The lights were dim in the vast auditorium of the world’s most famous opera house — the Royal Opera House, in London’s Covent Garden. The huge expanse of gold-and-scarlet splendour was deserted but for a few people reclining in the plush seats of the stalls.
From the ATV Television Show Book 1963
This, then, was the setting, in March, for the rehearsals of ATV’s second “A Golden Hour” programme. The greatest names from the worlds of ballet and opera were preparing to bring their arts to millions of people who ordinarily would never have the opportunity of seeing and hearing such international artistes.
The huge velvet stage curtains bearing the insignia EiiR were down. One could almost feel the years rolling away. Almost instinctively thoughts turned to the great names of the past — artistes whose names will live forever, and who had brought their genius to this, tradition-soaked theatre…. Enrico Caruso, the Neapolitan, first came to sing to a bejewelled audience from this very stage exactly 61 years ago. Nijinsky danced his way to immortality here. Scotti, Melba, Destin, Chaliapine and Pertile have all become part of the history of the Royal Opera House.
The silence was broken by the crash of percussion and it was a return to the present. The Royal Opera House Orchestra had plunged into the vibrant music to be used later by the Hungarian State Dance Ensemble. “Fortissimo”, cried the stocky Hungarian conductor as, with flailing arms, he brought the orchestra to the climax of the composition.
From a seat in the stalls, Sir Malcolm Sargent, who was to conduct the orchestra for the remainder of the programme, watched with interest. An opera house official brought a burly, smiling gentleman to Sir Malcolm. “Sir Malcolm, this is Mr. Boris Christoff,” said the official.
“I am delighted to meet you,” beamed Sargent.
“It is my pleasure, maestro,” replied Christoff, the great Bulgarian bass.
Soon, Sargent was standing before the orchestra. Beside him Christoff rehearsed the two pieces he was to sing in the programme, his rich, deep voice resounding around the opera house.
Regine Crespin, the French lyric-dramatic soprano, was next to rehearse with the orchestra. The echoes were set ringing as Madame Crespin’s magnificent voice sang the opening bars of the well-known “Vissi d’Arte” from “Tosca”.
Then the slim, elegant figure of Rudolf Nurevev stepped from the shadows at the side of the auditorium. He leaned nonchalantly over the orchestra-pit barrier beside Sir Malcolm Sargent as the beautiful music of “Les Sylphides” filled the theatre. Later, Nurevev partnered Dame Margot Fonteyn in the Pas de Deux from “Les Sylphides” and the famous “Le Corsaire”.
The two “Golden Hour” programmes so far produced by ATV — the first in November of last year — brought a wealth of artistic talent into the homes of millions throughout the country. Under one roof, the cream of the world’s singers, dancers and musicians gave live performances and reached a vast television audience.
The almost legendary Maria Callas sang “Carmen” in the first “A Golden Hour” programme. Guiseppe di Stefano, the great Italian tenor, was in the same programme. He sang magnificently, despite the handicap of influenza. Pallet stars Svetlana Beriosova and Donald MacLeary, violinist Mischa Elman and Jose Greco’s Spanish Dance Company added their individual magic to the programme. Everyone agreed it was a wonderful night.
The second programme was equally successful. Many young people with aspirations for the ballet were particularly interested. Short of going to a major city, where else could they be treated to a performance by artistes of the calibre of Fonteyn and Nurevev? The grace and beauty of every movement was captured close-up by ATV’s cameras.
Sir David Webster, the General Administrator of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the man who introduced both programmes, has this to say of the programmes: “I am a great believer in quality entertainment. I believe that the mass of television viewers at this time are hungry for the finest dancers, singers and musicians on their screens. The reaction to the two “A Golden Hour” programmes confirmed this view. I also believe that programmes of this type must come from Covent Garden itself, and not from a studio. It certainly makes all the difference to the artistes’ feelings, and consequently their performances, and I also believe that some of the extraordinary beauty and atmosphere of the most wonderful of all opera houses actually comes across to the viewer.”
ATV plan to produce two or three “A Golden Hour” programmes each year. Judging from the response to the first two, it is a decision that will be welcomed by viewers all over Britain.