’An absolute zinger of a score’ (Gramophone). ’A musical gem’ (The Times). ’A work of striking charm’ (The Telegraph). This is how the critics responded to
the BBC Concert Orchestra’s recording of Malcolm Arnold’s The Dancing Master. It is astonishing that this witty, and vivacious opera did not receive a single staging in his lifetime.
Film-maker Joe Mendoza suggested to Arnold they create a televised opera based on Wycherley’s 1671 play The Gentleman Dancing Master. A copy of the script was duly sent with Mendoza expecting comments and suggestions. Instead, two weeks later, the completed score landed on his desk: riotously colourful with flamboyant orchestral writing and unending melodic invention.
It tells the tale of Miranda, who is being romantically pursued by her fierce aunt’s son, the ludicrous ‘Monsieur’. Miranda, though, prefers hapless but charming Gerard. When her father catches Gerard in her bedroom, they claim he is a dancing master preparing her for a dance with ‘Monsieur’. After some initial confusion, Miranda and Gerard conduct a secret marriage, which her father has no option but to approve.
Disaster struck when BBC executives rejected the opera as ’too bawdy for family audiences’. Arnold tried Granada instead, singing the whole opera to the executives, but to no avail. The opera quite literally disappeared: its wicked wit,
vivid characters, and endless melodic lyricism languishing on a library shelf whilst Arnold’s career raced onwards and upwards.
So, now we’ll imagine that those executives were just a little more imaginative and had at least let Arnold and their star performers into the BBC Radio Theatre for a couple of hours.