John Metcalf on his new opera, Under Milk Wood

John Metcalf on his new opera, Under Milk Wood

John Metcalf OBE talks to Carl Griffin about his seventh opera, Under Milk Wood and,  in particular, his approach to creating the libretto and the importance of sound. Under Milk Wood has been five years in the making and will premiere in the UK at the Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea 3 April 2014, for a three-day run before touring around Wales.

John Metcalf under milk wood
John Metcalf


Carl Griffin: In your new opera, Under Milk Wood, how have you stamped your authority on such a well-known play?

John Metcalf: I don’t look on it as a play. It’s a play for voices but I look on it as a radio piece, that’s the starting point. Bizarrely, even though it’s a radio piece, I’ve seen it several times on the stage but never heard it on the radio. I think it’s important therefore to remember its genesis. There was no visual aspect at all and that’s why the original script is littered with sound instructions. I was listening to Radio 4 last evening and there was a programme about sound in which they spoke part of a story, in two ways – one with sound effects and one without. It was interesting, listening to that, how differently one perceived the narrative. When people do a theatre production of Under Milk Wood then obviously they produce exactly what is there, every single part of the script, but what they’re producing is a radio script. That’s a real challenge. It is also a challenge to make an opera out of it but at least we are in a medium that’s about sound! So I have concentrated on bringing out sounds from as many different sources as possible for the piece. As well as traditional instruments I have used the singers to make other sounds aside from vocalised sound – mostly whispering and some animal sounds – as well as actually singing. But then I’ve also used recorded sound and I’m also using foley.

Can you elaborate on ‘foley’ for us…

John Metcalf: Foley is the various techniques used to create sound effects for film in the pre-digital age. Sounds like a door slamming, or water going down the plug hole, had to be made, and you can tell from the script that Thomas was from that period.

Have you changed any words (from script to libretto)?

John Metcalf: I’ve only used Thomas’s words, I haven’t changed them, though I haven’t used all of them – obviously, it would be an extremely long piece! But it’s not so much a question of whether I’ve changed the words or not, but the change really is to go back to the original and, rather than try and do an opera based on ideas drawn from various stage settings or films of the piece, actually go back to its origins as a sound piece and create a huge tapestry of sound to be realised in a way that only highly skilled instrumentalists and singers can.

At an orchestral concert, the players are basically absorbed with the music on the stand, though if there’s a solo concerto then the physicality of the player is much more to the fore. But it’s very different seeing a sound being made than not, if, for example, you are hearing it on the radio. In this case, we’re making sounds and we’ll be able to see the performers making the sounds. The instrumentalists, as well as the singers, will be on the stage. There’s also a sense that the audience is actually in a radio studio rather than in a theatre and that they are watching a radio piece being put together. I don’t know how far with that the production will go – that’s not my responsibility – but there’s certainly an element of that in this work. There is a video of the last Goon Show being recorded – that was a source of inspiration for me.

How challenging was it to recreate the mythical village?

John Metcalf: Somewhere, the convention of the performance of the opera lies between being in the radio studio and being in Llareggub [the fictional Welsh village of the play]. Sometimes it will find a way to create its own conventions, but those two conventions apply, there is nothing naturalistic. There won’t be a Manchester House and the Sailor’s Arms painted on flats, but there will be the sense of both of two conventions.

How about recreating the humour?

John Metcalf: Obviously there’s a lot of humour. There’s not so much humour in the village, there’s humour in the words, so again it’s a question of getting the words across. Music can obscure words which creates challenges, but there is also the opportunity because to ascribe precise pitches and rhythms to bring the words across. I like always  to go back to the original words and see what the possibilities within them are, so I didn’t look so much on the challenge of recreating this humour but the challenge of pointing out the humour that’s already there. Obviously it’s a challenge to set such wonderful material but equally the potential is there.

How have you approached that challenge musically?

John Metcalf: In all questions relating to art work, you always have to go back to the text, to what is given, in any circumstance. It’s important to create a compelling, overarching musical metaphor that is nevertheless faithful to the text. The production, in its turn, should take its cue from words and music and in simple terms put both on the stage. In composing, once a few choices are made there are lots of givens. In this case there was a huge given: the text of Under Milk Wood, a very well-known text. So any time there are questions or challenges I open the text and read it again and see what else it will tell me.

So the production serves the music and the text…

John Metcalf: It should do. Especially with a new work. There is an established tradition now of the director’s theatre and I don’t know how instructive that is. Personally I’m not a big fan of it, largely because a lot of the pieces are done in that way people have never seen. The directors may have seen them a few times but a lot of people seeing a Shakespeare play or a Donizetti opera may not have seen that piece before so they need to see it. They don’t need a take on it, they need it. The challenge for the composer, for all the people involved, is always the text.

Is there any spoken dialogue separating songs?

John Metcalf: It’s a through composed piece, so it doesn’t follow the traditions of the opera comique or the opera buffa that led to the musical, with separate songs and dialogue. So there’s no spoken dialogue – there’s  a limited amount in the original. I’ve only used Thomas’s words, I haven’t created any other dialogue. The libretto is by Dylan Thomas,  I’ve composed the music.

Tell us about the process of writing a libretto, and how the balance is struck between textual demands, theatrical demands and the musical.

