Climbing the Tower

Music Theatre Wales’ Artistic Director Michael McCarthy talks to Robbie Carnegie about Y Tŵr

RC: How did this project come about?

MM: We knew composer Guto Puw for some time, especially in connection with his work as Resident Composer for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Having won a Creative Wales Award to allow him to explore the idea of writing an opera, Guto approached us to find out how to go about it. We were very interested in him, and suggested the best way forward was for him to come up with an idea and we would take it from there, one step at a time. In fact, Guto already had the play Y Tŵr (The Tower) in mind – he’d seen it as a youngster (the play, by Gwenlyn Parry was written in 1978 for the National Eisteddfod) and it had made a great impact on him, thanks to its powerful linguistic sense of location and the sincerity of its story. The next stage was to put him together with a writer, so we suggested Gwyneth Glyn, an accomplished playwright and screenwriter but also singer-songwriter, who had previously worked with MTW on a Welsh-language version of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, and they found an overlap of interest that would combine to create this piece. We suggested that Guto and Gwyneth should come up with a first act, which we then workshopped. Realising that Y Tŵr had enormous potential, we invited Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (the Welsh language National Theatre of Wales) to attend the conclusion of the workshop and on the basis of their feedback asked them to team up with us on the commission and creation of this production.

RC: What are the themes of the opera?

MM: Y Tŵr is Parry’s most straightforward and lyrical work, which moves away from the more absurdist themes that are a feature of his other plays. ‘The Tower’ of the title is a symbolic idea, encapsulating a couple’s journey through life together, going up by floors representing the different stages of their lives. That makes it a good vehicle for looking at how people behave, both individually and as a couple, with a core emotional content that is completely timeless.

RC: How is Y Tŵr going to be staged?

MM: It has a simple, but symbolic staging – a platform with a ladder running through it representing the upward journey through life. As a starting-point for the design of the show, we looked to the Dutch ‘vanitas’ paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, where a single still life encapsulates an individual’s life. The challenge was how to portray two people aging 60 years on stage. We’ve decided to have two dressing tables where the singers can be seen aging in front of our eyes, thus bringing the audience into the inner world of the characters as they age by encouraging them to accept the theatrical device that demonstrates it.

RC: I believe Buxton’s the only place Y Tŵr can be seen outside Wales?

MM: It is really important to us to show a non-Welsh-speaking audience how Welsh is a dynamic, living language which lends itself brilliantly to a musical setting, and we’re thrilled to be bringing Y Tŵr to Buxton where we’ve shared such successes as The Golden Dragon, The Killing Flower and Greek. And it’s opera, which audiences are used to hearing in all sorts of languages, so why not Welsh? As Gwyneth Glyn says, the drama is both personal and universal, just like the language which is both highly specific in location and yet carries a message for us all – about how to live and how to love.

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Y Tŵr will be performed at Buxton Festival on Monday 17 July at 7.15pm

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