West Wales to Finland via London

Geraint Talfan Davies recounts the recent travels of the Welsh National Opera.

If you were to ask me today what our national opera company does, I could not do better than to recount its work over the last two weeks – a schedule that took WNO from West Wales to London and then on to Finland, engaging with communities and young people alongside electric performances on main stages, and projecting Wales and its talents way beyond its own border.

In short encompassing the local, the national and the international, celebrating the classic pieces but also breaking new ground.

Tuesday, 22 July. A packed event in the oak-framed hall at Rhos-y-Gilwen in north Pembrokeshire, part of  the Fishguard International Music Festival. Twenty players from the WNO Orchestra, an orchestra that is currently at the peak its powers. The evening ended with a high octane performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons interwoven with another four seasons by Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla, thus blending a well known work with Latin American influences.

As David Adams, the orchestra’s leader commented, it could not have been a better place to perform this work. Rhos-y-Gilwen is set in the countryside. In quiet moments you could hear real bird-song outside, and as the concert ended an ethereal mist floated up from the valley below. Involvement in festivals such as this is an important part of our work.

Friday, 25 July. The first of two performances of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron  at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.  It was last performed in the UK in 1965. Welsh National Opera is used to touring. It takes its productions to three Welsh venues and seven English cities regularly – part of the bargain that gives Wales a world class opera company for 40 per cent of the cost to Wales’s public purse. But we have felt for some time that the UK’s ‘world capital’ should not be denied some access to the quality and artistic adventure that WNO offers.

Under an arrangement with the Royal Opera House, WNO will perform at Covent Garden during three successive summers – a conscious attempt by us to raise the profile of the company, to project Wales and to attract more private funding from a city that currently commands more than three-quarters of all private and corporate arts philanthropy in the UK.

Our first visit was an unqualified success both artistically and financially. A towering performance from Sir John Tomlinson as Moses, another triumph for our orchestra and chorus, under the meticulous Lothar Koenigs, strong private backing as well as Welsh Government support, two sell-out performances and a rapturous audience response for a work that is challenging both musically (for the performers, too) and intellectually. There is no theme more relevant today than the interplay of religion and politics.

Saturday, 26 July. As our orchestra was tuning up at Covent Garden, a mile away at King’s Cross another WNO team was launching into a performance of ANON, a new opera by Erollyn Wallen. A co-production between WNO and Sampad South Asian Arts in Birmingham, it was premiered at Llanover Hall in Cardiff earlier this year, but in London formed part of the Tete a Tete Festival of new opera. It is a powerful work that deals with the many ways in which women are often exploited in our society. It has important messages for young men, too.

Back in Cardiff, on the same day, 65 young singers were taking part in a youth opera showcase at WMC. They were drawn from the singing clubs that we run for three age groups – 10-14, 14-16, 16-25 – to nurture young talent.

But this year’s showcase had another purpose: to celebrate the memory of Philippa Seligman, who died in December last year. She had an instinctive empathy for the young and an understanding of the way in which music can change lives. She and her husband, David, have long been great benefactors of Welsh National Youth Opera.

Sunday, 27 July. More than 180 members of the company headed straight from London to the Savonlinna, a lakeside town of 27,000 people in south east Finland, 200 miles from Helsinki. Its renowned opera festival – that opened in 1912, five years before Finland became independent – takes place in the island castle of Olavinlinna, a romantic setting, but a no-nonsense castle.

There are some unexpected links between Wales and Finland. Finland has had two winners of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition – Karita Mattila, in the very first competition in 1983 and Tommi Hakala exactly 20 years later. The man who built the Nokia mobile phone company, was educated at Atlantic College in South Wales. Savonlinna also hosts the ‘Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships’!!

The WNO technical team had arrived earlier to face a tough challenge. The sets for Verdi’s Nabucco and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, had to be transferred to the castle by boat, hoisted over the walls by crane and flown into the covered castle courtyard – which seats 2,300 – by a precarious zip-wire. The technical team are adept and incredibly hard working.

Monday, 28 July. Frantic rehearsals. The stage, although wide, has less than a third of the depth of the WMC stage. Soloists and chorus had to get used to different moves, plotted by WNO staff director, Caroline Chaney. The good news was that all performances were sold out.

Tuesday, 29 July. Nabucco, first night. An afternoon thunderstorm had cleared the hot summer air. Every singer was on form. Welsh singers, David Kempster and Robin Lyn Evans, two Americans, Mary Elizabeth Williams, (in a role that marks here European debut) and Kevin Short and, almost inevitably, the WNO Chorus and Orchestra took the place by storm, bring the whole audience to its feet, the cheers bouncing off the castle walls.

It proved a pattern for the week, with the tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, stealing the show in Manon Lescaut. Cheering and the thunder of feet stamping. He has never been in better voice.

Saturday, 2 August. The final night – Nabucco again. The cheering so prolonged that it drew an encore – the famous Slave’s Chorus – in which this knowledgeable audience also joined. Also an emotional curtain call for Stephen Harris, our brilliant chorusmaster for the last eight years, for whom this was his last performance with us.

WNO has been fortunate in having had two generous invitations to perform abroad in the last year. Last December we became the first British opera company to perform in the Royal Opera House at Muscat in Oman. It is not easy or cheap to travel an opera company around the world, but when it does it has an impact on behalf of Wales that is unmatchable. But it is also, most importantly, part and parcel of what we do every day at home.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of Welsh National Opera.

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