In 2012, Welsh National Opera commissioned a new, bilingual opera from composer Pwyll ap Siôn and poet Menna Elfyn. The result was Gair ar Gnawd (‘Word on Flesh’): a piece which puts the community centre stage in telling the story of two very different people who find they must overcome their prejudices and work together to defeat a threat from a greedy property developer. At the opera’s heart lies the struggle between tradition and innovation, and the challenges faced by individuals and communities in grappling with social change.
A new production, directed by Angharad Lee, will premiere in Llanelli at Y Ffwrnes, this Saturday, April 18, to be broadcast on S4C on Saturday April 25 (with a documentary about the opera broadcast on Wednesday April 22), and preceded by a schools’ matinee Friday April 17 .* It features a 40-strong Llanelli-based community choir performing alongside WNO soloists, supported by a semi-chorus of eight young Welsh singers aged 18 – 26, found through auditions held by WNO’s Youth Opera in Cardiff and Caernarfon.
For this staging, Pwyll has composed additional music. Ahead of rehearsals, Steph Power visited him at Bangor University, where he is a Professor of Music, to find out more. They spoke about the story and spirit of Gair ar Gnawd; how it came about, and how his opera opens a window on a range of issues pertinent to life in modern-day Wales and beyond.
Gair ar Gnawd was commissioned, and premiered by Welsh National Opera in 2012, as an opera/oratorio. But I understand you’ve revised the piece for its Llanelli performances. Will there will be a fuller staging?
Yes, when it was done the first time round, we had limited resources, so, although there was a sort of set with props and so on, it was essentially a static type of staging. But now, with further investment, we have a proper, specially-designed set, and people can say with confidence that it’s an opera rather than an oratorio. But then, in the early stages we were also just a bit tentative about using the word ‘opera’ as it’s often associated with something grand and on a big scale with lots of different elements and forces involved.
Yes. Thankfully people are now also seeing, I think, that opera comes in all shapes and sizes, and can utilise all sorts of diverse resources and settings.
And an opera’s length can vary from literally a few minutes to several hours, so it’s a very flexible term. Gair ar Gnawd is about an hour long.
How did the opera come about initially? You’ve set a text by the renowned Welsh poet Menna Elfyn.
Menna and I were approached by Rhian Hutchings, then project leader for WNO Max, in around 2010-11 to create a bilingual opera/oratorio. So we got together, and the starting point was the translation of the Bible into Welsh; Menna had done some interesting research into the background of William Morgan, who made that first translation in 1588. He led a colourful life for someone who’s now remembered for translating the Bible, and slept with a gun beneath his pillow! Menna was keen to incorporate his life into some kind of story, but in the end we decided to do something more contemporary, bring the story up to date.
There are two main characters in the opera. One is a kind of present-day William Morgan; a man who’s translating the Bible into minority languages. So there’s actually a little bit of Maltese in the opera as well as Welsh.
There’s Hindi too isn’t there? And the opera’s title translates literally into English as ‘Word on Flesh’ – so words are clearly key.
Yes, Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and so the opera has both smaller and larger languages. And words are important to both main characters in different ways. The second main character is a female tattoo artist. When words are tattooed onto skin, they can take on an almost religious iconography and symbolism. Of course, going back to ancient times, tattooing’s always been an integral part of certain cultures – the Māori in New Zealand and so on.
How do you explore these ideas in the piece? What’s the story?
The two main characters, Anwar and Awen, work in an arts centre. They’ve never met as they have separate rooms, where he works on his translations and she works as a tattooist. But the building is threatened by businessmen who plan to turn it into a casino, and they happen to meet in a state of angry panic about their eviction. Initially they’re very suspicious of each other because they come from very different backgrounds and they disagree on a number of points. But they realise the only way they’re going to overcome the forces of globalisation that are trying to take over the building is to unite and to pressurise local councillors into seeing it from their side. So there’s the idea of materialistic elements impinging on the lives of these people and the whole question of standing by your principles and the things you value – whether you’re a tattooist or a translator of the Bible.
So the subject is relevant to contemporary local concerns everywhere. You’ve got issues of identity and change, community cohesion, threats from outside forces: lots there that people will have experienced in everyday life.
Yes, and the whole idea of cultural domination and interaction. How cultures and languages can co-exist with different viewpoints. Anwen and Awen are very different at the beginning of the opera, and they remain very different throughout – at the end, there’s no easy resolution between them. But they go through a process of re-evaluating themselves in relation to the other person, and hopefully end up with a more open mind, and the ability to recognise diversity and be tolerant of other beliefs and views and values.
