Welsh National Opera marks the centenary of the First World War and the Battle of the Somme with a World première



Welsh National Opera will commemorate WW1 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with a world premiere of a new opera commissioned to mark the company’s 70th birthday.  In Parenthesis is acclaimed British composer Iain Bell’s adaptation of the epic poem by poet, writer and artist David Jones. The work is a remembrance of David Jones’ personal experience as a soldier at the Battle of Mametz Wood. Alongside the staging of the opera, WNO are embarking upon an extensive programme of digital, youth and community projects to engage as many people as possible across communities in the themes and music of the opera and its relevance to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In Parenthesis is commissioned by the Nicholas John Trust with 14-18 NOW, the UK’s official arts programme for the First World War centenary.


In Parenthesis provides a unique narrative of war, rich in expressive musical quality; it depicts a deeply moving account of the fighting and heavy losses sustained by the Royal Welch Fusiliers.


Private John Ball and his comrades are posted to the Somme to fight at the Battle of Mametz Wood, where they enter a strange realm – outside of time, dream-like but deadly.


Directed by David Pountney and conducted by Carlo Rizzi, WNO Conductor Laureate, this period production is both an evocation and a commemoration of the events of the Somme. The rich soundscape of In Parenthesis has been fully explored by co-librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins. Their combined knowledge and understanding of the original work has allowed them to create a libretto that, together with Iain Bell’s evocative composition, succeeds in creating an otherworldly dimension that is very different to any other narrative of war. Rather than a literal recollection of WW1, the work is presented as a call to remembrance that conveys an overall message of hope. Even amongst the destruction, a fragile flowering of regeneration and re-birth can be found.


There are many good reasons for Welsh National Opera to have commissioned a new opera based on David Jones’s text In Parenthesis” explained WNO Artistic Director and the Director of In Parenthesis, David Pountney. The first is that this year is our 70th birthday, and we wanted to celebrate that with an important artistic project, one which is part of our impassioned advocacy of contemporary work.  The second reason is that this year is of course the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and therefore of the events described in David Jones’ text. But by far the most important reason is the astonishing quality of that text, and the fact that it has up to now tended to be overshadowed by better known WW1 poets. Nonetheless, T. S. Elliot’s judgment that “In Parenthesis” was the greatest piece of literature to emerge from the horrific experiences of that war remains a just and balanced assessment. And it may well be possible that the density and allusiveness of Jones’s poetic vision, which has possibly made it more difficult for ordinary readers to enjoy, will be released through the power of music, and that in an operatic form its mystical and mythical dimensions will reveal even more clearly their truly transcendental qualities.”


Iain Bell’s score combines traditional song with moments of other- worldliness, terror, humour and transcendence. He uses an inventive combination of musical styles incorporating traditional Welsh folk songs, marching rhythms, fanfares and beautiful melodies.


Iain Bell explained, “It was an honour to be asked to compose In Parenthesis. As I became ever more familiar with the extraordinary poem and libretto, I was soon thrilled by the prospect of musically depicting such a world as David Jones evokes from the epic, martial brutality of the battlefield to the ethereal imaginings of Private John Ball’s visions. I was also struck by the closeness of interpersonal relationships between the soldiers developing throughout the libretto and took great pleasure in exploring these deepening bonds. War is a thing of huge, monumental and tragic impact but when over, one is left with hope; a hope that things will be better and I feel there is no better message for us to be imparting today.”


Using a mixture of historically accurate and spectacularly mystical costume and staging, Designer, Robert Innes Hopkins has created a production that depicts both the brutal, raw human experience of the trenches and the blossoming natural world of the wood.

Following its world première at Wales Millennium Centre (Friday 13 May 7.15p.m.) and further performances in Cardiff (Saturday 21 May and Friday 3 June), the work will tour to Birmingham and to London, as part of WNO’s annual residency at the Royal Opera House. A special performance at the Royal Opera House on Friday 1 July, 7.30pm will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack will make his début with WNO, taking the principal role of Private John Ball.  Mark Le Brocq makes a welcome return to WNO following his successful performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in Iain Bells’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol in December taking the role of Sergeant Snell. Also returning to WNO is renowned baritone, Donald Maxwell as Dai Great Coat, Alexandra Deshorties as Bard of Germania/Alice the Barmaid/The Queen of the Woods and Graham Clark as The Marne Sergeant. Performing with WNO for the first time are up and coming new talents Marcus Farnsworth (Lance Corporal), George Humphreys (Lieutentant Jenkins) and Peter Coleman-Wright as Bard of Brittannia/HQ Officer.


