Thank goodness for Opera Vision! Throughout lockdown their YouTube channel has screened a wide selection of international opera. This has been a well of resources at this time and I found myself drinking in its heady properties. It’s a well curated pick ‘n’ mix of treats, something for all tastes.
Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera (and a slight one at that), is now seen again in the Swedish capital since 1893, the year after its premier in St. Petersburg. One can understand the reasons why, but debate over Russian opera is the subject of a bigger discussion.
In this new production, Director Sergey Novikov is trying to tackle themes of an internet culture, with variable success. The greenery of Provence seeps through the truth and lies of this internet generation themed production. Characters taking a selfie and the use of phones does not add to the mood of the story nor enhance the production, mostly set in Aleksandr Vysotskaya’s plush, gothic garden. Watching online, you pick up on a clunky feel with some of the scenes, especially with the use of the chorus members, who excel in their roles but not in their blocking.
Video work by Dmitrij Ivanchenko represents both security cameras and a giant phone. The typical shots of a lingering set of eyes feel apt to the themes of the story and more of this could have emboldened the atmosphere. The formal, monochromatic costumes of Mariya Vysotskaya feel like they have some historical weight, although without a defined period. Let’s not forget the sun-kissed youths who seem to be off to the beach, for some reason.
You can feel the rugged energy emanating from conductor John Fiore, although the cameras recording the production are rarely on him. The Royal Swedish Orchestra kept up gracefully with the dynamics of the story, rich in lush double harp and sincere, reedy woodwind. For me, there is no real standout moment from the opera, even if two arias and a duet can be considered as highlights.
Some problematic elements still linger concerning staging this opera. The lead role is a blind character and thus debate concerning who should be playing her. The “blind acting” of Olga Shcheglova might be considered dated by many, although her portrayal of the title character is one of the most appealing aspects of the production. Locked away, kept from knowing how her blindness debilitates her, Shcheglova plays Iolanta with a naïvety and fragility. It’s everything you’d want the part to be. Like many opera heroines, so many decisions are made for her, without any consent.
Perhaps the most shocking moment came with the arrival of the Muslim doctor Ibn-Hakia, a “brown-faced” Dmitry Yankovsky. Taking on board the Continent’s polarised stance of “black-face”, this still is a jarring sight. Despite this, I would say Yankovsky sings with a fiery, harsh intensity for this vital role (he somehow cures Iolanta, so she can finally see).
King René is played by Stanislav Shvets, who plays the intimidation card well. The command in his voice is what makes such Russian singing so mesmerising. He is not on stage enough. Robert, Duke of Burgundy is not an essential character, his role only to be there as an arranged groom for our leading lady, in an agreement made years past. Yet, in the role, Konstantin Brzhinskiy seems to enjoy time on stage with bravado, impressive in tone and feeling. Nursemaid Martha from Klementina Savnik is deeply perfumed and a fascinating, brief sound to hear of which I wanted more.
However, the show belongs to a masterful Igor Morozov as Iolanta’s “saviour”, from Greve Vaudémont. Not only does he get the princess, but our praises. The intense moments in the fourth and final scene, where you assume tragedy will strike, standout.
The streaming of the production was not without fault. The English subtitles occasionally did not indicate that two people were singing simultaneously. Although we have these videos online for a few months, perhaps a whole year would be invaluable. It’s what we all need at this time.
Following the successful 2019 co-commission and co-production of Denis & Katya by Philip Venables and Ted Huffman, the two companies are sharing new digital pieces created by Black, Asian and global majority artists. Commissioned in parallel, Music Theatre Wales and Opera Philadelphia’s digital programmes propel our genre forward, identifying outstanding artists and presenting innovative new work that celebrates the multi-cultural world in which we live. New Directions, a new commissioning programme created by Music Theatre Wales, was brought to life with a series of three digital collaborations from artists new to opera. These pieces will stream on the Opera Philadelphia Channel beginning Wednesday 1st December. Led by Artistic Associate Elayce Ismail and Director Michael McCarthy, New Directions questions what opera is and what it can be by commissioning and working with artists who bring new musical perspective and previously untold stories to opera.
The New Directions pieces are:
The House of Jollof Opera by Tumi Williams and Sita Thomas Pride (A Lion’s Roar) by Renell Shaw and Rachael Young with animation by Kyle Legall Somehow by Jasmin Kent Rodgman and Krystal S Lowe In exchange, Music Theatre Wales audiences will gain exclusive access to three of Opera Philadelphia’s digital works: THEY STILL WANT TO KILL US By Daniel Bernard Roumain An uncensored aria performed and composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Featuring mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and directed by multimedia artist Yoram Savion. This piece commemorates the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, originally created to mark one year since the murder of George Floyd.