How does that work dramatically? Can you say something about how the text and the music work together?
Rhian had said she wanted the opera to be bilingual. I think there’s probably a little bit more Welsh than English in it but when it’s performed in Llanelli there’ll be surtitles. So it’ll be possible to follow in both languages – because we have surtitles for operas in English too of course!
Yes, even at English National Opera, where they sing every opera in English – whether it’s the original language or in translation! But language itself seems to be at the heart of your opera, and of course the bilingual aspect, too, reflects many people’s everyday life in Wales.
Inevitably, especially these days. I think a lot of Welsh speakers mix Welsh and English – there’s a sort of fusion of languages going on. You get it in pop music too. There are bands like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci [1991-2006] who went to Welsh language schools but came from English language backgrounds, so it was perfectly natural for them to swap from one language to the other – and they played on some of those ideas in their songs. They had an album called Bwyd Time which means ‘Food Time’, so there’s a codal mixing going on.
There’s an element of that in the opera. The two main characters generally sing in Welsh but a lot of the chorus parts are sung in English. The opera starts with a setting of the St John’s Bible ‘In the beginning was the word’ sung in both languages one after the other. So in that sense the translation is already there in the setting. There are points where Welsh and English appear next to each other, and separate numbers sung in either language.
Do you approach the languages differently at all in the way you set them?
Not consciously, because over the years I’ve set things in both Welsh and English. But the two languages do work quite differently really, and sometimes it is difficult to set the same text in both to the same music.
How did you arrive at the format? There’s a big community choir involved I see, and also a semi-chorus.
Actually the semi-chorus is a new element for the new production. In the first production the level of experience and musical ability for the community chorus was very wide; some had never sung before, and some were really semi-professional, so it was a real mix. So I had to bear that in mind when I was composing. This time, the new semi-chorus comprises student singers from conservatoires – the Guildhall, Royal Northern and so on. They’re not just talented but motivated and keen to be involved. So I’ve composed some additional music for this second production and what I’ve written now is maybe a bit more challenging because the goal posts have shifted a little. But the style is still very direct.
You’ve written books on minimalism, on Michael Nyman and so on. Also, as a composer, you’ve talked about being influenced by minimalists such as Philip Glass and John Adams (as they’re often still described). Actually for this opera you’ve spoken of wanting to ‘combine the spirit of Monteverdi with minimalism’, which sounds intriguing. Could you expand on that?
Well, I think opera tries to capture the essence of things in different ways: the human condition, those sorts of questions. I guess that would have been at the root of what the early opera composers were trying to do, thinking back to Monteverdi and his opera Orfeo. They were also looking back to Greek mythology themselves in creating this new form. So I suppose I’d like to think my opera engages with some of those issues, but clearly using stylistic features which are more associated with present-day operatic practice.
It’s difficult for any opera composer these days to write an opera without thinking about Glass and Adams: Glass because he’s written so many, and Adams because his operas have proved so powerful and so popular. Not that I’m suggesting that this is on the same scale! Actually what’s interesting about Glass is that his operatic language has gone down one of two main strands really: of chamber operas and grand operas. I suppose I was thinking a little bit along the lines of his chamber operas.
Glass calls them ‘pocket operas’, which I think is a lovely term.
Yes, easy to carry around: to transport and to tour. So many grand operas are staged then forgotten about, never performed again, or very rarely. Which hopefully is different for pocket operas and for community operas.
Picking up your point about looking back to the Greeks, I found myself wondering whether your choruses have a function akin to a Greek chorus at any point, as a kind of witness or commentator within the narrative? What role or roles do they play?
In talking about her production, our director, Angharad Lee, describes the semi-chorus in particular in terms of peeling layers from an onion; the characters have different characters within themselves, which get revealed as layers peel away. And I think the chorus does function a little bit like that. It’s chameleon-like and changes according to the situation. Sometimes they represent the businessmen, sometimes they’re the councillors, sometimes they sympathise with Anwar and Awen, sometimes they question what their motives are. So yes they play a number of roles at different times.
Does that bring us back to language in the sense of shifting dialogues within the piece?
