Michael McCarthy’s 40 years of new opera at Music Theatre Wales

Michael McCarthy is Director of Music Theatre Wales and has staged over 30 productions for the company. Productions include Richard the Lionheart by Telemann and Handel in Germany, large-scale outdoor staging’s of Tosca and Nabucco in Norway, and productions of La Traviata, Cosi fan Tutte, Il Re Pastore, Fidelio and Don Giovanni. Also, Cinderella for WNO and S4C Television, The Lighthouse for BBC2 TV and The Forbidden Hymn — a community opera in the South Wales Valleys.

In January 2015, Michael was awarded ‘Best Director’ at the Wales Theatre Awards for The Trial by Philip Glass. His production of Greek won ‘Outstanding Achievement in Opera’ at the 2011 TMA Awards. He was honoured with an MBE at the end of 2015.

In June 2022, Music Theatre Wales celebrates its 40th birthday. The company’s latest production – Violet – opened at the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival – to 5-star and 4-star reviews. Violet plays at the Sherman Theatre on 8 June and Theatre Clwyd on 19 June.

I arrived in Cardiff in 1981 to join the Postgraduate Theatre Studies course at the Sherman Theatre (when it was a university theatre) with a determination to learn about making theatre in a practical way. In my interview for the course with Geoffrey Axworthy and John Linstrum, I said that if they offered me a place I would put on an opera. They seemed to like this, and so my path was set.

As a music student at Birmingham University, I had developed a love of opera. I wanted to be a director, but had no formal drama training, and in all honesty, I had mixed feelings about the opera world I had started to encounter. I loved the way opera worked as drama and music combined, but I was uncomfortable around opera people and opera companies. I had done some observing at a couple of large opera companies, and whilst I found the rehearsals fascinating, I didn’t feel that I would fit into the culture surrounding the work. I was looking for an opera making environment that related to the theatre making I already knew, which was based around new writing and devising, but I didn’t know where or what that was.  

Within weeks of arriving in Cardiff I found myself playing in a music trio for a production at the Sherman staged by Carmen Jakobi. The music was written by the pianist and theatre maker Mike James who later become Director of the Sherman. I played the oboe and Michael Rafferty played the violin – and took a small, silent role in the play. Michael was clearly a fine musician who also happened to be studying for a PHD in Physics, although he seemed to spend more time at the Sherman than in the lab. At the show party I told Carmen I was looking for a conductor because I was planning to stage an opera later in the year, and she suggested Michael. That was that, even though he’d never conducted anything before. It just felt like a good fit.

We needed to find something small enough to perform in The Arena (as the Sherman Studio was then known) and started our search. Most of what we listened to was not very interesting, both musically and theatrically, and so we kept searching. Michael had seen an opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, and it clearly stuck with him. I was aware of Max’s work and had missed the opportunity to see a touring performance of The Lighthouse when I was in Birmingham. However, I’d heard his Eight Songs for a Mad King and some of his other music, so knew this was worth pursuing. Searching at the University Music Department library for pieces by Maxwell Davies, we found a cassette recording of the BBC broadcast of The Lighthouse. We listened to it and immediately knew that this was the piece we wanted to produce.

Somehow, we got permission to stage it – the first production to be mounted since the original production by Max’s own company The Fires of London. We then had to recruit a cast and orchestra, and although the musical demands were extreme, we ended up finding the most amazing and brave singers – a student, a singer, and a scientist. My colleagues at the Sherman helped create the production, most notably designer Simon Banham, who has gone on to design the majority of MTW productions with such careful brilliance. I was also the lighting designer.

The Lighthouse also needed exceptional musicians, and this was an even bigger challenge, especially percussion and horn. It was clear that we were not going to be able to find all the performers we needed amongst the local student and semi-pro cohort, and that we were going to need more resources than the Sherman course could afford. I was led to Keith Griffin and the Welsh Amateur Music Federation, who provided financial support for “professional stiffening” of amateur music across Wales, so we quickly formed a “company” (by name only) to become an eligible society and got the support. And, thus, Cardiff New Opera Group was born.

When we performed The Lighthouse in June 1982, we had no idea of the impact it would have. Of course, it had already impacted on us and those around us. During rehearsals we had a feeling it was special and extremely powerful, but we were not ready for the impact it had in the compact Arena. The response from audiences and critics alike was overwhelming, especially Kenneth Loveland who wrote a stunning review in the South Wales Argus and built on it in Opera Magazine, where he was a respected national critic. I also remember several people telling me that the production should go on tour, and although I had no idea what that really meant, I quickly learned. What a start, but what next?

The Lighthouse turned out to be exactly the kind of operatic experience I was looking for – it was musically exciting and fresh, it was powerfully dramatic, intense, and intimate and required a physicality that I wasn’t seeing much of on the operatic stage. Doing new work also liberated me from the heavy hand of operatic history.

The Lighthouse

Marcus Farnsworth in Greek

Image Clive Barda

Mr Punch from Punch and Judy

Anna Dennis, Violet premiere at Aldeburgh Festival

Image, Marc Brenner

The next year we decided to make another show and mounted a late-night performance of Down by the Greenwood Side by Harrison Birtwistle at the Sherman – presenting Morris Dancing before to set the right tone. It was becoming clear that specializing in contemporary work was not only the most exciting thing we could do but was also revealing a gap in opera making in Wales and the UK, and our mission to present opera as a contemporary artform began to take shape.

It also felt like Cardiff was the right place to be. There were many start up and developing theatre companies around, and it seemed to be a centre for experimental theatre, with Cardiff Lab and Moving Being working from Chapter. When I told people that we were thinking of forming a contemporary opera company, the general response was encouraging and enthusiastic. Perhaps most importantly, there was an opera audience in Cardiff who were already motived to explore more contemporary work having been cultivated by Welsh National Opera, led by the brilliant Brian McMaster.

