WNO - The 1950s

18 May 2021

As Welsh National Opera started to grow following its early success, 1950 saw new, young talent in all areas of the Company, based on recommendations given to Bill Smith on his trips to Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden. A precursor to WNO’s commitment to supporting the next generation of artists that continues to this day. The number of permanent staff increased and the idea to design and build sets and make costumes was pushed for by Bill, WNO’s Business Manager. WNO began to spread its wings further across our home nation and broadened its reach into parts of England. By the end of the 1950s it became one of the UK’s national musical institutions, able to hold its head-up alongside established London companies.

The decade saw many operas new to the repertoire, plus a world premiere. The 1950 Season included two new titles, The Tales of Hoffman and Die Fledermaus at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Cardiff. 

The former marked Charles Mackerras’ first conducting job outside Sadler’s Wells (and the start of a long relationship with WNO). The Season also included performances of Faust and The Bartered Bride. Later that year we took the same titles, plus Madam Butterfly, for a two-week run at Swansea’s Empire Theatre.

During 1951 WNO visited both Aberystwyth and Llandudno for the first time. As an amateur company this meant that many of the Chorus and crew had to take time off from their paid jobs, so they took their families with them to combine the tour dates with annual holidays! At the Llanrwst Eisteddfod, we gave a concert performance of Cavalleria rusticana in Welsh that was a triumph.

1952 saw us perform in the Sophia Gardens Pavilion, a repurposed aircraft hangar in Cardiff. A new title, a production of Nabucco, was directed by John Moody who was given temporary release from the Arts Council, where he was Drama Director, to do so. It was the first production to be made fully in-house. Va, pensiero began its long, acclaimed, association with WNO Chorus. 

April 1953 saw us perform in England for the first time, at Bournemouth Pavilion (receiving nine curtain calls for Nabucco!) and Manchester’s Palace Theatre. In June, Bill Smith’s hard work in bringing WNO to national significance, was recognised with a CBE. We ended the year with our Cardiff run and the world premiere of Menna by Welsh composer Arwel Hughes, based on the Welsh legend about Menna and Gwyn, her husband-to-be.

1953 also saw the launch of the first ‘Friends’ scheme, partly set up with the hope of raising money to establish a training school for young singers.

WNO founder, Idloes Owen died on 3 July 1954 after a long illness, convinced to the end that WNO must continue. 1 November marked our inaugural season at Cardiff’s New Theatre. We opened with our first production of The Sicilian Vespers.

London was added to the tour schedule for July 1955, with a week’s run at Sadler’s Wells needing extra special dispensation from Equity to allow the professional singers to appear on a London stage with the amateur Chorus.

The summer of 1957 saw our return to Llandudno but, due to The Grand Theatre’s closure, to a new venue, the Odeon. The year also saw our first run at the Swansea Grand, despite it being under threat of demolition. This meant that the following year it wasn’t bookable, so we only performed in Llandudno and Cardiff in 1958.

By 1959 we resumed a more regular touring schedule, with Swansea and Cardiff runs in the Spring followed by Autumn runs in Llandudno and Cardiff. The Cardiff Season opened with a new production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night – WNO’s first Russian opera.

As the decade closed, WNO’s future was under financial threat – Bill Smith had even told conductor Warwick Braithwaite to announce on opening night that it was the company’s last season. He refused. WNO lived on.