Haywards Heath Operatic Society; The Show Must Go On!
By Sara Harman-Clarke
Haywards Heath Operatic Society have been singing their hearts out for the past 50 years. Looking forward to their golden Jubilee, their thoughts turn to the next 50…
In 1964 a music lover called Don Smith decided to set up an operatic society. Inspired by one already established in nearby Lewes which seemed to be well received and supported, he followed suit and founded Haywards Heath Operatic Society.
To Don’s relief over 100 people attended the first meeting, showing their enthusiasm and willingness to support their local community. Just one year later in April 1965 they took to the stage for the first time with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, performed in the local 6th Form College, now the Central Sussex College. On their 40th anniversary Haywards Heath Operatic Society returned to their old show ground for a fabulous repeat performance.
After this debut the society grew from strength to strength, gaining more members and support all the time. Don had clearly tapped into something missing in his community, and they thanked him for it. Don himself only stayed with the society for a relatively short time, four or five years, until he moved on. By then they had received a charitable status and had organised themselves with the necessary chair and board of community members.
Although the society was flourishing it remained a bit of a vagabond, drifting from meeting place to meeting place, until in the mid 70’s Clair Hall was built in Haywards Heath. This quickly became a permanent home to the society, and for the first time they truly settled into their roles and looked forward to the future. With all barrels blazing by 1974, the society put on a performance of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. So positive was the reception new members flooded through the doors and they never looked back.
A long-standing member of the society and formerly Chair and Vice Chair, Marie Taylor tells me about their musical journey. “We started out with lighter opera, things like Gilbert and Sullivan, then in the 80’s we moved to the more popular and well known West End productions.” No one could accuse HHOS of playing it safe; they are so diverse in their musical choices. From The Full Monty to Jane Eyre, and The Wizard of Oz to Fiddler on the Roof, this wide remit also gives members the opportunity to dip in and out as shows reflect their personal musical tastes. Further to this, for each new production there is a whole new direction team put in place. This naturally keeps each show fresh and unique with a rested and enthusiastic team on board.
To celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, HHOS have chosen a production of Oliver. It is such a classic musical they have performed it twice already, first in 1991, then 2002. The director of this performance is Juliet Mckinnell-Merrett, a self confessed huge Oliver fan. “I performed in it myself many years ago,” she tells me as we stand outside the rehearsal room in Great Walstead School, where inside a crowd of hungry ragga-muffins line up for their bowls of gruel. Another long-standing member of HHOS, Juliet has been performing with the society for 30 years.
As a drama teacher herself, Juliet is perfectly placed to direct the 35 children in this show, as well as the adult members of the society. Working closely alongside the choreographer, Tracy Trubridge, they recognise the strength of this cast, both children and adults alike. As I watch a snippet of the rehearsal I can see what they mean; the children sing with gusto and reach their empty bowls out with such sincerity you can almost hear their stomachs rumbling.
Juliet’s dedication to the cause is obvious to see as she enthuses about her research trip to London and the Foundling Hospital, next to the workhouse which inspired Dickens to write Oliver. And this is just the kind of enthusiasm which keeps the society alive and kicking.
Nick Mann, the current Vice Chair, reiterates this point to me. “It’s all down to the kindness of people to keep us going; without the support of the community we would not be here today.” With its charitable status, this society is run as non-commercial, but Nick tells me that to make it work they sometimes need to think with their business hats on. “Each show costs thousands to put on,” he tells me, what with the music rights, venue price, orchestra, sound and lighting. To help raise the funds they put on smaller concerts, shows and dinner parties, which are always well attended and enjoyed. As a society they also involve themselves in community events, such as the World War One commemoration events and Haywards Heath Town Day every year.
They also have wonderful members all working on a voluntary basis, such as Tony Jeff ord who designs sets and Michael Wates who looks after Membership, Audition logistics and Front of House during performance week.
More than once in our chat Nick mentions how humbling it is to hold the 50 years weight of this operatic society. It is a responsibility to keep it going for past and future generations, and to keep attracting new members. “To survive, we must expand!” Nick smiles, and tells me how they are aiming to attract younger generations by reinventing themselves as the Mid Sussex Theatre Group, hopefully in a bigger, better venue as well.
At the heart of Haywards Heath Operatic Society it’s not only about singing and drama. It’s about coming together, meeting new people and having fun, and that’s what keeps people coming back week after week.
HAYWARDS HEATH OPERATIC SOCIETY
‘Oliver’ will be performed from 28th October
until 1st November 2014
Show times: 7.30pm Evening performance
and 2.30pm Saturday Matinee.
Tickets available from Clair Hall Box Office,
01444 455440 or visit: hhos.co.uk