WNO – The 1970s

20 July 2021

We take a look at the 1970s in this next instalment of our series exploring WNO through the decades.

Our repertoire expanded to include our first co-production and a number of premieres. Michael Geliot, Welsh National Opera’s Director of Productions, stated in 1970 that ‘We shall take risks with our productions, and possibly even diabolical liberties – but I hope we won’t be dull. Our aim will be to make you go to Wales to see the best in modern opera production.’ The decade featured the debut of our much-loved Joachim Herz production of Madam Butterfly in 1978 along with a new production of The Magic Flute in 1979 which gave Göran Jӓrvefelt his British operatic directing debut.

Among many new titles, Aida was finally produced in 1971 after over 20 years of requests. Benjamin Britten saw a Norwich performance of 1972’s Billy Budd, claiming ‘it is marvellous’; and we performed Lulu’s British premiere – designed by Ralph Koltai, his first work with WNO. In 1974 the world premiere of Alun Hoddinott’s The Beach of Falesá, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, was written specifically with Geraint Evans in mind; and we held an open rehearsal to allow audiences to see just what goes in to putting on an opera before performing The Flying Dutchman. Jenůfa in 1975 was WNO’s first collaboration with David Pountney and the Company’s first co-production (with Scottish Opera). The following year Die Entführung aus dem Serail featured Willard White’s British debut as Osmin and the operatic debut of Suzanne Murphy as Constanze. Ernani in 1979 saw Maria Björnson team up with Elijah Moshinsky for the first time at WNO – with skirt designs so wide that in Llandudno the singers had to walk to the stage in petticoats and put their skirts on in the wings!

1971 marked the instigation of WNO’s own orchestra, then called the Welsh Philharmonia. Originally only engaged per season, just under 60 players made up the first incarnation. The summer of 1973 saw the orchestra become full-time and play a series of concerts, each opening with a piece by a living Welsh composer: John Metcalf’s Intrada, William Mathias’ Celtic Dances and Hoddinott’s 4th Symphony. The end of that year also saw WNO’s long-standing Voluntary Chorus disbanded.

WNO added new venues and cities to our touring roster, including first visits to several of those on our current tour schedule: Southampton in 1970, with both New Theatre Oxford and Birmingham Hippodrome in 1971, followed by Liverpool Empire in 1976. We also made our first appearance at the Proms (1979). WNO finally became an international company in 1973 when we took Billy Budd to the Lausanne Festival.

The business-side of the Company continued to fluctuate and a documentary, The Beggars Opera?, aired in 1971 as part of a mass public appeal that also included the renaming of the Opera Club as the Friends of the Opera. Lord Eccles, Minister for the Arts called WNO ‘one of the greatest opera companies in the world’. Disaster struck on 29 July 1976 – 25 sets (30 years’ worth of work) were destroyed in a fire attended by over 40 firemen in eight appliances.

The decade ended on a high, with a December run in London which proved just how successful WNO had become, with a huge demand for tickets and Vogue stating that ‘The pace is now being set by the Welsh National Opera, currently top of the British opera league.’