Welsh National Opera has a long tradition of performing in England, in addition to its homeland, and for a long time Birmingham has been considered the Company’s English home. With a wide range of activity happening in and around the city, thousands of people are experiencing WNO through our operas, concerts, education and community work.
The first visit dates back to 1968, and a season of six operas at the Alexandra Theatre (launching WNO’s first major English tour) where the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra accompanied the performance. The Welsh Tourist Board, recognising the impact made in England, gave Welsh National Opera its annual award for the organisation which had done most during the year to enhance the prestige of Wales abroad. We continued to perform at the Alexandra until 1971, with Sinfonia of Wales and Welsh Philharmonia playing for us in the final two years. Our first visit to the Hippodrome, where we still perform today, was in November 1971 with The Magic Flute, Boris Godunov, Aida and Lulu. Beginning with annual visits, we gradually built to four seasons per year by the end of the 1970s. During this time WNO had a member of staff based at the Hippodrome, arranging ancillary activities. More recently, we have taken Spring and Autumn Seasons to the Hippodrome, with occasional Summer visits, and additional events happening elsewhere across the region.
Coming fully up to date WNO once again has a member of staff, from our Programmes and Engagement team, based in the city co-ordinating a number of community projects. In 2018 we set up a Youth Opera group for 8 – 14 year olds which meets weekly at the Lighthouse Young People’s Centre; there is also ongoing work with the refugee community and a newly created concert for young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties which is due to be expanded to further schools in the coming months. Younger audiences have also enjoyed our Family Concerts at Birmingham Town Hall.
Additionally, WNO Orchestra has developed an ongoing relationship with Birmingham Conservatoire, operating side-by-side projects where students can join members of the Orchestra in the pit at some performances to play alongside WNO musicians as well as receiving mentoring and other opportunities during their training.
In recent years, we expanded our medium-scale opera performances to other venues – with Rhondda Rips It Up! and Don Pasquale playing to sold-out audiences at mac (Midlands Arts Centre) and we had been due to perform a new production of Così fan tutte at Birmingham Repertory Theatre before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the tour in 2020.
Our Autumn 2021 Season includes The Barber of Seville which was actually one of the titles performed as part of the first tour to Birmingham in 1968, with two performances featuring as part of that Season. We look forward to a whole new generation of West Midlands audiences enjoying Figaro and his adventures.