SAVE THE BOYS By Tyshawn Sorey
Inspired by “Save the Boys,” an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, performed by the outstanding countertenor John Holiday and pianist Grant Loehnig.
CYCLES OF MY BEING A song cycle that centers on what it means to be a Black man living in America today, by Tyshawn Sorey with lyrics by MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes and superstar tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who sings the piece.
These works will be available via a unique link on MTW’s website, also starting on 1st December 2021Elayce Ismail, artistic associate, Music Theatre Wales said: “There are so many barriers to working in opera, and also to accessing it as an audience member, from the perception of what the art form is and who it is for, through to access to training. New Directions aims to chip away at some of these barriers and revitalise what opera can be, who makes it and who it’s made for. Opera is such a dynamic art form and I think it can absolutely resonate with contemporary audiences, but to do so it needs new artists and new ideas to invigorate, challenge and develop it. For New Directions we’ve brought together three brilliant pairs of collaborators, who each bring different creative practices to the mix, and who have been generous and inquisitive in our discussions about the potential of opera. It’s been wonderful seeing how each of our creators has embraced the challenge, and the added element of creating work remotely for digital audiences, to make three unique and compelling new operatic works.”
Michael McCarthy, director, Music Theatre Wales said: “MTW has been a force for change and development in opera in the UK, and we are thrilled to partner with Opera Philadelphia, a company renowned for embracing innovation and developing opera reflective of our time. By sharing our New Directions digital commissions with an international audience we hope these original pieces created by Welsh and UK artists will contribute to the evolution of our artform. At the same time, we will be offering UK audiences an opportunity to see three powerful new pieces from Opera Philadelphia that I believe resonate with the work we are making through New Directions.
Our two companies first partnered on Denis & Katya by composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman, and through that experience we recognised that we shared a mutual desire to give opera a bit of a kick, questioning the way it is written and how it is produced and perceived. I have been impressed by Opera Philadelphia’s digital commissions released over the past year and by their ability to bring new voices to the art form and to deliver remarkable and memorable experiences, and this partnership will allow our shared audience to consider all these digital works in a broader context. The world has changed and so must we. If we want to reach new audiences and stimulate wider interest in the creation of new opera with the huge potential it has, we need to be working with artists who can lead us in new and unexpected directions.”
Under the direction of Lindy Hume, the Welsh National Opera’s Madam Butterfly is set in an imaginary dystopic future to convey the cruelty of imperialism. The opera is no longer set in Japan but in an exotic oasis for the pleasure of wealthy American men. It reminded me of the 1964 Russian propaganda film I Am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov. In the film, Cuba is the seductive playground of rich Americans, a country turned prostitute by Batista. Although too propagandistic in narrative, the unorthodox cinematography of I Am Cuba, with its extreme wide-angles and complex tracking-shots, made the film unsettling and powerful. Alas, Lindy Hume’s anti-colonial vision for Madam Butterfly loses force by decontextualising the drama.
The opera begins with women in white short tulle dresses and tall pink wigs. Among them is Cio-cio-sa/Butterfly, who is to wed American soldier Pinkerton. The action takes place in and around a two-storey rotating white cube. Hume sought to emphasise the exploitation of Butterfly who is sold as trophy bride and quickly discarded. Butterfly is a victim of a misogynistic colonial society. Yet, by erasing Japan from Madam Butterfly, the colonial othering of Cio-cio-sa is lost. Relationships of power are all dependent on context. They cannot be abstracted. Cio-cio-san is the trophy bride because she is a Japanese young girl to be collected like a colourful butterfly.
In addition, there is a lot more to Cio-cio-san than Hume’s direction implies. She is here painted as a victim, disregarding how 15-year-old Cio-cio-san, notwithstanding being still a child, escapes her family and clan. She goes against her home society to affirm her own will. She stays loyal to her American husband and to his country to the very end. The tragedy lies in the fact that she finds her downfall in her loyalty and shame. Alexia Voulgaridou gives a rounded performance making one forget the awkward futuristic setting designed by Isabella Bywater.
Voulgaridou gives an impeccable performance as Cio-cio-san. Her voice is powerful and agile; it develops in intensity as the tragedy unfolds. Her interpretation is subtle and convincing. Kezia Bienek, as Suzuki, is also noteworthy. She conveys the melancholy of her role as Cio-cio-san’s sister perfectly. Together, Voulgaridou and Bienek deliver a beautiful duet full of warmth.
