Welsh National Opera
IN 1943, Welsh National Opera was founded by a group of people from across south Wales including miners, teachers and doctors. They wanted to forge an opera company befitting Wales’s rich reputation as the ‘land of song’. The energy which drives the Company today is rooted in its formation in the 1940s.
The Beginning: 1943-1945
- In November 1943 Idloes Owen, the son of a Merthyr miner and a well-known Cardiff singing teacher and conductor, joined with friends to propose the founding of a new Welsh opera company.
- At Cathays Methodist Chapel December 2, 1943, Welsh National Opera Company (WNOC) was established, with Owen announced as music director and company subscription rates for the voluntary chorus set at a guinea per year, plus sixpence per rehearsal.
- The first rehearsal of the new WNOC took place on January 6, 1944. Some 60 people from all over south Wales gathered: amateur singers; some of Owen’s students; shop workers; a butcher; a publican; railway workers. All had two things in common – a love of singing and wonderful voices.
- The first WNOC concert of opera excerpts takes place in April 1944 at the Empire Theatre, Cardiff, with regular concerts thereafter.
- Idloes Owen plans for the company to learn six operas in two years with the aim of staging them – but it takes until 1946 to find a suitable venue…
- After securing the Prince of Wales Theatre, Cardiff, as the venue for the first fully-staged WNOC performances, the principles wore their own costumes, and a ‘scratch’ orchestra was formed of local musicians. Singers were sewing costumes and painting sets right up to opening night.
- Monday, April 15, 1946: The opening night, a double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Cav & Pag), is conducted by Idloes Owen with Tudor Davies as lead tenor and Margaret Williams as soprano.
- Tuesday, April 16, 1946: Ivor John, a Swansea-based singer and conductor, conducts Faust – and two nights later performs the leading role. Bill Smith, a local businessman, pays Norman Jones and Peggy Moreland to become the Company’s first administrators.
- The Western Mail reported: “This new Welsh company came through their first night with flying colours and promise to become as important to singing in Wales as the National Eisteddfod itself“
- 1946-1949, after the success of the first performances, a flood of applications poured in to join the WNOC Volunteer Chorus from south Wales and beyond.
- In May 1948 Bill Smith, WNOC’s chairman, decides to form WNOC into a limited company “for the promotion and presentation of opera in Wales and elsewhere, and to contribute to the musical, cultural and educational life of the community“.
- November of 1949 saw the first performances in Swansea with the Swansea branch of the voluntary chorus.
- October 7, 1952: The first performance of Nabucco by WNO takes place in the Sophia Gardens Pavilion, Cardiff – and is the first fully-staged production of this opera in the UK for a century. It was a triumph, particularly for the 80-strong Chorus which gleaned stellar reviews. Nabucco was a major landmark for the Company – establishing its right to be classed among the leading opera companies in Britain.
- In 1953, the Company begins touring – sets, costumes and artists were loaded on to a train, firstly to Bournemouth, then Manchester. WNO was the first British company from outside London to tour the provinces.
- November 1, 1954, saw WNO’s first performance at the New Theatre in Cardiff. WNO would perform here for the next 50 years.
- 1955 July, during a heatwave, WNO first performs in London at Sadler’s Wells. The week was a triumph with both audiences and critics.
- Following the successful London premiere in 1955, the Company returns to Sadler’s Wells with Nabucco directed by John Moody in 1957.
- Geraint Evans joins WNO productions of Don Pasquale (1966) and Falstaff (1969).
- In March 1969 WNO moved into its new John Street headquarters in Cardiff.
- The Company mounts the first UK production of Berg’s opera Lulu in 1971.
- WNO establishes its own orchestra, The Welsh Philharmonia, in 1971 and is renamed the Orchestra of WNO in 1978.
- Michael Geliot stages a landmark production of Britten’s Billy Budd designed by Roger Butlin (1972). On tour in Norwich, Benjamin Britten honoured WNO by attending a performance, declaring: “it is marvellous“.
- Billy Budd was the first WNO show to be toured internationally, with performances in Lausanne and Zurich in 1973.
- In January 1968, first rehearsals take place of the newly-professional WNO Chorus. It becomes a full-time professional ensemble in 1973. Members of the voluntary chorus audition, and some are successful, enabling them to become professional choristers.
- FIRE! In 1975, a blaze rips through the WNO set store, destroying 30 years’ worth of productions. Performances continue, with borrowed sets and costumes from other UK opera companies.
- By 1976, WNO was a fully professional Company with a 48-strong Chorus, its own Orchestra, technical and administrative teams.
- The ‘WNO triumvirate’ of Richard Armstrong, Nicholas Payne and Brian McMaster put the Company on the world stage by engaging radical European stage directors. Notable productions include Peter Grimes, Otello, Rigoletto, Eugene Onegin, a Janáček series and the entire Ring Cycle.
- The first opera in the Janáček series was Jenůfa, September 1975, directed by David Pountney. This was his first collaboration with WNO, and the series began a longstanding link between WNO and Janáček’s operas.
- Charles Mackerras conducts the UK premiere of Martinů’s The Greek Passion, featuring live goats, in 1981.
