Swansea City Opera is the culmination of the 35-year long career in opera by its Artistic Directors, Brendan Wheatley and Bridgett Gill, both professional singers.
Under the banner of Opera Box, Brendan and Bridgett developed a series of concerts at English Heritage properties. Opera Box grew to be one of the most impressive musical successes of the 1990s. Each summer, the company performed fully costumed open-air opera, against the dramatic backdrop of English Heritage historic ruins and National Trust properties. Described by The Times as ‘a visionary touring company’, Opera Box was synonymous with quality of production and singing. Using their knowledge and connections, Brendan and Bridgett employed fine singers who’d worked for the major British opera houses and companies. They chose an imaginative repertoire to compliment, wherever possible, the history of the venue where they were performing. Productions included staging Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at Kenilworth Castle, the former home of the Earl of Leicester, Mary Stuart’s staunch ally and admirer. The character of Queen Elizabeth entered riding side-saddle on a horse that was extremely tolerant of the decibels created by its dramatic soprano rider!
In 2004, the company’s high artistic and musical standards came to the attention of The City and County of Swansea who wanted to support a new, flagship touring opera company to help promote Swansea nationwide. Swansea City Opera was born, and the company now receives on going funding from the City and County of Swansea, Arts Council Wales and Arts Council England. Particular emphasis is placed on touring within Wales, especially Objective 1 and Communities First areas, where performances are given at a subsidised cost.
For 18 years, Opera Box toured extensively throughout the UK presenting high quality, fully staged opera at theatres and outdoor venues. This work as Swansea City Opera continues. The company aims to present the repertoire in as adaptable a way as possible, enabling theatres of all sizes to provide opera at an affordable price to its audiences.
Swansea City Opera is committed to making opera more accessible to a far wider cross-section of the community dispelling the myth that opera is only for the privileged few and presenting opera as a art form that can be enjoyed by everyone. Swansea City Opera introduces people to opera through pre-performance talks; work with schools, community groups, youth groups, and people with learning difficulties. Opera is a great tool for building self-confidence, teamwork, awareness and basic social and life skills.
As Opera Box, the company’s pioneering approach meant the company performed where little or no opera had previously been performed. In the 1990s, they were the first ever to mount opera at the Hackney Empire – the theatre acknowledged the success by presenting Opera Box with its prestigious Dome Award. The culturally diverse audience, many attending opera for the very first time, were very engaged by Mozart’s Don Giovanni – booing the villains and cheering the heroes. During the first night of the run of Don Giovanni, the enthusiastic audience raised £5000 in a bucket collection for the theatre’s fighting fund as it was threatened by closure.
Opera Box’s interest in audience development saw it commissioning and premièring the opera Tower by Alun Hoddinott in 1999/2000, funded by nearly £300,000 from the Arts Council of Wales / Lottery ‘Arts for All’ awards. Tower was based on the true story of the struggle of the Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, Wales, the pit dramatically saved from closure by its workforce in 1994. The eminent Welsh composer, Alun Hoddinott wrote the score, BAFTA award-winning TV and Radio scriptwriter John Owen wrote the libretto and the internationally renowned bass Robert Lloyd sang the leading role. Tower toured Wales in 2000 and was awarded a EU Culture 2000 award – the only UK led performing arts project to be successful in the pilot round. The success of Tower established Opera Box in Wales.
In 2001, Opera Box received £41,000 from Arts Council Wales’ Arts For All Lottery for Opera Biz, a project for schools. Through performances and workshops in schools, Opera Biz stimulated young people’s interest in music-making, opera in particular, together with developing life skills. Nine schools from very different areas worked together, as a team, on the project.
Swansea City Opera continues to work with schools on education projects.
Swansea City Opera is committed to developing young talented singers in Wales and works in partnership with The Opera School Wales (TOSW) to give emerging artists practical experience in the early stages of their careers through chorus/understudy or solo work on tours. David Syrus, the Head of Music at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, works with the school each year.