In my former role at Welsh National Opera we undertook a three-year project to take opera to Wrexham – Wrexham Street Songs. This project was playful and experimental, exploring different ways to engage with the city and introduce it to opera. People in Wrexham really started to relish the different opportunities WNO opened up for them. But then the work had to move – as a national company it was hard to sustain an ongoing engagement with just one city.
My new company Operasonic is about making a commitment. I want to stay in one place and watch the community around me develop a love of opera and explore its potential. Newport was the obvious place to ground Operasonic – my home town and the place I learnt to love theatre (thanks to school musicals).
On first sight, it’s a city with little artistic life and few claims to fame. The only stories it can tell are about the Chartists and GLC craziness on the streets after closing time on a Saturday night. But like any town or city, once you start to talk to people and dig deeper there are a myriad of stories, amazing characters and a rich history and culture to be explored.
Newport Legends begins to explore these stories through community opera. What’s important for me is to engage with a wide range of young people through schools and communities, to work with the best professional artists I know, and to showcase the work in a professional way. Operasonic has been extremely lucky to work in partnership with The Riverfront Theatre, who saw from the beginning the potential of linking this project into its local arts venue. Funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation has enabled us to create the vision on a large-scale in our second year – without them this would have been a ten year project.
We found three schools who were happy for us to run after school groups – St Woolos Primary, St Michaels RC Primary and Clytha Primary, and we also worked with the Maindee community, basing our work at Maindee Library and Community House. Each group was given a legend about Newport to explore: a legend about the flood of the Gwent levels in 1607; a legend about land agent and lawyer Thomas Prothero and his feud with Chartist John Frost; the myths that surround the ancient burial mound on Twmbarlwm; stories from Maindee. They each worked with a composer and drama leader to create words, music, and dramatic ideas, and to perform the final mini-opera.
I also brought in Errollyn Wallen – an award-winning composer whom I had worked with at WNO – to write a series of opera scenes to link our community legends together. Errollyn and I created the character of Charles Morgan Junior – a property developer planning to bulldoze St Woolos Cathedral in the name of progress. Charles is stopped in his tracks by a mysterious woman. Like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, she takes him on a journey through the legends of Newport.
For me, the best way for people to grow to love opera is for them to make it. It’s a fantastic art form for community work, offering the opportunity to stage a whole community through chorus, and also the chance to explore the most intimate thoughts of each character through aria. I am passionate about making it current and pertinent to peoples’ lives. It’s an art form not a museum! As such it should grow and change in each context it is created in. Newport Legends is the first step for Operasonic in the Newport community. We’re opening up the possibility of the ‘Port as an operatic playground. I’m really excited about what will happen next!
Rhian Hutchings is Creative Director of Operasonic.
Newport Legends performs at The Riverfront Theatre on Sunday 2nd July at 4.30pm. Tickets are £5 from the Riverfront Theatre box office.