Welsh National Opera – Then

26 April 2021

When Welsh National Opera first came into being, bombing campaigns, loss of life and injury, shortages and rationing meant times were hard for people. And yet, a small group of visionary artists wanted to forge a national opera company befitting Wales’ rich heritage as the ‘Land of Song’. The Company’s formation is rooted in the spirit of 1940s Wales and reflected the post-war ideals of democracy and equality. We take a look at its early days:

In 1943 the Welsh National Opera Company was founded with Idloes Owen as Musical Director and a year later the very first rehearsal with 60 amateur singers, musicians and students took place in a Methodist chapel. The singers of the voluntary Chorus came from all over south and west Wales: miners, colliery workers, shop workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, solicitors and secretaries.

1944 saw the first concert of opera excerpts performed by the new amateur Welsh National Opera Company at the Empire Theatre, Cardiff and then in 1946 the first fully staged operas were performed by WNOC at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Cardiff. The first performance was the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, followed by Gounod’s Faust the next night. It is from this first performance date on 15 April that we mark WNO’s ‘birthday’.

The Company was almost entirely amateur at that point: its singers and a small ‘scratch’ orchestra was formed by local musicians, some coming from the BBC Players. The first performances were a truly company-wide effort, on and off stage, with help from friends and families. The volunteer chorus were sewing their own costumes. Scenery was hired from London.

Local Cardiff businessman, Bill Smith, became the Company’s Business Manager, Norman Jones was hired as producer, and Peggy Moreland as Administrator.

The amateur nature of the founding years was very much dependent on the enthusiasm of the volunteer singers, Idloes Owen’s ambition and persuasive skills and everyone in the Company multi-tasking.

Artistically, if not financially, the Welsh National Opera Company’s first performances were greeted with enthusiasm and commitment by audiences and critics. There was no doubt that the Company would return the following year.

By 1948 Bill Smith, now Chairman of the Welsh National Opera Company, recognised the need for the Company to become financially stable to achieve its aims. And so WNOC became a limited company. Smith’s rationale stands as the solid foundation and mission of WNO from the 1940s right up to the present day: 

for the promotion and presentation of opera in Wales and elsewhere, and to contribute to the musical, cultural and educational life of our community