Having found my way into opera circles via a typically unusual route – jumping from a Trainee Director position at Cardiff Laboratory Theatre to the Batingano opera festival in Italy (via a stint of gardening in Florence) – I tested the idea of forming a new company amongst more experienced opera professionals. Graham Vick, Richard Jones, and Stephen Oliver were amongst those who really liked the idea and encouraged me to go for it.

I returned to Cardiff and tested a more considered proposal amongst friends and colleagues here. Michael was also keen to continue. It was autumn 1984, so in reality very little time had passed, but it felt like an age. We knuckled down and got on with it, forming a legal company and Board, mounting one production in 1985 touring to a handful of venues, 3 productions in 1986 two of which toured, and one in 1987. Our reputation was building but we were still not getting any funding from the Arts Council. Something had to change.

In 1988, following much negotiation and support from the Chair and key members of the music committee at the Arts Councill, Cardiff New Opera Group merged with St Donats Music Theatre Ensemble, and we became Music Theatre Wales. With the security and staff of the Arts Centre behind us, a small revenue grant was deemed possible. At long last we were able to employ a part time administrator and we had an extraordinary space in which we could mount productions. We could start to plan with some security, and I no longer needed to subsidise the company’s work by earing money elsewhere.

Our first production as Music Theater Wales was The Martyrdom of St Magnus by Max, which we staged outdoors in the grounds of the church with a pre-show gathering in the Tythe Barn and a procession across the grounds led by strategically placed trumpet calls. That production ended up as part of Glasgow 1990 City of Culture programme, in collaboration with Scottish Chamber Orchestra and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of a festival of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies. We also recorded it on CD. This was Max’s first encounter with MTW, although he was already aware of what we were doing and I knew him quite well having worked with his company The Fires of London, as a revival director for a couple of years. In fact, when Max finally closed The Fires in 1987, he gave all the touring equipment to us (incl flight cases and music stands) and sold us all the percussion at a knock-down price!

A few years later Max become our first and only Patron. The company had been built on his model and I think he was delighted that we were able to continue with it, presenting his work and the work of so many other living composers, just as he had done with The Fires.

Despite the many challenges we have faced to simply stay afloat let alone commission new work, create new productions, and tour them far and wide, we have been buoyed by the consistently enthusiastic response to our work from critics, audiences, the wider opera sector, and many funders including the Arts Councils of Wales and England. We have now created our 53rd production and will be celebrating our 40th anniversary in the Sherman on June 8th, the very place it all began.

Incredibly, we will have the original Lighthouse cast with us, along with some extraordinary friends who were in that audience. It’s certainly a moment to look back, but my instinct is always to look ahead, and that couldn’t be more important now given recent global events and the changing world we live in. I fundamentally believe that art and culture should respond to and reflect the world around us, and as a company that has always been about presenting opera as a contemporary artform, this is surely the most important thing to maintain.

During 2019 we were starting to realise that although Music Theatre Wales was the longest lasting and most respected contemporary opera company in the UK, the basic model we were following had not evolved. In 2017 we had found ourselves in cultural hot waters, through ignorance and our own lack of diversity, and we had set out to listen and learn, engaging with a broader group of artists and observers than we had previously reached. And pre-pandemic, we had started to discuss whether it was time to call it a day and go out on a high, but when Covid hit, and the conveyor belt of productions suddenly stopped we grasped the opportunity and time to reflect. I began to ask myself what it meant to be a contemporary opera company in 2020, knowing that the answer could not be the same as the one we came up with in the 1980s. It was time to change or stop.

The experiences of 1982 came back to mind. I needed to re-imagine MTW and get back to a start-up mentality. Perhaps surprisingly, embracing digital became key to this. By making short-form innovative music theatre for a digital audience I realised that we needed to break the very model we had so clearly established – the conventional medium-scale touring opera that pieces like The Lighthouse now represented. Let’s face it, that piece has now had hundreds of productions all over the world, and it is clearly no longer new. What we needed to do was go back to the very essence of the company and think about what opera could be in the future and what a company like Music Theatre Wales could do to help it continue to develop as an artform. Only by doing that could we honestly claim to be a contemporary opera company.

True to our original mission – to present opera as a contemporary, living artform – we are asking what is it that opera needs to do? 40 years ago, the development of smaller scale, theatre-based work by living composers was critically important, but now we need to develop the form in new ways. What is opera for the 2020s, who is creating it, and who is it for? We are starting to address this with our programme New Directions, working with exciting artists who are already working in music and theatre and who can bring their unique skills and vision to the thing we want to do – storytelling in music.

A second new programme – Future Directions – is about working in collaboration with young people, asking them what they want opera to be and seeking to create work with them that will influence the way we will work in the future. We are also actively exploring the ways in which opera can be performed – as very short digital works, as short-form pieces that connect with communities outside the conventional theatre space, as street art (watch this space!) and who knows what else!

So here we are, 40 years later with the energy and mission of a start-up but with very deep foundations, and I am just as excited to see where all this might go.


Further performances:

Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 8 June

Theatr Clwyd, Mold, 19 June

Hackney Empire, London, 23 June

Buxton International Festival, Buxton, 18 July

Violet is a co-production by Britten Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales, staged in association with the London Sinfonietta. The London performance is co-produced and presented by The Royal Opera in association with Hackney Empire.

Main image:

Richard Burkhard, Frances Gregory and Anna Dennis, Violet Premiere at Aldeburgh Festival.  Image, Marc Brenner

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