The People of WNO - In the beginning

13 December 2021

Welsh National Opera was created by people who wanted to celebrate Wales’ love of singing. The Company thrives 75 years on due to the efforts of countless individuals – in a three-part series, we take a look at some of those who have been instrumental in the development of the organisation.

In 1943 Conductor Idloes Owen proposed the founding of an opera company. Born in Merthyr Vale, Owen was able to follow his passion for music after illness forced him to leave the mines where his father and brothers worked. After moving to Cardiff, he developed a reputation as one of the finest singing teachers in Wales with Geraint Evans one of his notable pupils. After gathering a group of music lovers at his home, he led the formation of what became Welsh National Opera – at the time comprising members of the old Cardiff Grand Opera Company, the BBC Welsh Singers and the Lyrian singers. Owen, as Musical Director, conducted the first performance, Cavalleria rusticana, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Cardiff – the cast included Robert Tear who launched his career in this production. Owen remained Musical Director of the Company until his death in 1954. A blue plaque celebrating his life can be seen at his home in Station Road, Llandaff North.

Owen’s Chorus Master was Swansea singer and Conductor Ivor John (pictured). When Idloes was taken ill in April 1945, he called upon Ivor to take over from him training the Chorus. Ivor travelled to Cardiff, listened in on a rehearsal and immediately stepped in to help. He went on to conduct the second opera performance by the Company the following year – Faust – also singing the lead role two nights later. His career continued with Opera Scotland and the Royal Carl Rosa Opera Company among others.

In the following years, numerous people contributed to the growth of WNO including Music Directors Frederick Berend who also conducted for Rambert in the same period); Warwick Braithwaite, who returned from his native New Zealand to take up the role and became known for a range of interesting and little known and repertoire; and James Lockhart, who appeared on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs during his time with the Company. Business Manager Bill Smith, who would travel to numerous productions across the country to discover a new generation of singers, also had a significant impact on WNO in the early days.