Julian Boyce as Imperial Commissioner and Tom Randle as Goro give solid and sophisticated performances, less impressive is Peter Auty’s Pinkerton. Excellent is the orchestra conducted with fervour and depth by Carlo Rizzi. The impressive performances, the orchestra, and Puccini’s music make one forget the contrived setting.
After the long 18-month pause due to the pandemic, the Welsh National Opera comes back with a Barber of Seville that is plagued by odd production choices but ultimately rescued by some strong performances. The WNO rehashes Giles Havergal’s 35-year-old production that has all the action confined into a small compact set to give the impression of a travelling theatre company. The elements of meta-theatre, actors congratulating each other and the ‘special effects’ of wind and thunder performed on stage, are a little too trite. The faded colours and claustrophobic nature of the two-floor set do a disservice to the brilliance and energy of Rossini’s masterpiece. The confined space also impedes the movement of the performers significantly.
Sung in English, the Barber loses its spirit and kick. Nicholas Lester, as Figaro, was disappointing and uncomfortable with a truly awkward English translation by Robert David Macdonald. Nico Darmanin’s Almaviva was also unimpressive. This struggling Barber was rescued by Heather Lowe’s Rosina and Andrew Shore as Dr Bartolo, both giving excellent and funny performances. Heather Lowe’s coloratura mezzo soprano is agile and strong. She delivers with confidence a rounded performance. Keel Watson also gave a strong performance as Don Basilio.
The irrepressible fun and joy of Rossini’s Barber is here constrained. Some strong performances breathe life into the WNO’s Barber and give the audience a pleasant but unsatisfying welcome back to theatre.
Take Agatha Christie, Opera and a whole heap of comedy, slapstick and ridiculous antics and what do you have? A wild night on the Express G&S.
With minimal and moveable staging that sets us up on an entire train from cabins, to the lunch cart and so on, we undertake a short story that introduces characters, develops a plot and comes to conclusion, in quick and concise succession, something that Christie’s mysteries take so long to do. The scenes are able to change, giving one stage the ability to become all parts of a moving vehicle. And these are not just normal staging and set changes, but they are enhanced by the performers to create comedy and to ignore any pause that may come from such changes.
With a cast of 4, we are introduced to our “Poirot” and our accompanying pianist, but leaving the other two to chop and change between the “murder suspects”. With the slight change and addition of costuming, changes in persona and physicality, both performers are able to change effectively, creating more and more hammed up characters which make us laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Then we come to the Opera – almost like an operatic Disney movie, there is little space for spoken text but instead this is continuously sung. There is no underestimating the talent of these performers, with such extraordinary voices. However, I think it was unfortunate for them that the acoustics of the stage were not in their favour, sometimes dulling their sound or drowning them below the piano. This is of no fault of the cast or the venue, however looking at their tour, something like an outdoor venue which they are booked to perform at may help elevate the sounds.
One of the best parts of this production is its references to well known Operatic and Musical songs, ones that even if you are not familiar with either genre, you may have heard along the way, and their ability to change this to fit the play. The narratives are changed into hilarious, parody version, so while you’re tapping your toes, you are also splitting your sides not only at the lyrics but how effortlessly they have changed well known songs.
Express G&S is for all ages and a great deal of fun – enjoying it myself, I felt that for sure this would have been something my parents would have enjoyed, as murder mystery fans and its subtle mickey taking of Poirot.
In the article below members of the Get the Chance team share why the work of Get the Chance is important to them and their lives.
You can make a donation to support the work of Get the Chance here
Guy O’Donnell, Volunteer Director
Hi my name is Guy O’Donnell and I am the director of Get the Chance. In this short article our team share with you how vital Get the Chance is to them and their lives. If you can support our work, please donate at the link above.
Get the Chance is a social enterprise based in South Wales. We are Wales based with an international outlook. We work to create opportunities for a diverse range of people, to experience and respond to sport, art, culture and live events. We use our online magazine website as a platform to showcase our members activities. We provide a fantastic opportunity to develop cultural critical voices and ensure that people from certain groups of society, people that are often forgotten or unheard, are given a platform to share, review and discuss their lives and critique work in a public platform.
Not only have we supported conversations about the arts and culture in Wales, but we’ve also broken-down barriers and asked questions about who actually gets to critique art. It is this democratisation of criticism that is crucial to a healthy and thriving artistic community that listens to everyone. Thank you.
Gemma Treharne-Foose, Volunteer Director and Critic.
