Welsh National Opera has over half a century’s connection to Bristol, having toured there since Spring 1968, to The Bristol Hippodrome (Frank Matcham’s last theatre designed before his retirement) right from the start. It was also the last venue we performed at before Covid lockdown, when WNO Conductor Laureate Carlo Rizzi, during the curtain call on the last performance (Les vêpres siciliennes, Sat 14 March 2020), joined elbows with the principal singers instead of holding hands, resulting in a laugh from the audience – who at that point knew how long it would last?
Our first season in Bristol opened with a production of Carmen, unfortunately without any programmes available as they didn’t get delivered in time for opening night. Running from 25 March to 6 April 1968, the run also included The Barber of Seville (which we have performed there in a total of 16 different seasons before this Autumn’s upcoming run), Rigoletto, Nabucco and Don Giovanni. Extra vehicles were needed for the new touring schedule and even so, it still took several trips between Cardiff and Bristol to get all the sets and scenery to the theatre!
1977 saw us return to The Bristol Hippodrome for an Autumn run, the first year we took two Seasons, and with a wide repertoire: Spring included Il trovatore, The Barber of Seville, The Midsummer Marriage, I Masnadieri and Orpheus in the Underworld. Then in Autumn: The Pearl Fishers, Rigoletto, The Queen of Spades, I Masnadieri again, and Billy Budd. But that was nothing compared with 1979 when Bristol was one of the venues we toured to three times, and with the newly renamed Orchestra of Welsh National Opera in the Autumn Season.
So far our Bristol tally amounts to: 122 tours of 611 performances, up to and including Spring 2020. The last time we toured The Barber of Seville to Bristol, in Act Two of the 15 March 2016 performance, our show report stated: ‘Basilio’s dog broke off his lead during the Quintet. Miss Booth gave Mr Wiegold [Basilio] the dog, without the lead, and he carried it around the set, bumping into the walls with great effect. Dog fixed for the Finale’. The year before our run was affected by horses on the A48, delaying many cast and crew… isn’t there a showbiz rule about working with animals?
As one loyal Bristol audience member of over 52 years believes: ‘The stage of the Hippodrome would be the largest you use and therefore the productions look better in Bristol than on many smaller stages… The fact that there is no Orchestra Pit means that the Orchestral sound is better in Bristol than in many of your other venues.’
Alongside our main stage opera performances, our community work has played an important role in building relationships too. Many will have grown up having perhaps first experienced WNO through our Orchestra’s performances of Christmas classics like The Snowman at Bristol Beacon (previously called Colston Hall); or perhaps they took part in the many schools’ workshops we have run over the years; or our collaborations with organisations like Bristol Choral Society, Bristol Schools Music Society, Bristol Plays Music, including many projects with Bristol Sings.
There have also been talks and smaller performances at St George’s; our regular audio described performances preceded by a touch tour; and of course, we can’t finish off without mentioning the strong commitment of our band of Bristol Friends.