Over the last five weeks OPRA Cymru has been preparing its new production of Donizetti’s Deigryn yn y Dirgel (Elisir d’amore): it’s been a revelation to discover how much less frivolous the piece is than its performance history would suggest.
The retitling of the piece in Welsh as ‘A tear in secret’ now feels wholly justified – way beyond the happy circumstance that the title reflects the opera’s famous tenor aria (‘Una furtiva lagrima’), and the curious aptness of the Welsh title with its suggestion of cynghanedd.
Beyond all this, it is a surprising and pleasing circumstance to find that the current tour is raising serious questions about the place of the arts in rural Wales, and thus in rural society in general; and even – the elephant in the room – what place live performance has left in a contemporary culture that is now almost wholly digitised. I would get rich if I could answer these questions…
In the meantime, we are focusing on our immediate concern of ensuring artistic excellence through the medium of Welsh. We have a tenor who has developed incredibly as a performer in his association with the company over the last four years – Rhodri Prys Jones – and in Aoife O’Connell, who sings the role of Adina, a soprano of exceptional subtlety and sensitivity, who, as a non-Welsh speaker, makes a compelling case for the singability of opera in Welsh.
Also notable in the mix is the great musicianship of our conductor Anthony Negus, drawing fine ensemble playing from the company’s ten-piece chamber orchestra, and accompanying the cast with a fluidity and attention to detail that is rarely heard on a larger scale.
But back to the social question. As we enter the first full week of the tour, we are on the sharp edge of this one: at Theatr Bryn Terfel (Pontio) in Bangor last week we achieved a healthy public response for our first appearance there (the first full opera production in the new theatre, as it turns out). We had opened in Pwllheli two nights before, and here too we achieved commendable audience numbers. At the moment, however, Neuadd Dwyfor is at risk of closure because of Council funding issues, and I can’t help wondering if the new theatre in Bangor is in the long-term going to make it hard for the Pwllheli venue to stay in business.
I am delighted that on the current tour we are visiting established venues such as Y Taliesin in Swansea, Theatr Felinfach and The Gate in Cardiff, as well keeping up our association with smaller venues such as in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bala, and Llanfair Caereinion. But I worry – probably more than most production companies – that the rural venues are under threat. Just as transport and wider social networks (local hospitals, schools etc.) are a barometer for rural decline, so too the arts are vulnerable to these changes in demographic.
What on earth can opera (of all the arts) do to help? Well, perhaps more than you might expect.
For example, the performance in Merthyr Tudful at Theatr Soar is very important for us. And I am absolutely thrilled that OPRA Cymru is reopening the beautiful Pafiliwn in Llandrindod with the Donizetti production (Friday March 18th). Here, in partnership with a local rescue committee, Powys Council, and the Night Out Scheme, we find ourselves part of a ‘movement’ to reinvest in the future of the community of the Llandrindod area. I very much hope that we can draw a positive public response here, particularly in recognition of the hope that the initiative is inspiring locally.
Perhaps, though, it is time for other arts organizations to take note. Surely all performance is predicated on a public response, so surely those that deliver performance need to be thinking more about who and where their public is?
They might even, like OPRA Cymru, start to think about what positive social outcomes might be achieved in delivering the fruits of their artistic endeavours.