Hi, my name is Gemma Treharne-Foose. I’m a board member and volunteer with Get the Chance. We’re a community of volunteers, activists and enthusiasts dedicated to expanding the reach of arts, culture and sports in Wales. At Get the Chance, we exist to create a space and a platform for people to participate, engage in and respond to theatre, arts and culture. In particular, we help people who are perhaps traditionally hard to reach and support them to access and experience these spaces.
Part of the work we do with our community is to encourage and support them to build up their skills, responding to, vlogging about, and writing about their experiences accessing arts, theatre and culture, and also helping them access particular schemes and initiatives with partner organisations.
At the moment the arts and live event industries in Wales are hurting and they’re struggling right now as they try to access support and gain audiences in these uncertain times. I believe this is an arts emergency and I want part of my work with Get the Chance to support the industry to get back on its feet again and to get audiences enjoying live events and theatre again.
If you also want to support and highlight Welsh theatre, arts and culture then I’d encourage you to get involved. Let’s shine a light on the amazing work happening right now in Wales. The show must go on!
Barbara Michaels, Volunteer Critic.
As one of the most senior reviewers who has known Guy O’Donnell for many years, I can’t stress enough how important it is that Get the Chance continues to support the youngsters who want to become involved in the arts, many of them with the aim of a career in the media.
During the time over the years I’ve been reviewing, I’ve been really impressed by the young people who are coming up into the ranks, who have become very knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about their involvement with theatre. Unless we get some financial support, it’s going to be so difficult to continue with an organisation like Get the Chance which does so much good, giving opportunities to young people who wouldn’t have them.
With the cost of seeing the performances of opera and ballet and theatre rising, and inevitably it is going to rise more, it is absolutely vital that we have some support both financially and in all aspects of an organisation like Get the Chance. Thank you.
Kevin B Johnson, Volunteer Critic
Hi my name is Kevin, I work in an office, I like long walks on sunny beaches and I’m Sagittarius. Apart from that, I’m a member of Get the Chance because I like seeing new shows, new films and sharing them with other people, bringing my discoveries to others and getting a chance to view them. I like to highlight what I love about the shows that I’ve seen.
Becky Johnson, Volunteer Critic
Hi my name is Becky Johnson and I’m a member of Get the Chance. I’m actually a freelance dance artist based in Cardiff and I’m a member of Get the Chance alongside that. So with my practice I tend to create work, I tend to perform and I tend to teach, and a big part of me being an artist is making sure that I can see as much work as possible and then also understand the wider perspectives, on not only dance but also the arts in general and the things that are going on in our current climate and our local area.
So with having Get the Chance alongside of it, it allows me to access these different things and to get opportunities to see these, which I wouldn’t necessarily financially be able to do otherwise. Also, it allows me to have that time dedicated to just look at these things analytically and also just to really try and understand what is going on in what I’m watching and what I’m seeing, rather than just watching it and acknowledging what’s happening. Writing with Get the Chance gives me an opportunity to use my voice to promote the things that I really care about and things I’m passionate about, the things I think need to be highlighted, whether that’s something that’s problematic that I see in a show or something that I think’s wonderful that needs to be shown more of and we need to see more of.
Another opportunity that I’ve had recently which has been amazing is the opportunity to interview people that I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to speak to and to be able to give them a voice to speak about their platform and what they’re doing. This is really important to me as a lot of these issues are very important and very close to home and I think it’s something that without this platform I wouldn’t be able to do.
I’ve always loved writing, it’s something that I did always want to pursue but by being a member of Get the Chance I’ve been able to continue my writing in a way that’s still linked with my practice. It means that I can find the balance of both of these feeding each other. I’m really grateful for having this opportunity.
Leslie R Herman, Volunteer Critic
Get the Chance has been one of the ways I’ve been able to maintain a connection to the arts and culture in Wales. I’m writing this message from New York City. It is mid-August 2020. I’ve been unable to get back to Wales due to the Covid pandemic and the global lockdown. Not only am I really missing Wales, I’m missing connection, to people, to places and to the arts and culture that I’ve grown to love and live for – arts and culture that have helped me thrive throughout my life.
At the moment it really feels like we’re all of us spinning in our own orbits and cyberspace is our most vital tool but if that’s all we’ve got, I’m afraid it’s way too nebulous for me. I need to feel more grounded.
Get the Chance really has given me the opportunity to get grounded and to connect to people, to the arts, to culture. It’s given me the opportunity to mentor young people and it’s given me the opportunity to extend and rebuild my own career. What’s marvellous about get the chance is its open and flexible approach to giving people a chance to connect to culture. Why don’t you give Get the Chance a chance?
