Operasonic: Newport Legends

Cath Barton attended the public performance of the full Operasonic: Newport Legends show and reflects on the creation and culmination of the work.

When I was following the development of Operasonic’s Newport Legends over the past few months I was well aware that what I was seeing were only elements of what would eventually come together in what was advertised as “an epic afternoon of opera”. The big question in my mind was to what extent the pieces created by the four groups taking part – pupils from St Woolos, St Michaels RC and Clytha Primary Schools and a community choir from Maindee – would fit together into a meaningful whole.

operasonicEach of the four component pieces had had a different composer and director/drama leader. I had seen in my observation of rehearsals that all those leading the groups were very skilled in this work. And while they had their different styles, there was a coherence in the final performance, due above all to the linking music written by Errollyn Wallen. Her use of ostinato motifs in the instrumentation – for piano, double bass, clarinet/saxophone and percussion – gave an easy flow to the interludes between the pieces. Errollyn and Operasonic Creative Director Rhian Hutchings had worked together to produce a libretto for the linking story of a present-day property developer who wants to tear down Newport’s St Woolos Cathedral, and a woman he meets who tells him:

“You say you’re a legend, but you know nothing.

Newport is full of legends.

Past and present.

That cannot be concreted over.”

Professional singers Adam Jondelius and Philippa Reeves not only took on the roles of these two characters, but also sang alongside the children in their legends. In St Michaels Primary’s Legend of the Flood Adam was the narrator of the story of the woman in the tower waiting for her fisherman husband, while the children acted and sang as a chorus. Particularly powerful in this legend was the onomatopoeic section where the children told the story of the families drowning, their wave-like actions reinforcing the sounds they were making:

“Whoosh Shhh

Hush hush splash drip drop”

All credit to composer Helen Woods and drama leader Rhian Hutchings in identifying and building on the ways in which this young group could be enabled to feel comfortable on stage.

The Legend of Tom Prothero – Clytha Primary School

Adam also took the pivotal role in Clytha Primary’s Legend of Tom Prothero, a retelling of the story of the Chartists in Newport. Adam’s powerful stage presence and singing clearly galvanised the children in their opposing groups of rich and poor, who moved and sang with energy and purpose. Jessica Craig and Junior Bowen stepped out of the chorus with great assurance into solo roles. The group as a whole relished composer Richard Barnard’s strong melodies, particularly the repeated Tom Prothero motif, and had obviously gained confidence under Hannah Noone’s direction.

The group from St Woolos Primary was a small one, and even smaller on the day of the performance when several children were unable to attend. Director – and singer with them – Philippa Reeves told me afterwards that the children had not been fazed by the necessary last-minute changes. It was a clever and unifying device to have them (literally) pass the mantle (a red coat) of the central character Jackie one to another. I knew from the rehearsal just how much these children had contributed to the words of Stacey Blythe’s songs for Twmbarlwm Legend. In the performance they were both chorus and individual characters, dealing with persuasive conviction with the twists of the story of Jackie’s quest to find his way home from the mountain.

Maindee Legends

Maindee Legends, performed by a Community Choir brought together for this show, provided a counterpoint to the property developer’s plan, telling of the strength of local groups in the Maindee area of Newport, centred on a church that did actually have to come down and the fellowship that survived. Again, catchy melodies, here from composer Jack White, carried the story, while Polly Graham provided a strong text and got the group moving with purpose from being individuals to forming a community. Vocal support was given by singer Claire Watkins.

The opera was considerably enhanced by the contributions of the creative team: graphics and animation by Webber Design and lighting by Ace McCarron were slick, as were stage management and production by Claire Risseeuw and Amy Morgan. Seren Fenhoulet’s beautifully clear design featured wonderful props for each of the schools’ legends – a paper boat to be passed from child to child in wave-like motion in the Legend of the Flood, hats for the Legend of Tom Prothero, and, most impressive of all, the Fox’s head and tail, Badger’s head and claws and Barn Owl in flight for Twmbarlwm Legend. 

Twmbarlwm Legends

Under the baton of Musical Director Helen Woods, the band – Helen Roberts (piano), Ashley John Long (double bass), Beth Linton (clarinet/saxophone) and Graham Bradley (percussion) – gave unobtrusive support which underpinned the performance.

This show was a tremendously positive celebration both of Newport and its stories, and of the power of community opera. Operasonic’s commitment to bringing young people in particular to opera, and doing this through work with professional artists from all the disciplines involved in the staging of opera, is hugely to be applauded. Children exposed to excellence will – and do, as the performance of Newport Legends demonstrated – rise to excellence themselves.

There was a palpable sense of pride coming from those on stage from the schools and the community of Maindee. They truly were, as their T-shirts proclaimed, Legend Makers. It was very moving when when the entire company sang out in Errollyn Wallen’s finale chorus:

“Newport has so many legends

Unknown, lost and true

We can all be heroes

And save lives by just being us.

We are the Newport Legends.”

This work, the preparation as well as the final performance, builds confidence, on stage and off. Its on-going importance for all those who took part cannot be overstated. And is it fanciful of me to say that the loud applause of the proud families and friends in the audience was for the whole of Newport as well as those in the show?

There is also something generated by this work which can only be measured – if at all – over the longer term, particularly for the children. Some will have had an interest in opera sparked off by taking part in Newport Legends, and will go on to sing more. A few may even make careers on the opera stage. Many more will look back in ten, twenty or thirty years time and remember this day when they played a Fox or a woman waiting for her fisherman husband to return, or a rich or a poor person. They will remember how they felt doing it, how they worked with others, how they were encouraged to stand up and sing and applauded for that, and they will look back and see that it was an important milestone in their lives.


(Image credits: Roy Campbell Moore)