John Metcalf: Sometimes a libretto can be written while the composer is working, but in this case the entire libretto was already there, except that it was too long to be set (it would be five or six hours if it was all set to music), so there was the question of setting some part of it, of drawing out the main threads, the main characters, that people know. That is important. And then to attain some continuity. One of the things that really influenced the choices for the libretto are the fact that there are very many characters in Under Milk Wood, something like eighty. So obviously it’s done with a lot of different voices. Another challenge, when one singer/actor is playing several characters, is to distinguish the characters vocally as well as visually.

How tricky is it to work with Dylan Thomas’s words without being overwhelmed by the weight of attention which will inevitably bubble to the surface?

John Metcalf: It is essential, though extremely hard, to separate the work from the various myths surrounding Dylan Thomas, and to concentrate on drawing out the most humorous and insightful and heart-warming threads from the story. Thomas is no longer with us, but both  the myths and his work are. I can honestly say that I have no great interest in the stories surrounding Dylan Thomas the man and they are not really relevant to this work. Though I understand that they are interesting to other people and I respect that. The composition of an opera gives you’ve got plenty of things to think about without having to keep an eye on everything else! The whole focus needs to be on the work itself. Because I’m not engaged with in the various stories about him and didn’t know him personally, it’s much easier for me just to concentrate on the strength of the piece. Of course it’s interesting to go to Aberaeron and see Manchester House and to to stand at the very spot in Talsarn where I have heard it said that he conceived the piece. That gives a little extra impetus. But the world of Dylan Thomas the man is not the subject of this opera.

As a Swansea boy, though, it is difficult to avoid being inspired by Thomas. This opera aside, has he had any kind of affect on you as a creator?

John Metcalf: Again I have to come back to the work. I think there’s some wonderful poetry. There are about half a dozen poems that I think are really extraordinary – I’ve always loved those. They are the well-known poems that many people are familiar  with ‘Poem On His birthday’, ‘Fern Hill’, and  ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.  But I live in a different era from Dylan Thomas. He died nearly sixty years ago. He’s a poet and I’m a composer. I do like to read biographies of artists. I really enjoy the wonderful biography of Matisse by Hilary Spurling, and I recently visited the Elgar museum and I find it quite inspiring to see how artists work and the various struggles they go through. But I wouldn’t say that particularly about Dylan Thomas. I do think the ambience of Swansea, where I was born, and Ceredigion, where the piece was written are both influential – it’s helpful to have that in your blood. But that’s as hard to define as nationalism in music. Why is Sibelius Finnish? We can’t really say. We can’t look at a particular bar or a string tremolo and answer the question – though those cold string ostinati offer some clues! I think what inspires me is really, really great work, and in the case of Thomas, aside from this piece, there are six or so really wonderful poems.

Given that Under Milk Wood is already so popular, is this new opera really needed?

John Metcalf: Nothing is needed! It’s worth noting though that there are very few operas on Under Milk Wood. I only know, by hearsay, of one, so it’s not material that has been treated many times already. Even if it had been, the content remains important if the response of the new creators sheds fresh light on the original. For me, on many counts it’s very interesting to have an opera on this topic. Especially as the cyclical post-dramatic nature of the material makes it such a hard challenge.

 So, the iconic stature of Under Milk Wood comes back to your point about it being very close to the source for people coming to watch the opera?

John Metcalf: Yes, they have a starting point with it, which, with contemporary music, is very good. They have a good way into it.

Who else will be working on this opera?

John Metcalf: First of all, I think I’m extremely fortunate with the principal commissioner, Taliesin Arts Centre, in Swansea. Following through the process as an independent producer of bringing a new opera to life, with fifteen people together on stage, requires among other things, humane, intelligent leadership, vision and tenacity. I’d like to record my thanks to Sybil Crouch, Stella Patrick and the team working with them. It’s a long process; it will be five years next month and a labour of love for all concerned. The other special aspect of it is international; in 1986, I went to work at Banff, in Canada. In the late ’80s and through the ’90s, Banff was a world leader in new work for opera music theatre, attracting writers, composers, librettists, singers, instrumentalists, directors, stage managers, designers etc. The artistic direction was led by Keith Turnbull, who is directing this opera. And, interestingly enough, in the cast are the singer Michael Jones, who’s now based in New York, who was at Banff, and Richard Morris, who was also at Banff; the violinist was at Banff; and, of course, I was there too. So there’s a really strong legacy in this production arising from the good practice of that work of all the research that was done at Banff during that time. It’s a reminder too that you can’t just write music for an opera – however many operas you have already written.

And you have written a lot…

John Metcalf: Yes, this is my seventh – But I still feel I’m working in a medium where I have no essential training apart from a musical training. In all the other aspects of the piece my hope is that an amateur can contribute something – I mean an amateur in the best sense. There are clearly professional disciplines within opera which require the collaborative support of a highly-skilled team to bring together. Contemporary opera could benefit from a greater understanding of that. Because, without diminishing the stress on musical standards – obviously it is par excellence a musical medium – there are other demanding disciplines as well. Having an enlightened producer is vital. There are three different companies involved, from three different countries, including the principal commissioner, the Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea, the co-commissioner, Companion Star in New York, and Le Chien qui chante in Montreal. It is also being produced in association with the Welsh National Opera. I think this highlights the collaborative effort which is bringing this all together.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

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Gary Raymond reviews the BBC Wales’ televised production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.