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’ rich reputation as the ‘land of song’. The energy which drives the Company today is rooted in its formation in the 1940s.
WNO Company history in brief
- Conductor Idloes Owen proposes founding an opera company in 1943.
- At the first general meeting, Welsh National Opera is established, and subscription rates for the voluntary chorus are established at a guinea per year for company membership, plus sixpence per rehearsal.
- First WNO concert of opera excerpts takes place in April 1944 at the Empire Theatre, Cardiff, with regular concerts thereafter.
- Idloes Owen, WNO Music Director, 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...
- Within weeks of securing the Prince of Wales Theatre, Cardiff, as the venue for the first fully staged WNO performances, Idloes and his team hire costumes for the principal artists and production scenery. The Chorus costumes are made from scratch and Victor Fleming fixes the orchestra.
- Monday 15 April 1946: The opening night of Cav & Pag is conducted by Idloes Owen.
- Tuesday 16 April 1946: Ivor John, a Swansea-based singer and conductor, conducts Faust – and two nights later performs the leading role. Bill Smith pays Norman Jones and Peggy Moreland to become company administrators.
- 7 October 1952: The first performance of Nabucco by WNO takes place in the Sophia Gardens Pavilion – and is the first fully-staged production of this opera in the UK for 100 years.
- Following the London premiere of Nabucco by WNO in 1955, the Company returns to Sadler’s Wells with Nabucco directed by John Moody in 1957. The Nabucco chorus, ‘Va, pensiero’ is still considered to be the signature tune of the WNO Chorus.
- The Company begins touring – firstly to Bournemouth, and also becomes a regular visitor to Sadler’s Wells.
- The Company mounts the first UK production of Berg’s opera Lulu in 1971. The Welsh Philharmonia is established in 1971, and is renamed the WNO Orchestra in 1973.
- Michael Geliot stages Billy Budd in an iconic production designed by Roger Butlin (1972), which is the first show to be toured internationally, with performances in Lausanne and Zurich in 1973.
- The WNO Chorus is established as a full-time professional ensemble in 1973. Members of the Voluntary Chorus audition, and some of them are successful, enabling them to give up their regular jobs and 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 neighbouring UK opera companies.
- 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 cycle and the entire Ring cycle.
- 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.
- Charles Mackerras conducts the UK premiere of The Greek Passion, featuring live goats.
- Radical European stage director Peter Stein directs an iconic production of Pelléas et Mélisande conducted by Pierre Boulez, featuring live sheep.
- WNO’s production of Falstaff tours to Tokyo, La Scala, Milan, and New York, and the Company makes three tours to the prestigious Wiesbaden May festival in Germany.
- The Ring cycle tours to venues including the Royal Opera House in 1986/1987.
- 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.
- In 2004, WNO transfers from the New Theatre to a new venue in Cardiff Bay. The first WNO performance at Wales Millennium Centre is La traviata on Friday 18 February 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.
- The Company continues to tour throughout England and Wales, performing regularly in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Llandudno, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Plymouth, Southampton and Swansea.
- Lothar Koenigs conducts Die Meistersinger directed by Richard Jones, in a sell-out run of performances starring Bryn Terfel and Christopher Purves, and which is televised in a BBC Proms performance.
- Following decades of association with WNO, David Pountney becomes Artistic Director and Chief Executive in 2011.
- David Pountney signals the Company’s growing commitment to commissioning new opera – something which has always been a part of WNO’s activity – with the British Firsts Season.
- 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.
- Tomáš Hanus joins WNO as Music Director in 2016 and Carlo Rizzi becomes Conductor Laureate.
- 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.
- Aidan Lang joins WNO in summer 2019 as General Director.
- Sir David Pountney, concludes his tenure as Artistic Director during Summer 2019 Season with the FREEDOM Season, on the theme of human rights. The Season includes live performances, digital experiences and the start of a 5-year relationship with the Welsh Refugee Council
- In 2020 WNO at Home is launched in response to the UK lockdown, inviting audiences to get closer to WNO through digital performances and interviews, as well as the launch of Play Opera - a new magazine style show aimed at families with children 3 - 8 years old
With thanks to WNO Volunteer Archivist John Richardson.
WNO Key personnel – a history
|Tomáš Hanus||2016 - present|
|Aidan Lang||2019 - present|
|Director of Productions|
|Chief Executive and Artistic Director|
|David Pountney||2015 - 2019|
|Leonora Thomson||2015 to 2019|