Welsh Language opera available to non-Welsh speakers

The new opera  by Gareth Glyn and Mererid Hopwood Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd was written predominantly in Welsh, but thanks to the Sibrwd mobile phone app, performances were wholly accessible for non-Welsh speakers. (The app is downloadable at performance venues prior to curtain up.)

Islwyn Ffowc Elis’ vision of the future of his homeland – part utopian, part dystopian – was last year realized on the operatic stage in a thrilling version by Wales’ foremost creative artists, composer Gareth Glyn and poet Mererid Hopwood.
On the 60th anniversary of the novel’s publication, the world’s only Welsh-language opera company brought together a stellar cast of native singers to breathe musical life into this famous cautionary tale of love, loss, community and belonging. The opera was presented with the kind permission of the Islwyn Ffowc Elis Estate and Gwasg Gomer.

Cast and Creatives included:

Gwawr Edwards, Sian Meinir, Euros Campbell, Sion Goronwy, Robyn Lyn Evans, Eleri Gwilym, Ilar Rees Davies, Gethin Lewis, Seimon Menai
Conductor: Iwan Teifion Davies
Director: Patrick Young
Designer: Lois Prys
Lighting Designer: Gwion E. Llwyd

The premiere production toured to the following venues: 

Pontio, Bangor 10 & 11..11.17;   Stiwt, Rhosllannerchrugog 14.11.17;   Hafren, Newtown 16.11.17;  Aberystwyth Arts Centre 17.11.17;   Memo Arts Centre, Barry 21.11.17;   Taliesin, Swansea 23.11.17;  Neuadd Dwyfor, Pwllheli 25.11.17.

Following the success of the Sibrwd service at all venues for the tour of Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd, OPRA Cymru is exploring ways of including a simultaneous English caption service to audience's mobile phones at all future touring performances.

The Entire Heritage of My Country

‘I sold up the lot unspeakably cheaply,

Yes, I sold it all, the entire heritage of my country.’ 

The sorrowful words of Ifan Powell in the dense forestry of what was once Wales, but has now become Western England. These two lines are perhaps the most powerful in the whole of Gareth Glyn’s and Mererid Hopwood’s new opera Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd: yes, more powerful than the threat of the Purple Shirts Brigade to the visionary’s united and bi-lingual Wales of 2033, and more powerful even than the setting by Gareth of the 23rd Psalm in the back of the chip shop in Bala, where, before Ifan’s own eyes, the Welsh language dies.

Who dares – but the unheeding fool that Ifan Powell was ‘back in the day’ – say that Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd is an opera only for the Welsh about the Welsh language? Really?! Is that to be the feeble excuse for not sharing in the extraordinary vision that the new opera presents to us?

Wythnos IS about how a culture can allow itself to die. And the profound emotional response of the Welsh speakers in our audiences across the country is testament to that fearful vision. But, thanks to the understanding and inspiration of poet and composer, the new opera is about so much more.

Wythnos is a challenge to us all, and not just the cast, the orchestra, and the director of the current production! It is a challenge to audiences across the world to ask themselves who it is that they are, and what it may be to cherish one’s own identity, and one’s community? And in the age of resurgent nationalism, global refugee crises, and the politics of hate, could these questions be any more relevant?

Sorry? Are we talking about an opera? Isn’t opera just a load of frivolous nonsense for the rich and snooty? Am I telling you that opera has a political message? (And no, not just a politically correct message...)

Well maybe, yes. But in Wythnos, we have the real ‘etifeddiaeth’ of our homeland. This is opera made in Wales and in Welsh, not a borrowing of some other culture’s second-hand clothing. This is Wales’ heritage: a new form of music theatre, blending drama, poetry and song, and reinventing for the 21st century a four-hundred-year-old way of telling a story in music.

Is this to be the way that the Welsh language will save itself? By making opera its own?

If so, OPRA Cymru is ready and waiting....

Dr Heinkel, Act 1, scene 1

An Experiment is an Experiment

Ifan’s journey into the Wales of the future is, according to Dr Heinkel, an experiment. It is in the nature of an experiment that its outcome cannot be guaranteed. And Dr Heinkel’s is not the only experiment onstage this evening.

