A brand new opera about one of Wales’s best known legends and written by royal composer Paul Mealor will be given its world premiere at a top music festival.
There will be two performances of the community opera, Gelert, at the North Wales International Music Festival that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
While the music has been composed by St Asaph-born Professor Mealor, who was raised in Connah’s Quay, the words have been written by his regular collaborator, the eminent poet, Dr Grahame Davies, who hails from Coedpoeth, near Wrexham.
In another first, the opera has been written especially in Welsh and English and will be staged in both languages at the festival’s usual venue, St Asaph Cathedral, on Saturday, September 24, with a matinee performance in Welsh and an evening performance in English with a BSL Interpreter.
It will be sung by the NEW Voices community chorus, Kana Chamber Choir, and soloists Trystan Lewis, Dafydd Jones and Lisa Dafydd, who will be accompanied by the festival’s resident orchestra, Wrexham-based NEW Sinfonia.
Soprano Lisa Dafydd, from Ruthin, has just won the prestigious Osborne Roberts Blue Riband at the National Eisteddfod in Tregaron.
The opera has been dedicated to the festival’s Artistic Director, Ann Atkinson, who commissioned it as part of the event’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.
It tells the tale of the eponymous dog which gave its name to the village of Beddgelert (Gelert’s grave) in Gwynedd.
According to legend, Prince Llywelyn the Great returns from hunting to find his baby missing, the cradle overturned and his faithful hound, Gelert, with a blood-smeared mouth.
Wrongly assuming the dog had attacked his son, Llywelyn killed Gelert only to discover his son safe and well under the crib.
Nearby he found the body of an enormous wolf that had been killed by Gelert who had courageously defended the infant.
The festival gets under way on Saturday, September 17, and runs until October 1.
Among the other highlights are performances by former royal harpist Hannah Stone with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, early music group Red Priest, award winning Welsh folk band Calan, the spectacular Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, and resident orchestra NEW Sinfonia who will be performing with the National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain.
The commission and performances of Gelert have been made possible thanks to the support of Jones Bros Civil Engineering UK, the Arts Council of Wales and Tŷ Cerdd.
Other festival sponsors include headline sponsors Pendine Park care organisation, Colwinston Charitable Trust and Arts & Business Cymru.
Described by some critics as the Lennon and McCartney of classical music, Messrs Mealor and Davies have worked together on some noted works including a brand new Requiem composed for the National Eisteddfod.
Prof Mealor, who shot to international fame after writing Ubi Caritas et Amor for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, said: “Gelert is where opera meets musical theatre.
“When people see the word opera they think of Tosca or something like that. This is nothing like it. It’s very melodic and it’s not going to shock anyone with weird sound effects.
“It’s not high opera at all, it’s more like Les Misérables or Miss Saigon. People going to it expecting to be entertained will be, I think. It is a community opera so anyone can sing the parts and Gelert can be performed by any amateur group.”
He said “It will be performed in both Welsh and then, later, in English which is fabulous. I speak a bit of Welsh but I’m not fluent in it but it’s Grahame’s first language and he’s highlighted the way that both languages lilt.
“I think this is the first time this has ever been done. In the past I think operas were translated into Welsh or from Welsh into English later. I don’t think an opera has ever been written with performances in both languages in mind before.”
Both Paul and Grahame said the lyrics always come first when they collaborate on a project.
Grahame said: “We sit and talk and with Gelert I wrote the story and Paul set about writing the music. He’ll get back to me and say this part needs to change to fit musically and it gets changed.
Paul added: “Music carries the drama of the text, especially in opera so we do a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. But Grahame writes so lyrically it makes it easier for me because the music is already in the text.”
“Our opera starts with Prince Llywelyn as an old man looking back at the mistakes and regrets in his life. His biggest regret is killing Gelert, his greatest friend, in anger and in mistake.
“Grahame and I started discussing about how he can repay the dog for saving his son’s life and how he can ever have forgiveness. The idea in the opera is that Gelert appears to him and forgives him. It’s about redemption really and asking for forgiveness and getting it.”
According to Grahame, there is one element of the story that never gets mentioned and that’s the wolf.
He said: “So in the opera we give him a voice. Wolves are always painted as the baddies but in fact the wolf was only looking for food. He didn’t know who this baby was so he’s not a baddie and gets a chance to speak and right some wrongs. This opera challenges some stereotypes.”
With both composer and lyricist having deep royal connections they have been kept busy recently with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
Meanwhile Paul has also been kept busy composing music for various television programmes and film production companies.
He wrote the music for the nature programme Wonders of the Celtic Deep which was narrated by Dame Sian Phillips and shown on BBC. Paul also composed the dramatic music to accompany the documentary about how a pot-holer was rescued from one of Wales’ deepest caves.
George Linnane was left with multiple injuries after a freak accident in the cave in the Brecon Beacons. The BBC drama documentary The Rescue: 54 Hours Under the Ground tells the story of how George was brought to the surface.
“I also did the music for Sky TV’s Sex and Sensibility which is about the lives of people in the Georgian period and also the score for Elizabeth Windsor, a documentary shown on Amazon Prime. I’m being kept very busy but I’m not complaining,” he said.
Festival director Ann Atkinson said: “There will be two performances of Gelert. The first, at 2.30pm on September 24, will be in Welsh and the second, at 7.30pm that day, will be in English.
“The publishers sent me the score and when I saw it had been dedicated to me, I was pleasantly surprised Paul had done that. I was very touched.
“This year’s programme reflects the past 50 years of the festival and there are some wonderful concerts in store.”
More details about the festival can be found online at www.nwimf.com and tickets also available from Cathedral Frames, St Asaph – 01745 582929 (Weds – Fri, 10 – 4.30) or Theatr Clwyd by phone only – 01352 344101 (Mon – Sat, 10 – 6).