Yes and there’s a complexity there. In any bilingual society it’s very easy to start thinking in black and white, in terms of opposites. But I think we live in an age where distinctions are far more blurred and it’s finding a happy medium that’s difficult. Even writing this opera it was difficult finding a medium that’s between using the two languages and trying to allow them to lie comfortably with one another. I think that was the idea that Rhian had in mind originally. That sense of conflict but also of resolution that’s there on a linguistic as well as a dramatic level in the opera.
I’m aware that, all her life, Menna has been an activist on various fronts, most famously perhaps with the Welsh language. So I wonder how much of that, if anything, you share, and whether that comes through the opera at all?
The opera isn’t intended to present a political viewpoint as such – well it certainly wasn’t our intention to do that, although people might read that into it. Yes, Menna’s been involved with Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society) and actually my Mum was on that first ever protest, in 1963, on the Trefechan Bridge in Aberyswyth – strangely enough she was a student at the time, at Bangor University [where Pwyll is a Professor of Music]!
The Welsh language and the history of the protest movement in Wales is very associated with Welsh liberalism really, and with universities, and Menna’s a part of that history. It’s quite different in Scotland I think; the Scottish National Party is more based on principals defining the labour and socialist movements, whereas in Wales, before Plaid Cymru was founded as a political party, a lot of those people were liberals. So, it didn’t come so much from the Valleys; well, the Welsh heartland is really – or used to be – in the countryside, the rural areas, farming communities and so on.
I’ve never been actively involved in any protest movement but it is associated in some ways with – well I wouldn’t want to say intellectuals, that sounds wrong! But just think about someone like Meredydd Evans who passed away recently; a wonderful ambassador for Welsh music, especially in terms of ethnomusicology in Wales [see this piece by Sarah Hill, written before Merêd passed away in February this year, aged 95]. He was a very staunch language campaigner who had also studied philosophy at Princeton University in America. So I think he typifies to an extent that kind of strand within Welsh culture that’s been there really since the turn of the 20th century.
Which seems, from what you’re saying, to be about looking outwards as well as inwards?
I’d like to think so, yes, because that’s what the whole liberal movement is about. I think there are often two forms of nationalism: an inward-looking one and an outward-looking one. And maybe that’s another site of conflict or tension, which is there in Wales as it is in other parts of society and other parts of the world.
Especially other places where people are finding their identity under threat from global forces which run roughshod over things that have been held dear for generations.
Yes. Or those societies that have established themselves over centuries then find themselves changing due to ethnography. How people deal with that is complex. You think of somewhere like Cardiff which is so multicultural really, but in a very positive way on the whole. But there are other cities where those tensions are apparent – people are finding it difficult to coexist. Maybe there’s no clear answer or true resolution to some of those issues.
But these are important issues to find ourselves discussing in relation to your opera!
Yes! If the opera ends up doing that then I’m more than happy because the opera is about so much more than the music. If it enables people to talk about their lives and the world around them and see it in a different light through the experience of opera, maybe that goes back to Monteverdi and to what he and other composers had in mind many centuries ago!
Yes. Opera has always existed on lots of levels, from fantasy and entertainment, to deep, conscious engagement with the world.
There was a time when classical or art music – whatever you want to call it – was losing touch with audiences. But I think it’s reassuring these days to see that a number of operatic productions are being very well attended. And hopefully minimalism as a style – whatever that means and whatever off-shoots resulted from it – has in some way brought a kind of change, since minimalism has one foot in art music and one foot in the vernacular.
I’m not a big fan of musicals – I find a lot of musicals draw upon styles that are generic and clichéd – and in Welsh language culture, there’s a certain kind of musical theatre that’s considered to be this wonderful medium. I find that quite difficult to buy into, so I’d like to think this opera is not a musical for a start! But it isn’t an opera in the sense that a lot of contemporary opera is, of having a highly dissonant language, or of being uncompromising on a number of levels which may be impenetrable to a lot of people. Hopefully it will communicate and will have a positive impact on people – they’ll be able to relate to it.
Well I believe the opera went down extremely well when it was performed in Caenarfon in 2012! Many thanks, Pwyll, and best of luck for Llanelli and the broadcast.
* Gair ar Gnawd will be performed at Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli, on Saturday 18 April at 7pm, and on Friday 17 April there will be a closed matinee performance for local schools at 1.15pm.
The full production and a 30-minute documentary about the project will be broadcast on S4C the week following the live performance. Filmed by Rondo Media, the documentary will follow the cast and directors from auditions through the rehearsal process and the final performances.
Photographs of Community Chorus members by Jeni Clegg.