Interview: WNO bring Blaze of Glory to Birmingham
Next week Welsh National Opera (WNO) will bring two brand new productions to the Birmingham Hippodrome stage; The Magic Flute and Blaze of Glory!
Ahead of their visit to the city Diane Parkes spoke to the team behind Blaze of Glory! to find out more about the opera which celebrates the Land of Song. Have a read of her interview below.
Blaze of Glory is a new opera created and set in South Wales and tells the tale of a male voice choir’s determination to succeed despite the odds and pays tribute to the musical traditions and close-knit neighbourhoods of the Valleys.
Written by Emma Jenkins and directed by Caroline Clegg, the same team who created WNO’s Rhondda Rips It Up!, the new production turns the spotlight firmly on the region’s former mining communities and their characters.
“We wanted to look at the Welsh mining community and the tradition of the male voice choir and not just from the men’s perspective but from the whole community’s point of view,” says Caroline.
“It is set post-war in 1957 when male voice choirs played a major part in mining communities. Our story begins after a tragic mining disaster, some of the choir members were lost and the choir has been disbanded, there is rumour of pits closing and morale is at an all-time low.”
But, with the encouragement of pianist Miss Nerys Price, miner Dafydd Pugh is persuaded to take up his baton once again and convince the old guard committee to form a Glee choir. Auditions take place, a kidnapping escapade is planned, and the men set their sights on competing once again at the local and national Eisteddfods.
Blaze of Glory! explores not only the role of the choirs in their towns and villages but also the changes taking place at the time.
“The hierarchy in the colliery, the patriarchy in the community and the established traditions of their beloved choirs were all important,” says Caroline. “The choirs offered a source of pride and ownership of a rich cultural history, and any rule changes were considered tampering with the way things had always been done, so it is with great trepidation that the committee is approached.
“And then there are the fun and formidable women, subtly encouraging the way forward as only women knew how to at that time! Joining Miss Price and the girls from the textile mill we have Bronwen, Blodwen and Branwen, part narrator, part Wales’ answer to the Beverley Sisters, our own little Greek chorus who link our stories together.
“Blaze is a celebration of song and the highs and lows of community life,” says Caroline. “It’s an inspiring look at the antics of an intrepid bunch of men willing to go the extra mile to win despite the harsh life they faced.
“Mining communities experienced disasters and lived with life-and-death work every day but they rarely talked about it. Blaze pays tribute to those communities with a gentle nostalgia and with tongue firmly in cheek!
“Through song and humour, sadness is managed and we revel in the men and women’s collective hope.
Of enormous importance to all the local choirs and miners is the relationship they had with American singer and black activist Paul Robeson who marched in solidarity with the miners in 1926 and sang in Wales several times. The production includes a recording of Robeson in the live transatlantic link between New York and Porthcawl on October 5 in 1957 at the Miners’ Eisteddfod when he also sang with the Treorchy Male Voice Choir.
“It wasn’t just Paul Robeson’s singing that connected them,” Caroline explains. “Mr Robeson believed there was great affinity between the struggle of the enslaved black Americans and the miners in their struggle for decent pay who were working in all but slave-like conditions. He was a powerful and wonderful ally for them and vice versa.
“Despite his previous visits the American government at that time wouldn’t allow him a passport to come to Wales so a live link was arranged instead and we are very grateful to the National Union of Miners for allowing us to use the original recording.”
The creative team were also keen to involve today’s male voice choirs so at each performance the WNO chorus is joined by local choristers, with the City of Birmingham Male Voice Choir singing at Birmingham Hippodrome.
“Having the choirs involved was paramount,” says Caroline. “From day one we said the production had to involve members of the community as an integral part of the production because it’s their story.
“The choirs welcome the audience in the foyer and sing with the WNO chorus so the audiences will experience a great swell of sound. It has been three years since many choirs have been able to come together and having so many join us is a real honour and an experience the WNO cast are really looking forward to. I hope the audiences will enjoy feeling they are a part of the show and share in the thrill of song.”
The City of Birmingham Male Voice Choir brings together members of the Birmingham Icknield Male Voice Choir and Birmingham Canoldir Male Choir. With choristers ranging from university students to members in their nineties, the group is looking forward to being part of the show.
And although the show is firmly set in Wales, Caroline says the love of community singing and its universal themes means it will resonate for audiences elsewhere.
“Singing together brings out the indomitable spirit in all of us and post-lockdown as we all regain our confidence it will go from strength to strength because we all need to feel connected to each other more than ever as technology takes over.
“I would urge non-opera-goers and opera-goers alike to give Blaze a go. Blaze of Glory! is a little bit of a hybrid and if you have never been to an opera then this is for you! The music is a delightful mix with influences from the Big Band Swing era, Lindy Hopping, Gospel, and glorious traditional Welsh hymns like Canon Lán and Llanfair. You will definitely go home with a song in your heart.
“The heart and soul of this piece is community, solidarity and friendship – it is a real feel-good show and that is something to celebrate post-lockdown, whatever your background.”
Blaze of Glory! comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on Saturday 6 May and plays alongside The Magic Flute from Wednesday 3 – Friday 5 May. Tickets can be booked at www.birminghamhippodrome.com or by calling 0844 338 5000*
*0844 calls will cost you 4.5p per minute plus your phone company’s access charge.