“We were ordinary men.. We wanted jobs.. We bought a pit..”
These were the words of Tyrone O’Sullivan the Union leader at Tower Colliery in Wales when interviewed in 1999. The project was granted nearly £300,000 by Arts Council Wales and was created by Opera Box, which Brendan Wheatley and Bridgett Gill ran before the company was given funding from City & County of Swansea and became Swansea City Opera. It was a major contemporary opera project which used the unique story and struggle of the last deep mine in Wales, to explore the collapse of mining. The subject was the dramatic story of the workers’ buy-out of Tower which saved the pit from closure.
In the mid 1980’s the Conservative government in the UK, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to break the Union block vote and systematically began to close all the mines in the country.
Communities in mining areas all over Great Britain were badly affected as one by one the collieries closed and the miners were made redundant. In 1994 it was the turn of Tower Colliery at Hirwaun in South Wales. However at Tower there was a very charismatic union representative – Tyrone O’Sullivan, a natural orator and a man who spoke straight from his heart.
He brought the miners with him and 240 workers each put in £8,000, their total amount in redundancy money offered by the government, to buy the pit, borrowing the remainder of the money from the government to be paid back over ten years.
They were competing against the Managers of the pit who also wanted to buy the colliery and employ the miners for a lesser wage, and who had offered the miners an extra £9000 each in redundancy money to leave immediately and not follow Tyrone. Through their courage, tenacity and self-belief, the miners were successful and ran the mine at a healthy profit for another 13 years until its closure in 2008. The pit was the only co-operative run coalmine in the world and the story is an important piece of Welsh history.
The opera TOWER was composed in 1999 by Alun Hoddinott, Wales’ most eminent composer, with libretto by John Owen, a BAFTA award winning playwright. It was written specifically for youth and community participation, using male voice choirs and local schools, and was conceived as a way of developing young audiences for contemporary opera. During the first week long run of sell out performances at the Swansea Grand, Robert Lloyd the international bass, took the leading role of Tyrone, and over 200 miners came to watch.
The opera contains parts for 20 characters – 7 major principals and 13 smaller parts and the orchestration is for 7 musicians – 2 pianos, 4 percussionists and 1 electronic keyboard.
It toured in 1999/2000 to
The Grand Theatre, Swansea
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
Borough Theatre, Abergavenny
Theatr Gwynedd, Bangor
Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon
The Welfare Hall, Ystradgynlais
Theatr Ardudwy, Harlech
The Coliseum, Aberdare
Taliesin Theatre, Swansea
Arts Centre, Aberystwyth
Riverfront Theatre, Newport