Idloes Owen – a musical hero

Geraint Talfan Davies look back at achievement of WNO’s founder on the day a plaque is unveiled in his memory.

In this world of celebrity culture, there are heroes that we often ignore. Sadly, that is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Today (4.11.16) a small ceremony will take place outside a house in Llandaff North, Cardiff, to commemorate a person, little known by the wider public, who made an invaluable contribution to music and the arts in Wales. That person is Idloes Owen (1895-1954), the founder of Welsh National Opera, to whose memory a plaque will be unveiled on the house in Station Road where he lived.

The story of Idloes Owen and Welsh National Opera is a wonderfully Welsh tale. He was born in Merthyr Vale in 1895, the son of a miner at the Nixon Navigation colliery, left school at the age of 12 and followed his father down the pit, hardly the place for a boy soprano who was already learning to play the piano and violin. Illness changed the course not only of the young boy’s life but also of Welsh musical life.

A bout of tuberculosis forced him out of the pit, at which point he was desperate to devote himself to music. The prospects were not good, for his father died at that very moment. It took a village concert to raise the money needed for him travel down the valley to Cardiff University to study music – something that speaks volumes about the solidarity of the community at that time, almost certainly intensified by war.

With a university musical education under his belt Owen set out on a career as a composer, arranger, teacher and conductor. He was Sir Geraint Evans’ first tutor. In 1925, at the age of 30 Owen became the choirmaster of a male voice choir, the Lyrian Singers, who were able to take advantage not only of the demand for concerts but also of the growing demands of radio, that had launched in Cardiff in 1922. The Lyrian Singers became, effectively, a resident BBC choir.  

Musical life in Cardiff between the wars was largely amateur, with no public funding. An embryonic National Orchestra of Wales had foundered just before the outbreak of the second world war and Owen’s plan, in the early years of the war, to launch an orchestra of his own were blocked by the prior existence of the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra.

Strangely, the war years saw another even less known contribution by Owen to Welsh music. The credit for what became known as Wales’s second national anthem – the popular song, We’ll Keep a welcome in the hillsides – has always gone to Mai Jones, a musician who became a light entertainment producer with the BBC in 1941. But it was Owen who, in 1940, arranged the music from a score supplied by Thomas Morgan, a member of the Lyrian singers, to set lyrics written by Mai Jones and Lyn Joshua.

Owen’s involvement with choirs and orchestral initiatives inevitably led to the urge to mount opera and it was in November 1943 the he met with John Morgan, who had been a baritone with the Carl Rosa Opera company and Morgan’s fiancee, Helena Hughes Brown, at which they cemented their resolve to form a national opera company for Wales. Only days later, on 2 December, 28 people met at Cathays Methodist Chapel in Crwys Road, Cardiff, at which they all pledged a guinea and promised to pay sixpence a week to pay for the rental of a rehearsal rooms.

The company’s first performance took place on 15 April 1946 – Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci – at the Prince of Wales Theatre – now a Wetherspoon’s pub – and Idloes Owen remained its first Music Director until his death in 1954.

To my mind this is the most extraordinary thing about the origins of Welsh National Opera: that a group of Welsh musicians in the middle of a world war – in the same year as the battle of El Alamein and Stalingrad, and a time when food was rationed – set about establishing a national opera company for Wales. I often think of the wartime resolve of that group when people ask whether we can afford the arts in an age of austerity. The leader of that group, Idloes Owen, answered the question for all time.

Others were thinking in the same way. Those first peacetime years were remarkable for artistic endeavour: it saw the founding of WNO and the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946 and, a year later, the Llangollen International Eisteddfod and the Edinburgh Festival. All have succeeded, all now have proud international reputations.

The roots of organisations are more important than is often recognised. Singers who come to work at WNO often comment on the warm, family feel of the company. It is something that persuades many of them to return. That ethos was set by Idloes Owen and his colleagues. It is something that, over the last 70 years, has survived the move from amateur to professional status, and from an old, Victorian theatre to its fine new opera house where the words inscribed on its face – In these stones horizons sing / Creu gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen– are an expression of both pride and intent.

Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of Welsh National Opera.

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