Students at the Royal College of Music (RCM) Opera Studio will take audiences back to the 1950s this summer with a double bill of 20th-century opera. The presentation offers a rare chance to hear Leonard Bernstein’s sardonic Trouble in Tahiti (1952), paired with Lennox Berkeley’s delightful comedy of manners, A Dinner Engagement (1954).

Both operas, one American, the other English, take as their subject the social conventions of the 1950s. The first performance provides an insight into an American suburban marriage. Sam and Dinah are unhappily married and Bernstein’s one-act, seven-scene opera is the story of a day in the life of these desperately unhappy, lonely people, longing for love and unable to communicate. Arias that plumb the depths of domestic woe are deliberately contrasted with the infectiously cheerful Greek chorus and their swing-style songs of wedded bliss.

It was speculated that the piece was inspired by Bernstein’s own marriage – he wrote much of it while on honeymoon. Another theory is that it was based on his parents’ relationship. This latter is maybe more likely as Sam is a businessman, as was Bernstein’s father.

Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement will provide some comic relief to the evening. In this one-act opera, with a libretto by Paul Dehn, the impoverished Lord and Lady Dunmow are struggling to keep up appearances for some important dinner guests.

The bickering couple are preparing dinner at their flat in Chelsea for the wealthy Grand Duchess of Monteblanco and her son Prince Phillipe, whom the Dunmows are hoping to convince to marry their beautiful but sulky daughter Susan. As their attempts at self-catering quickly descend into culinary calamity, will their plan prove successful?

The pieces are performed by students of the Royal College of Music, a world-leading music conservatoire, with 800 undergraduate and postgraduate students. As is traditional for RCM Opera Studio productions, two casts will alternate performances, giving as many accomplished young singers as possible the chance to take to the RCM’s Britten Theatre stage. Stephen Unwin is the director and Michael Rosewell conducts.

Performances run from 26 June to 1 July. See the RCM’s website for further details.



This Bernstein and Berkeley double bill presents Trouble in Tahiti and A Dinner Engagement.