Gareth Mattey - Observing Y Tŵr in rehearsal
A few weeks ago, just as rehearsals for Y Tŵr were getting started, director, Gareth Mattey joined us in the room to observe Michael McCarthy and Music Theatre Wales in action. Below he reflects on what he experienced and provides a vivid account of his response to the music and drama of Y Tŵr… thank you Gareth!
I was very excited and very thankful for the opportunity to recently observe a few days of rehearsals with Music Theatre Wales on their upcoming production of Y Tŵr, a newly commissioned Welsh language opera, adapting a Welsh language drama by Gwenlyn Parry. As a director, I’ve been principally interested in new and contemporary opera so to have the chance to gain insight into how MTW’s rehearsal room works was an invaluable experience!
The couple of days observing didn’t go straight to plan however – by accident of timing, the first day I was observing, one of the two performers in the opera was away and so the majority of the day was devoted to the opera’s music, focusing on Old Man’s music in Act 3. In a way though, this turned out to be the perfect introduction to my couple of days observing as it allowed me to fully experience and hear the sound world before Michael (the director) continued with the staging later that afternoon and the next day.
The music itself, composed by Guto Puw, was not necessarily what I expected from a contemporary opera. There tends to be an expectation of harsh angular sounds dominating modern and contemporary opera, but I found myself listening to music that was lyrical and melodic, that was rhythmically complex, full of character and deeply responsive to the character of the drama. It hooked me straight away and held my attention through the music call, as it grew increasingly rich and dark as they pushed towards the end of Act 3.
What I found particularly interesting was the way memory was at work in the opera, both dramatically and musically. In Act 3, musical memories of earlier moments seemed to bleed through, dynamically shifting the rhythm as they remember an earlier moment together before the music quickly slows, as the memories grow fainter and more dulled with time. This demonstrated what is particularly unique about this opera (and the source material it adapts) – it tells a very real story about the relationship of two people in a very symbolic and metaphorical environment (the tower of the opera’s title).
When Michael joined us later in the day, several things became immediately clear. The first was how excited he was by this opera – whenever talking about it and when leading rehearsal, his enthusiasm for the piece was incredibly infectious. It was also clear how rigorously Michael knew the text of the opera despite not being a Welsh speaker. As the best directors are, he was utterly and fully committed to the opera and it made the process a joy to observe!
From talking to Michael, he was very aware of the major challenges of this opera, namely balancing the story’s real emotional impulses alongside the opera’s symbolic dimension. He often worked in short bursts of blocking, staging several phrases before slowly building everything together. Michael admitted this was not how he usually worked but given the complexity of some of the music as well as the amount of music and text the singers (Gwion Thomas and Caryl Hughes) have to learn, he took the decision to break it down further. While this has risks, especially when thinking of the big picture of the opera as a whole, what it allowed them to develop together were moments of such small subtlety that clearly and competently developed their relationship.
These subtle moments included the touching of a shoulder, the looks to one another and the symbolic ladder that dominates the symbolic space, the easy conversational edge to how Man and Woman interact, the moments when they age and the speed with which they age. The work operates at many levels (especially in Act 3 as memories of earlier times start to intrude and fade away) and Michael’s approach in rehearsal seemed to ground the heart of the drama in the emotional relationship of a couple ageing together.
The second day I was observing saw Michael working with Gwion, Caryl and Richard (the conductor) to draw together these small sections into a complete act. What was particularly of note was the powerful stillness that starts to build through this final act and what was reassuring to see was the willingness Michael demonstrated to embrace this stillness – stillness not for lack of imagination or through ‘too much music’ but purposefully still, that beautifully met the demands of the drama and its conclusion. It gives these final moments a painterly edge, a still life, which I am incredibly excited to see in the wider context of the opera.
Throughout the two days, it was fantastic being able to talk and discuss contemporary opera with a group of people utterly dedicated and enthused by it. It also made very clear that MTW isn’t pursuing this project simply because it is in Welsh, simply to fill any number of cultural or artistic boxes. It was made abundantly clear, from the attitude and commitment of everyone in the room, that this was a very strong, unique work of art that could easily stand alongside the company’s repertoire, that demonstrates the operatic potential of the Welsh language (and makes me more keen to re-connect with my Welsh heritage!).
I cannot wait to join them later in the process to observe some stage and orchestra rehearsals at the Sherman Theatre and urge anyone and everyone interested to catch the production at some point during its tour!