Conductor Carlo Rizzi explained, “To be part of creating a new work is always a particular privilege for the artists involved. Not only because, as with any existing piece, we will be working to make and give the best possible performances but because, during the rehearsals, we will also be discovering every day a new world of sounds, a new drama that will describe and give life to momentous events from the past that touched many lives, are relevant today and must not be forgotten. It is an exciting prospect and I am really looking forward to being part of this process and, particularly, to working with Iain Bell, David Pountney and all the forces of WNO to mark, with this very special project, the 70th birthday of the Company.”


Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW, said “We are delighted to be partnering with WNO in bringing David Jones’ epic poem In Parenthesis to the stage.  At 14-18 NOW we commission artists to create contemporary responses to the First World War, connecting audiences across the UK with the centenary. Iain Bell’s opera will bring to life the story of these young soldiers at Mametz and the horrors they faced”

Welsh National Opera are passionate about bringing opera to as wide and diverse an audience as possible. With this aim in mind WNO have developed a series of projects to engage members of the community who may not have considered opera before as well as enhance the opera experience for those who have. The projects include   working with schools and local communities and developing a worldwide platform to explain the meaning and inspiration behind In Parenthesis, both David Jones’s work and the translation of that work into an opera.


In Parenthesis Digital Platform – In February, WNO will launch a digital platform at www.inparenthesis.org.uk.  The platform will feature a series of episodes that will explore the background to WNO’s In Parenthesis and the author of this epic war poem. The first video podcast will launch on 18 February 2016 and will investigate the experiences and inspirations behind David Jones’s work In Parenthesis and the process involved to adapt that work into an opera – from original inspiration to the production of the costumes and set. Audiences will be encouraged to subscribe and episodes are free to view and available across a variety of platforms: web site, YouTube, iTunes and email. The site will also have supporting content available such as a collection of David Jones’s manuscripts and wartime sketches, Librettist David Antrobus reading extracts from In Parenthesis, and a ‘meet the characters of the opera’ section including costume designs.


Digital Installation To coincide with the world première performance of In Parenthesis on 13 May, Welsh National Opera have commissioned a digital, large-scale interactive artwork which will be presented at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.  The artwork will represent and commemorate the missing Welsh soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of the Somme. The piece will also seek to incorporate the names of each soldier and consider innovative ways to deliver information about conflict to members of the public as they walk around the installation.


The Opera Platform – In Parenthesis will be the first full-length opera from Welsh National Opera to be streamed on the Opera Platform www.theoperaplatform.eu . The Opera Platform offers both those who already love opera and those curious to try it for the first time the opportunity to watch performances and access backstage content via a new the new online platform. In Parenthesis will be broadcast on The Opera Platform on 1 July 2016 and free to view on the Platform for a further 6 months and on the ARTE TV website. A second WNO opera will be broadcast in summer 2017.

Youth and Community projects – Using In Parenthesis as inspiration, members of Welsh National Opera will work with communities from Wales & England at locations David Jones’ Division were based during WW1, to create their own mini opera based on research of their own WWI family history. Their work will culminate with a showcase of their Opera for friends and family.

The Youth and Community teams are also working with established Literature Wales writing squads in the South Wales valleys and Newport to develop writing skills with an introduction to writing a libretto for opera.

The famous traditional Welsh folk-song Sosban Fach was sung in the trenches of the First World War and is referenced by David Jones in In Parenthesis.  As well as featuring in the opera, WNO’s Youth and Community team will be working with local community groups, schools and youth opera members to teach participants the song and the associated history.  Large scale ‘Come & Sing’ performance events will be staged at Wales Millennium Centre, National Museum of Wales, Wrexham and at the London Welsh Centre as a culmination of the project. WNO Youth and Community are working in partnership with CânSing (www.cansing.org.uk), Literature Wales and National Museum Wales,


National Museum Cardiff’s War Hell: The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art Exhibition – The centenary of the battle of Mametz Wood and David Jones’s work will also be remembered by National Museum Wales who are working in partnership with WNO to highlight the work of David Jones. An important selection of David Jones’s art works, including the Frontispiece and Tailpiece for ‘In Parenthesis’, will feature in a major new exhibition War’s Hell: The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art at National Museum Cardiff opening on 30 April 2016.


Event dates:


Friday 13 May 7.15pm   Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – World Premiere, In Parenthesis

Thursday 18 February    In Parenthesis dedicated web site goes live and will screen first episode

Saturday 30 April           National Museum Cardiff’s War Hell: The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art Exhibition opens to the public

Friday 13 May 6pm        Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – Sosban Fach Come & Sing event in the Glanfa Foyer

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – digital interactive foyer exhibition (will remain in position until Friday 1 July)

Friday 3 June                Main Hall, National Museum Cardiff, Cathays Park, Cardiff Sosban Fach Come & Sing event.

Thursday 23 June          Wrexham, National CânSing Day – WNO Come & Sing schools performance

Friday 1 July                 In Parenthesis streamed on The Opera Platform www.theoperaplatform.eu

Saturday 2 July             London Welsh Centre, London – Sosban Fach Come & Sing event