Beth Armstrong, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name’s Beth. I’m 24, and I’m from Wrexham, North Wales, and I’m currently training to be a primary school teacher. I’m a member of Get the Chance because it allows me to watch a great range of theatre performances which I wouldn’t normally get to see due to financial reasons, and also allows me to see a really diverse range of different kinds of theatre which I think is great for expanding my knowledge and experience of theatre in general.
Having my work published online is a great opportunity for me because it allows me to have a wide audience for my writing, and it also allows me to engage with other reviewers and read their work as well, so it’s a really fantastic opportunity.
Samuel Longville, Volunteer Critic
When I left university, Get the Chance was a really amazing, creative outlet for me. I was able to see so much theatre for free which would have been really difficult at the time, having left university as a not very well-off student. I was working a quite tedious nine-to-five job at the time so Get the Chance really served as that kind of creative outlet for me, allowing me to see as much theatre as possible, and not only to see it but to think about it critically and write reviews about it. So it really let me utilise the things I’d learned on my drama course at university.
I’m soon to start an MA in Arts Management at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and I think, without Get the Chance, my enthusiasm possibly could have wavered over the past year, and I still may be stuck doing the same nine-to-five job that I was previously doing. So I really can’t thank Guy and Get the Chance enough for all the opportunities they gave me over the past year.
Helen Joy, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name is Helen Joy, and I’m here to talk a little bit about my experiences with Guy O’Donnell and his extraordinary Get the Chance. I joined Get the Chance as a 3rd Act Critic when it started, which is a couple of years ago now, and I was a little less grey(!), and it has given me the most extraordinary opportunities that I would not have had the opportunity to take otherwise. For example, I was able to go to the Opera regularly, something I never thought I’d be able to do or that I would enjoy. I’ve been a keen follower of modern dance – ditto, never thought I’d do that – and it’s also given me the chance to really think about how I evaluate things.
So, for example, much more recently, I was given the chance to interview Marvin Thompson. I think this gave me one of the biggest challenges I’ve had for a long time. He, and the experience of planning and conducting an interview, and recording it visually and hourly on Zoom, made me really think about, not just how I wanted to react to him and to his work, but how I felt about it.
Often, I fall into a particular category: of the classic middle-aged, white, educated woman, where the opportunities are already ours, and we’re very lucky with that, but we’re also quite a silent group. People don’t really want to hear what we’ve got to say, which is why we tend to shout it from the rooftops I think; or why, equally, we disappear into the aisles of supermarket. This has given me and my colleagues tremendous opportunities to re-find our voices and to share them, to listen to what other generations have to say. It’s been a really important experience for me. Long may it continue. Thank you!
Barbara Hughes-Moore, Volunteer Critic.
My name is Barbara Hughes-Moore, and I recently completed my Doctorate in Law and Literature at Cardiff School of Law and Politics on Gothic Fiction and Criminal Law. So by day, I’m a scholar, a reviews editor, and a research assistant; and by night, I write longer retrospective pieces on film and television through a gothic and criminal lens on my personal blog.
I’m a member of Get the Chance because its mission is all about increasing the visibility of, and accessibility to, the arts for everyone. Since becoming a member, I have attended and reviewed numerous theatre productions at the Sherman Theatre, the New Theatre, and Chapter Arts Centre. I’ve been a featured speaker on the Sherman Theatre’s post-show panels. And, more recently, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing director Alison Hargreaves on her short film Camelot for the Uncertain Kingdom Anthology. Most importantly of all, Get the Chance has not only given me a voice – it has given me the space, the opportunity, and the confidence to use it.
Gareth Williams, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name is Gareth. I am 29 years old and I live in North East Wales, and I’ve been asked to say why I’m a member of Get the Chance, and I want to answer by slightly rephrasing the question in order to say what Get the Chance means to me. And first of all, it means having the opportunity to respond to the arts in Wales; to contribute to the discussion around arts and culture in Wales; and to engage with various art forms.
To that end, it is an opportunity to support and promote artists and organisations, particularly those that I’m passionate about. So for me, that looks like theatre, particularly the work of Theatr Clwyd in Mold; music – I’m a fan of country music, and it’s great to be able to showcase Welsh country music talent on the Get the Chance website – and TV drama. Welsh TV drama is going through a bit of a golden age at the moment, and it’s great to be able to be a part of that as somebody who critically reviews these shows as a writer.
I’ve always been much better at writing than speaking. I’ve never been very good at expressing an opinion though because of low self-esteem and confidence. But being a member of Get the Chance has given me an opportunity to express an opinion. It’s increased my self-esteem and my confidence to speak about how I feel about the things that I see and watch and listen to and engage with. And I think, for me, that is the most important thing about being a member of Get the Chance: that opportunity to express an opinion which, a couple of years ago, I would not have had the confidence to do.
