Opera.

As the years went by, Cross spent more time teaching at the Opera School in London (later the London Opera Centre), which she and Anne Wood had founded in 1948. During the last decades of her long life, Cross lived in the town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in a small cottage packed with operatic memorabilia. Residents as well as visitors to Aldeburgh—where the music festivals organized by Benjamin Britten drew music lovers from all over the globe—could count on seeing the elderly but still vivacious Joan Cross vigorously discussing music with friends and strangers in the local pub. Although she was honored with the rank of Commander of the British Empire in 1951, she never was awarded a Dameship, which many of her admirers believed she richly deserved; some suspected she was denied this due to opinions strongly expressed throughout her long career. Only days before her death in Aldeburgh on December 12, 1993, EMI issued a compact disc set of her classic 1948 recording of Britten's Peter Grimes. With her passing, British musical life lost one of its most distinctive artists and ardent champions.


Baker, Frank Granville. "A Leading Role in the Opera," in Guardian. December 14, 1993, sec. 2, p. 18.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

Hardy, C. "Joan Cross," in Opera. Vol. 1, no. 1. February 1950, pp. 22–28.

Harewood, Lord. "Joan Cross—a birthday celebration," in Opera. Vol. 41, no. 9. September 1990, pp. 1032–1039.

"Joan Cross," The Times [London]. December 15, 1993, p. 19.

related media:

Decca CD 425 672-2 (Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw).

EMI British Composers CD CMS7-64727-2 (Recordings of the Music of Benjamin Britten).

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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