The Shoemaker – A Musical Fusion

10 October 2022

The musical score of Welsh National Opera’s production of The Shoemaker was an assortment of different styles and influences from around the world. The project was highly collaborative, and several musicians worked together to compose the music. We spoke to one of them, Boff Whalley, about what the process was like for creating such an eclectic composition.

Composing for opera has traditionally been a solo activity but this wasn’t the case for The Shoemaker. ‘The music was a collaboration. My part, which was to gather the very different styles of music into a coherent and compelling narrative piece, was the easy bit. I could have written everything myself and it would have been much easier, but so much less rewarding and much less fascinating and wide-ranging.’ The musical collaborators from Oasis Cardiff - an organisation which seeks to give a warm welcome to refugees and asylum seekers in Cardiff - have never made music for opera, and now they have had that opportunity, seeing that it is possible in their own musical language. The main influence of the piece were the participant musicians who brought their ideas and influences from around the world, who then helped and taught me how to fuse everything together. ‘This project came with its unique challenges – mainly logistics; meeting, learning, translating and understanding what we all needed to do.’

One collaboration which is always present in opera is that between the librettist and the composer. In this case, the libretto was written by Sarah Woods and a team of writers from Oasis Cardiff. ‘I know how much care Sarah takes with the writing process and how important it is for her to truly collaborate with the participant writers. When I saw the libretto, the words started to dance in my head.’

Despite the challenges. the whole process of bringing The Shoemakerto life has been an enjoyable one. ‘One of the most important and enjoyable parts of the process is turning the libretto words into lyrical lines -- feeling like the opera is taking shape. Hearing the amazing voices and the incredible orchestra players turning a rough demo into a live piece. Seeing the participant players sitting in with the professional WNO artists and seeing them contribute to a piece, seeing them grow in confidence as they bring their own ideas into this new and challenging situation.’ He went on to say that ‘When the opera ends and the participants relax, we can understand what a beautiful thing we have made, what a wonderful and important story we have helped to tell with music.’

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring composers, Boff said ‘Don’t limit yourself – listen with an enquiring ear, try things you’ve never tried. Get outside your comfort zone. Challenge and change. And above all – make music that you feel is important to the world, music that might help us to understand each other, and in so doing, might make the world a better place.’