The opera Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd is itself something of an experiment. In creating the work, Mererid has written her first opera libretto, and Gareth has written his first operatic score. Thus, while they bring vast experience to the project – Mererid in writing poetry to be set to music, and Gareth in composing for the stage – they also bring a freshness of approach. Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd is pacey and light on its feet, and very far from ‘Park and Bark’ opera.

Actually, opera itself is something of an experiment. Since the first (self-)conscious ‘story in music’ by Monteverdi over four hundred years ago, opera has been trying all sorts of ways to tell a story in music (and song), and perhaps the history of the art form is more a record of failure than of success. But the successes are notable – when the drama is so heightened by the music that we seem to see into our very souls.

And for some of you in the audience, this evening may itself be an experiment, whether in venturing out to see contemporary opera, or opera in Welsh, or perhaps even to see opera for the very first time. However familiar you may be with the original novel by Islwyn Ffowc Elis, tonight’s opera is totally new, and your experience therefore quite unique. And just as you were by the novelist, you are tonight being drawn into a thought experiment – imagine a world without the Welsh language.

OPRA Cymru is the only Welsh-language opera company in the world. Our friends from across the border may wonder why our language is so important to us, and they may envy us our love of song, but I suspect they will be quick to see what an exciting experiment it is to put the two together on the operatic stage.

'O bydded i'r arbrawf barhau...'

 

Note from the programme for Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd

Review 'Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd'

Ben Ridler

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Clearly a new opera in Welsh is to be welcomed, and especially one that brings new life and attention to a novel as important in the recent history of the language as Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd.  But it's worth asking:  what can really be added to a prose classic by revamping it in the clothes of another genre?   An answer can I think be found in the remarks of Leusa Llywelyn included in the programme.  'What better medium is there than opera to convey the despair, hope, pure love and overwhelming longing to be found in this important work?'  Leusa refers also to 'the strong emotions that predominate in Islwyn Ffowc Ellis's novels'.  Here we have a key to the success of this venture as a whole  -  the sheer emotional impact on heart and memory for anyone who experiences a live performance.

'As a whole'  -  its deep effect depended on a combination of many artistic and technical skills, and it is perhaps unfair to pick out individuals given that it was as a totality that it was so moving and memorable.  But credit must of course be given to key figures, first and foremost the two prime creators, composer Gareth Glyn and librettist Mererid Hopwood.  To the latter fell the challenge of breaking a long novel down to two coherent acts with their own momentum, enriched here and there with original lyric touches as in Mair's aria at the end of Act 1  -  'What is time but the measure / that binds the beating heart'?  (Thanks to the company for providing a printed libretto to enjoy afterwards.)  Above all, Gareth Glyn's score (for a dozen players) was the evening's 'motor':  music that seemed to speak naturally and was by turns agile, thrilling, full of varied colours, and light or imposing according to need.  For freshness and energy it never faltered from first note to last.

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I'm sure both composer and librettist will have taken pride in the interpretation and performances they witnessed.  Conductor Iwan Teifion Davies was authoritative throughout; director Patrick Young's staging had his hallmark economy and clarity of focus.  It would be hard to overpraise the five main singers, who played a number of roles between them.  Robyn Lyn Evan's stamina was extraordinary, his protagonist Ifan being onstage in every scene; there seemed no strain in his mellifluous tenor, which projected all the angst of Ifan's' overwhelming longing' for Mair, the girl of his dreams  -  realised in all her glamour and dignity by Gwawr Edwards.  Euros Campbell's robust baritone projected fully the alternating hope and despair in Tegid's fight for his language.  It was hard not to tremble, like Ifan, before the mighty voice and presence of Captain Steele (bass-baritone Sion Goronwy), whose obsession with a return to 'the golden age of the Wales of the past' delivered  a menacing outburst not easily forgotten.  And thanks are due to Sian Meinir for putting her very soul (and rich mezzo voice) into the story's climactic scene, in which (in a magnificent duet with Ifan) she is led back to the remnants of her Welsh through the words amd melody of the 23rd Psalm.

Add in the impressive senior chorus (four strong soloists) and youth chorus, chamber group Ensemble Cymru, ingenious and effective set-design (Lois Prys) and lighting (Gwion Llwyd)  -  and you have a 'gesamtkunstwerk' to celebrate as a tremendous achievement that augurs well for the prospects of opera in Welsh, and the future of this pioneering company.