The People of WNO - International Success

15 December 2021

We continue our look at the people who have contributed to the success of Welsh National Opera over the years and as the Company progressed through the decades, the ambitions grew.

From 1976 – 1985, Welsh National Opera had success around the world with productions created by dynamic European directors. The organisation at this point was led by Richard Armstrong, (Music Director); Brian McMaster (Managing Director) and Nicholas Payne (Financial Controller). Among others, they worked with Peter Stein, Joachim Herz and Harry Kupfer on repertoire including Verdi, Wagner, Janáček, Strauss, Berg and Britten. Under Armstrong’s tenure, the Company performed the first Ring cycle in Wales, and a series of five Janáček operas. In recognition of his services to the art of Janáček, the Janáček Society awarded him the Janáček Medal in 1978 (an honour also given to former WNO Artistic Director David Pountney). In a 2010 interview (with he says ‘I knew in my bones that when I started to conduct, Janáček would be on the list. I became Music Director of Welsh National Opera in 1973, and one of the first things I did was to schedule Jenůfa in '75. That was the start of my conducting of the composer.'

Janáček's Jenůfa, 1975Pauline Tinsley (The Kostelnicka), Gregory Dempsey (Steva), Menai Davies (Buryja). 

Brian McMaster joined the Company in 1976, following three years at English National Opera. He was recommended to then Chairman Lord Davies of Llandinam as someone who ‘had a real flair for opera’. He brought his experience, and passion for European theatrical productions to Cardiff – not all without controversy (the 1984 Don Giovanni was a testing time for the leadership team). He left WNO in 1991 to run the Edinburgh International Festival.

During this period Charles Mackerras conducted the UK premiere of Martinů’s The Greek Passion (pictured) having first been brought into WNO by Idloes Owen’s business partner Bill Smith in 1950 to conduct The Tales of Hoffman. His long-standing connection with the Company included a period as Director from 1987 to 1992 where he won praise for his Janáček work. A notable highlight of this period was in 1991 and the reopening of the Estates Theatre in Prague where Mackerras conducted a new Don Giovanni to mark the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. As Conductor Emeritus, his successes included Tristan und Isolde, The Yeomen of the Guard (the first ever production of Gilbert & Sullivan to be performed at the Royal Opera House), and La Clemenza di Tito.

Director Harry Kupfer made his UK debut with Richard Strauss’ Elektra for WNO in 1978, a production that divided the critics although the cast was widely praised, and it featured the largest Orchestra used by the Company up to this point (85 players). Kupfer’s strained relationship with the press continued and his production of Fidelio set in a modern prison again polarised opinion according to Richard Fawkes in his book Welsh National Opera ‘no other WNO production…caused such discussion among audiences as to what the opera actually meant’.

German theatre and opera director Peter Stein, who McMaster brought to Wales, gave us the Ring cycle – the first to be produced by a regional British opera company. His other great triumphs included Falstaff and an iconic production of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1992 conducted by Pierre Boulez, featuring live sheep. WNO staff member Sally Bird remembers ‘When the production went to France, they wouldn’t allow original sheep Blodwen into the country, so a substitute (Twopence) had to be brought in at short notice!’