Sian Thomas, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name is Sian. The main reason I joined Get the Chance is because I love reading and I’ve always loved reading, and I really like having a definitive place where I can put down my thoughts on any piece of media and see people respond in so many different ways, and even the authors of the books that I’ve reviewed responding in so many different ways as well. It’s really lovely to have that kind of freedom of expression and I really value being a member.
Amina Elmi, Volunteer Critic
I am a member of Get the Chance because it gives me a platform where I can speak my mind . It allows me to give my opinion and being able to do so enables me to explore the media, the news and whatever preferred genre or medium of entertainment I want.
When it was introduced to me I was into writing and that has helped shape what dreams and ideals I have while also keeping my writing skills at a solid, good level. I am fortunate to be a part of Get The Chance because it has given me opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.
Hannah Goslin, Volunteer Critic
I am a member of Get the Chance because theatre and the arts is what I eat, live and breath. To be able to connect with fellow performers, practitioners, critics and journalists is a wonderful chance to learn, be inspired and to network.
In response to the lockdown triggered by COVID-19, many arts organisations have taken their work online, sharing content for audiences to view for free. However, creating participatory engagement online is much more challenging and, as a sector used to being face to face with people in their practice, it’s clear that the current restrictions change the nature of participatory arts based activity substantially.
Following a vital conversation on social media led by Guy O’Donnell, Learning and Participation Producer, National Dance Company Wales which opened a discussion on how we can deliver participatory arts effectively, a range of partners are collaborating to lead Zoom discussions for the sector where we can talk about the impact of the lockdown on our work and work creatively together to think beyond the lockdown.
In partnership with ArtWorks Cymru a series of free Zoom meetings have been set up to discuss and share current working practices in participatory delivery.
Capturing the Learning
These Zoom meetings will explore how we capture the learning from organisations and artists who are currently delivering projects. We’ll explore what methods are working well, what are we learning through this experience, and how we are adapting our working practices.
Kelly Barr, Arts and Creativity Programme Manger Age Cymru hosted the first Zoom participation meeting. The meetings are free to attend but numbers are limited. Kelly gives an overview of the work Age Cymru has created to meet the challenges and the companies solutions to support the public and her service users in the current climate.
Hi can you tell me a little about yourself and your organisation?
Hi, I’m Kelly Barr, and I am the Arts and Creativity Programme Manager at Age Cymru, who are the national charity for older people in Wales. I have been working on participatory arts projects with all sorts of organisations for 6 years, including NDCWales, Earthfall and the Sherman.
The two main arts projects here at Age Cymru are Gwanwyn Festival, an annual celebration of creative ageing which happens in May each year, and cARTrefu, the largest arts in care homes project in Europe.
We also run other projects throughout the year that might try to tackle isolation and loneliness (like our Gwanwyn Clubs), stereotypes of ageing or representation of older people.
Your organisation is hosting one of the free Participatory Arts – Capturing the Learning / Beyond the Lockdown meetings. Why do you agree to support these events?
I am in a very fortunate position to still be working at this time, and I felt like I had a responsibility to support conversations within the participatory sector. I saw many people reacting wonderfully quickly and adapting their practice, but I also recognised that that isn’t always an option, particularly with the groups of people that I work with. I have always believed that we have much to learn from each other so it was an ideal opportunity to do my bit to support some good practice sharing.
What challenges has lockdown present to the delivery of your service?
Gwanwyn Festival has often been about bringing people together, many of whom are in the high-risk category at the moment, so we made the decision fairly swiftly to postpone the festival.
We had a duty of care to protect the people that might attend the festival events, and those that are running them.The creative ageing sector is very supportive so I have been lucky enough to have regular chats with colleagues across the UK and Ireland (Gwanwyn Festival was inspired by Bealtaine Festival), so that we can support each other to think about how festivals like ours might work moving forwards.
We also knew early on that it was going to be difficult to continue to deliver the cARTrefu project, as care homes were starting to close their doors in early March. We’re lucky to have supportive funders who we will be able to work closely with as things progress. We have multiple scenario plans but are very much being led by what care homes want and need right now.
What issues have your service users/participants faced?
I’m really proud to be part of Age Cymru, as they have been able to adapt really quickly during the pandemic to ensure that older people in Wales are supported. We run an Information and Advice line, which received a 200% increase in calls at the start of the pandemic; people needed advice on whether they should be self-isolating or shielding, where they could get support with food shopping and collecting prescriptions. People have also struggled to access their money, and needed support to find new ways to stay in touch with family members. I’m pleased to say that we have been able to help, in partnership with our local Age Cymru partners, Age Connects and other voluntary services across Wales.
