WNO - The 1980s

24 August 2021

The 1980s began with Welsh National Opera continuing to develop under the leadership of Brian McMaster, Richard Armstrong and Nicholas Payne, who were renowned for bringing directors from across Europe to work with the Company. During this decade, Handel (Rodelinda, 1981) and Martinů (WNO being the first British company to stage The Greek Passion in 1981 in a production that featured live goats!) were added to the Company's repertoire. In 1983 Das Rheingold was staged in WNO’s  first Ring Cycle which continued over the following two years and when WNO took it to the Royal Opera House it was the first time it been performed there by a Company from outside London.

1980 saw the Company make an historic tour behind the Iron Curtain, taking in East Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig with productions of Ernani, The Turn of the Screw and Elektra. This was part of an exchange whereby Leipzig Oper and Gewandhaus Orchestra brought Joachim Herz’s productions of Xerxes (Handel) and Titus aka La Clemenza di Tito (Mozart) to Cardiff and Birmingham. WNO’s visit to Germany was incredibly popular, with tickets selling out in one day, and record-breaking ovations at each performance which led one Company member to liken it to a pop concert.

William Mathias’ only opera The Servants had its world premiere in 1980 – WNO had been keen for Mathias to write an opera for 10 years and he was struck by the operatic opportunities of Iris Murdoch’s play (The Servants and the Snow) when he heard it on the radio in 1974. The opera itself was not critically acclaimed, however individual singers were widely praised. 1980 also saw the debut of David Pountney’s much-loved production of The Cunning Little Vixen (recently seen as part of our 2019/2020 Season).

In 1984 Cardiff Theatrical Services (CTS) was established to build all of WNO’s sets. CTS is now internationally renowned as well as being one of the UK’s leading set makers, producing work for some of the world’s top opera, theatre and ballet companies.

In the middle of the decade WNO made its first visit to Theatre Royal Plymouth, now an established venue in our touring pattern, and we also saw the closure of the Southampton Gaumont for refurbishment – the theatre reopened under the name we now know it, Mayflower Theatre.

Sir Charles Mackerras became musical director in 1986 after Richard Armstrong ended his 13 year tenure. Mackerras would remain in this role for six years. During this period he won particular praise for his Janáček productions.

The decade closed with a tour of Falstaff that took in Tokyo, Milan and New York – a continuation of the international touring that was developed in the previous decade and which is just as important to the Company today.