- 1984: Cardiff Theatrical Services (CTS) was established from WNO’s workshops to build all sets. Over the next 30 years, CTS becomes one of the UK’s leading set makers, producing for some of the world’s leading opera, theatre and ballet companies.
- WNO’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (1983-1985) was a significant and ambitious undertaking for the Company, and it was performed at the Royal Opera House for the first time by a UK opera company based outside London.
- The Company makes an historic tour behind the Iron Curtain, taking in East Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig with productions of Ernani, The Turn of the Screw and Elektra.
- Radical European stage director Peter Stein directs an iconic production of Pelléas et Mélisande conducted by Pierre Boulez, featuring live sheep.
- 1988: Gören Järvefelt’s production of La traviata. David Cairns in The Sunday Times wrote: “Welsh National Opera’s La traviata is worth travelling a very long way to hear. I cannot recall a Traviata equal to it. In the hands of Mackerras and the excellent WNO Orchestra and Chorus, the piece glows with life and unexpected colour“.
- WNO’s production of Falstaff tours to Tokyo, Milan, and New York, and the Company makes three tours to the prestigious Wiesbaden May festival in Germany.
- Charles Mackerras conducts The Yeomen of the Guard in 1995; the first-ever production of Gilbert and Sullivan to be performed at the Royal Opera House.
- The Ring Cycle tours to venues including the first WNO performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, during WNO’s 1986 40th anniversary season.
- Bryn Terfel appears in his first WNO production, Così fan tutte in 1990 and then as Ford in Falstaff 1993 with Donald Maxwell.
- WNO Orchestra performs a concert of Music for Young People at St David’s Hall in 1992. One of WNO’s first family concerts.
- WNO’s education department organised one of its most ambitious programmes, linking community with its main-scale operas: The Cinderella Project, performing four different versions of the fairy tale; the UK main-scale premiere of Massenet’s Cendrillon with Rebecca Evans; Rossini’s La Cenerentola and, at Blackwood Miners’ Institute, Maxwell Davies’s children’s opera Cinderella, then a new community musical The Splott Cinderella.
- In 2001, WNO MAX, a community and outreach team, was established to further develop links with the community in opening the experience of opera to all.
- WNO MAX’ ‘s first major project, the award-winning Katerina was performed, involving over 200 schoolchildren from Merthyr Tydfil. It went on to be performed in Gwynedd and Denbighshire by 240 schoolchildren, with 1,800 in the audience.
- In 2004, WNO transfers from the New Theatre to a new venue in Cardiff Bay. The first WNO performance at Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) is La traviata on Friday, February 18, 2005, followed by Berg’s Wozzeck the following night.
- Carlo Rizzi returns to WNO as music director, conducting notable Italian repertoire including Cav & Pag and Don Carlos.
- WNO Youth Opera evolves out of WNO MAX’s work, bringing together young performers aged 14 to 25 to develop their skills. In 2005, a specially commissioned piece, The Taylor’s Daughter, performed at WMC’s Weston Studio.
- Lothar Koenigs conducts Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, directed by Richard Jones, in a sell-out run of performances starring Bryn Terfel and Christopher Purves, which is televised in a BBC Proms performance.
- Following decades of association with WNO, David Pountney becomes artistic director and chief executive in 2011. His appointment signals the Company’s growing commitment to commissioning new opera with the British Firsts Season.
- New commissions and premieres include Peter Pan and the Usher House and Fall of the House of Usher double bill.
- WNO tours to Savonlinna and Oman with great success.
- WNO marks its 70th birthday with a new production, In Parenthesis, to commemorate the First World War. This is in conjunction with a digital installation, FIELD, and a gala performance which went on to the Royal Opera House in 2016.
- The leading Czech conductor Tomáš Hanus joins WNO as music director in 2016 and Carlo Rizzi becomes Conductor Laureate.
- In October 2016, Tomáš Hanus debut with WNO was conducting Mahler’s Symphony No 2 Resurrection, garnering five-star reviews.
- WNO stage the Verdi Trilogy between 2018-2020 with new productions of La forza del destino, Un ballo in maschera and Les vêpres siciliennes in collaboration with Theatre Bonn.
- WNO marks the centenary of the first British women winning the vote with Rhondda Rips It Up! – an all-female opera composed by Elena Langer which tours to venues around Wales and England.
- Continuing to champion rarely-performed opera and Russian works, WNO stage a new production of Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace as part of its Autumn 2018 programme.
- July 2019: WNO take War and Peace to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with two sell-out performances.
- Sir David Pountney concludes his tenure as artistic director during Summer 2019 season with the WNO FREEDOM season, on the theme of human rights. The season includes live opera performances, digital experiences, and the start of a five-year relationship with the Welsh Refugee Council.
- Aidan Lang, a former WNO staff director, joins WNO in summer 2019 as general director.
- In 2020, WNO at Home is launched in response to the first UK Coronavirus lockdown, inviting audiences to get closer to WNO through digital performances as well as interviews, plus the launch of Play Opera – a new magazine-style show aimed at families with children aged three to eight years-old.
- April 2021, WNO celebrates 75 years of serving communities and bringing opera to wide and diverse audiences in the UK and beyond.
Welsh National Opera website: https://wno.org.uk/