Swansea City Opera’s new chamber opera Shoulder to Shoulder will tour in November with a five-strong cast.
It has been created through Swansea City Opera’s partnership with the charity Men’s Sheds Cymru, which develops social groups for older men.
Through interviews with Shedders, as members of Sheds are known, the Artistic Director of Swansea City Opera and librettist Brendan Wheatley created a libretto rooted in lived experience. A rich humour runs throughout Shoulder to Shoulder.
Lenny Sayers, composer and Principal Bass clarinettist with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has written a score which mixes the classical with more jazz-nuanced sounds. At certain points, the company says, Shoulder To Shoulder isn’t a million miles away from high-end musical theatre.
The five strong cast includes Welsh singers who have appeared with major opera houses and worked with opera companies and orchestras, including Welsh National Opera, the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, English National Opera, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Soprano Jessica Robinson, who plays Gwen, was a finalist in 2023 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World representing Wales.
The company says that the story is both specific and universal; a busy young mother, played movingly by Robinson, is increasingly exasperated by her father, Rhys, as he begins the slide into alcoholism having lost his wife and son. She pushes him to join his local shed where he finds a group of men with their own difficult life stories from PTSD and bereavement to social isolation. Charlie, Dai and Ioan show him the Men’s Shed ropes taking in woodworking and…garden gnomes…all of which is accompanied by copious mugs of builders’ tea.
Brendan Wheatley, librettist, gives an overview of the opera, “Shoulder To Shoulder immediately resonates with audiences, as, although the story is specific to one family and one group of men, the experiences are familiar to us all: grief, trauma, ill-health. The story has a Welsh specific experience in its portrayal of the after-effects of heavy industry’s decline in the 1980s and a generation of men feeling consigned to the scrap heap.
“The stories told to me were imbued with humour. Humour is a coping mechanism, and when you get a group of men together, there’s, inevitably, plenty of good-natured banter. I was determined that Welsh humour would run throughout the libretto and the score.
“Shoulder To Shoulder has no named location, but its setting could be anywhere: from Pontypridd to Rhyl to a small Welsh village out on the edge of things.
“From Swansea City Opera’s beginnings, we have always believed in the need for opera to be more accessible and lose some of its exclusivity.
“Partnership can be an over-used buzz word in the arts, but our partnership with Men’s Sheds Cymru has been very successful in creating a contemporary opera with high-production values, which reaches new audiences and satisfies opera aficionados.
“We are touring Shoulder To Shoulder to a mix of community spaces, often homes to Shed groups, and established arts venues such as Theatr Brycheiniog, YMa in Pontypridd, Rhyl Little Theatre and Abertillery’s Llanhilleth Institute. We are delighted to be taking Shoulder to Shoulder to Cardiff’s Tramshed which is the first time opera has featured in its programme.
“I believe the audience for contemporary opera is out there.”
Between 11 – 25 November, Shoulder to Shoulder will tour to:
Brecon (Saturday 11 November, Theatr Brycheiniog);
Neyland, Pembrokeshire (Wednesday 15 November, Bethesda Baptist Church);
Rhyl (Friday 17 November, Rhyl Little Theatre);
Pontypridd (Saturday 18 November, YMa);
Cardiff (Tuesday 21 November, Tramshed); Abertillery
(Thursday 23 November, Llanhilleth Institute); and Lisvane (Saturday 25 November, Memorial Hall).
Images: Guy Harrop