What systems did you put in place to ensure delivery?
Many of us are well-used to working from home, but it’s been really important to find moments to connect with colleagues. Many of us are spending most of our day making calls to older people through our Check In and Chat service, so it’s not always easy to have online ‘meetings’ as often as we used to have physical meetings. So we’ve set up Whatsapp groups, we send voice-notes, have catch-up phone calls, send pet pictures (in my case, plants!) as well as whole team Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings. It’s ever changing and adapting!
With my specific work, it’s about being available to our partners and being flexible and open about the realities. We’ve been taking time as a team to think further ahead, and problem solve, and take any opportunities we can. We’re also keen to use Gwanwyn and cARTrefu Facebook, Gwanwyn Twitter and cARTrefu Instagram to promote creative opportunities for older people as far as we can.
Did you have any particular challenges or success that you would like to share?
Back in April, I, like many people who are in a position to, wanted to offer out informal chats to anyone interested in running creative ageing projects, or having to adapt current projects. I had no expectations of what would come from this, only that it felt like the right thing to do, but it’s introduced me to new practitioners and individuals, which has helped to build up my understanding of what’s happening in Wales. Many people I might have struggled to physically meet pre-lockdown, due to being based in Cardiff, I have been able to connect with over the phone. I hope to continue to offer this out and to meet more people – digitally!
What are your plans for future delivery?
We’re exploring a range of options at the moment, but we’ll be working closely with our Gwanwyn Festival event organisers to look at how this might be possible. There may be ways to replicate events online, or using social distance rules. I have no doubt that our event organisers are already coming up with innovative and interesting ways to continue to connect to people and I’m looking forward to working together to adapt and learn!
With cARTrefu, we are ensuring that we are listening to care homes, and being led by their needs right now. We have developed a fortnightly e-newsletter that gives care homes low-resource activities to try, and links to lots of online performances and activities from Age Cymru (like Tai Chi classes, now on our website) and other organisations.
I’m aware that we’re now regularly speaking to people that are more isolated, some of whom who aren’t connected to the internet, so a lot of my thinking has been about how to stay connected to them and to provide interactive creative opportunities that are offline.
I’d like to highlight Age Cymru’s Friend in Need service that has launched this week, and direct anyone to it if they’ve been supporting someone who is self-isolating or shielding through lockdown. There’s lots of useful guides and resources, as well as details of our new Befriending scheme – Friend in Need
A range of organisations have worked to continue delivery of their art form during lockdown are there any that you would like to mention that you found either professionally or personally useful?
I’d love to highlight the wonderful speakers from our first Participatory Arts Capturing the Learning Event:
The perfect balance of accessibility and enchantment, Carmen
provides an in-between of West-end theatrics and operatic skill.
Carmen is one of the more renowned operas and this rendition
from the Welsh National Opera has been immensely popular, bringing it back for
their spring season. Unlike other opera’s I’ve seen, not all the text used was sung
but there was a split between spoken moments and song. This blend of
familiarity meant that Carmen provided an easily accessible route into opera,
especially for those that are already used to seeing musical productions. Carmen
bared various resemblances to musicals I’ve seen prior such as Miss Saigon;
this was both in setting and the dynamics throughout the show. Therefore, there
was more breath and pause from the mixture of song and text which meant that as
a whole, the opera felt much shorter to the audience watching (which I’m sure
we know from the Harry Potter films is extremely important).
Throughout the whole of the piece, the ensemble were extremely
invested in their own roles and their individual plots within the piece. This
gave substance to the main storyline and the audience could easily follow that
throughout. The children were incredible, taking their roles with maturity and
giving true investment into their parts. My only criticism, being that you
could notice when they were waiting for prompts which is no fault of their own
but due to a lesser understanding and experience of improvising to fill the
It was the moments in which the focus was on the ensemble
that stay with me from the performance. Examples being: The children, mocking
the guards in their barracks, bringing a whirlwind of my life and joy to the
stage, The women from the tobacco factory, with their relentless desire and allure,
The gun smuggling scene, hiding weapons within various props and what you saw
was completely different to that of the person sat next to you due to the
variety and depth of what was occurring on stage, And finally, the
light-hearted scene outside of the bullring, with street vendors and people
haggling for refreshments.
The use of sound coming from the stage during these moments
were wonderful. There were made by the ensemble to accompany the orchestra and
added a sense of true passion coming from the performers. When they stamped
stools, clapped and slapped their body parts, the full stage came alive
radiating towards the audience.
I found the main characters struggled with their realism,
especially within moments of intimacy. When Carmen kisses Jose, the kiss feels
distant as the characters aren’t close enough, I almost desired a real kiss to
fulfil those moments. It seems to be these moments between Jose and Carmen that
lacked their depth, another example being when Carmen hits Jose with a towel
but does it so softly that the anger doesn’t seep through in the way intended.
In opposition to this, Escamillo embodies his character wonderfully, portraying
himself in such a way that the audience dislikes his arrogance. However,
physically, when posing and using stronger gestures, he needed to be more over
the top and exaggerated to really stay true to his characters’ aurora.
There were moments of confusion throughout the piece for the
audience, especially in regards as to what was being sang by whom. The subtitles
didn’t repeat, even when a character did. Also, when two characters were
singing a call and response section, this failed due to them both singing both
parts combined with the lack of captions above. In order to fix the problems
within the call and response between characters, it could require something as
simple as just spatial re-alignment. By moving the characters to different
parts of the stage, the audience would be forced to look from character to
character and therefore, from one side to the other which would ensure the
audience understands the conversations being had.
To conclude, I think Carmen is the perfect gateway between a
musical and an opera. With song, dance and text, the audience is immersed
throughout the performance and is moved alongside the storyline with the
characters. However, I feel this rendition needed more work with the small
details, those that change a performance into excellence. By working on the
physicality of the main characters and fine tuning on key moments, the whole
storyline would become easier to follow to the audience.
A magnificent experience from start to end; if you haven’t been to see a live orchestra, I cannot recommend the experience enough, especially a performance by the BBC National Orchestra.
For the annual “Dydd Gwyl Dewi” by the BBC National Orchestra and chorus of Wales, a celebration of all things Welsh occurred. The event marks the start of a partnership with Orchestre Synphonique de Bretagne and was conducted by Musical Director Grant Llewellyn. This collaboration showcased performances from the National Youth Orchestra and the orchestra’s partnership with the Welsh folk band Calan.
The performance began with the string section and wow! The bows leaped and danced in bounds of rhythm and movement with each other. Mesmerised by the spiralling and winding of the violinists, the sound echoed both visually in front of us as well as audibly, surrounding our senses. It was only in the moments of rest in which the musicians once again became human. Otherwise, you were entranced by the bountiful immersion occurring on stage.
Whilst conducting Llewellyn, would dance (although often like a dad whilst making dinner in the kitchen) with the music taking over his physical being which would emit onto us, the audience. There were moments which were Matilda-esque, playing with the electricity between the different musicians.
Flickers of imagery from time to time would overwhelm my
thoughts, either that of memories of children playing in fields or of the roaming
hills I would often watch through a train window. I felt at peace.
Each piece within the performance held its own providing a
new stimulus for us to focus on. The second was more heavily percussioned. Again,
the musicians danced, but this time it was those playing the Glockenspiel that
lead the way, bouncing from note to note. My only questions being that once the
choir was introduced, does the orchestra take a backseat? As the audience, both
parts seemed equally powerful and important so I questioned whether one should
be a lesser superior component.
With the third piece, there was also this playing of power. The soloist, Angharad Lynddon, sombre in tone but beautifully delicate with accent, teased between the everchanging balance between the orchestra and herself. This teasing continued into the fourth piece, with a sense of non- competitive play in rolling waves of triumph.
The fifth, probably my favourite of the day, balanced the
old and the new in the most magical way. It balanced the factors of delicate
comedy with moments that were boisterous with power in such a way we were
enchanted by the relentless percussion.
This continuation of a modern fusion with the more classical
was profound in the second half of the show. There was an explosion of life
with odes to all elements of traditional welsh culture, with references from
Caws to clog dancing. However, I do feel with the introduction of Calan, both
the orchestra and choir became neglected. The percussion was replaced by the
rhythmic plucking of the guitarist and the focus was turned more towards the
band. I desired a more equal balance between the components, whether this could
have occurred spatially, with the band in the centre of the orchestra or if it
was something musical that needed to be altered. Although, it was incredible to
watch Llewellyn conduct both the orchestra and the band, with the relationship
between the three was clearly evident.
To conclude, the whole experience and atmosphere was a magnificent experience from start to end; if you haven’t been to see a live orchestra, I cannot recommend the experience enough, especially a performance by the BBC National Orchestra.
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events. / Lleisiau amrywiol o Gymru yn ymateb i'r celfyddydau a digwyddiadau byw