From Wales, an Evocative New Take on "Under Milk Wood"

Mar 4, 2015

Editor's Note (by Barney): In 1951, Dylan Thomas spent some time in Iowa. Two years later, his now-classic play Under Milk Wood premiered in New York City at the 92nd Street YNow, Susan Scheid, who spent some years in Iowa before moving to New York, tells us below about a Welsh composer who recently dared to set Under Milk Wood to music. The beautiful results won ovations from the toughest possible critics - the Dylan Thomas Society. Over to Susan:  

A boat named for the (fictional) Welsh fishing village in "Under Milk Wood"
Credit Tony in Devon on Wikimedia commons
 When asked whether an opera was needed for a work as popular as Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Welsh composer John Metcalf replied, “Nothing is needed!” Indeed, when Metcalf embarked on the project, some among his friends and colleagues counseled against it. 

Metcalf, whom The Independent has called “Wales's most celebrated opera composer,” is a modest man, not given to acts of bravado. Also, as a Welshman born and bred, he had to know that the long knives—or perhaps Welsh archers of the sort who won Agincourt for Henry V—would be out for him if he got it wrong. His motivation, at its foundation, was straightforward: “I think what inspires me is really, really great work.” Under Milk Wood is certainly that—and it’s also a text Metcalf, like so many in Wales, knows in his bones.

Metcalf adapted the libretto from Under Milk Wood using only Thomas’s words, and his music is supremely sensitive to Thomas’s language and tone. The opera is set in a radio broadcast studio, where nine singers perform upwards of thirty roles. The singers, both individually and as an ensemble, are outstanding throughout. Each member of the cast combines to voice with supple clarity the full spectrum of the comic (“Dreams of the Ogmore-Pritchards”), the poignant (“Rev. Jenkins’s Sunset Poem”), and sheer radiant loveliness (Elizabeth Donovan in “Polly Garter’s Aria," below) the text requires:

  

 

Also onstage are five agile, accomplished musicians. Each one plays several instruments, including a crwth, a stringed instrument of ancient pedigree built specifically for the production. (Its summoning of atmosphere can be heard in conjunction with Rev. Jenkins’s arias.) Also, hearkening back to a pre-digital radio age, the opera includes live sound effects, called “Foleys,” to mimic everything from horses’ hooves to rattling false teeth.

John Metcalf's "Under Milk Wood" in performance
Credit Kirtsen McTernan, courtesy Taliesin Arts Centre
Throughout this skillfully through-composed opera, each note sung and played and each musical gesture evokes the world of Llareggub with subtlety, wit, and grace. One particularly bewitching example is “Johnnie Crack and Flossie Snail,” in which the Cwm Glas Primary School Choir adds cherubic singing to a decidedly off-kilter tale. Metcalf and the cast of singers and musicians capture not only Thomas’s earthy humor, but also, in equal measure, his deep affection for the people and landscape Under Milk Wood depicts. 

But don’t take my word for it: ask the Welsh. I’m told by a listener who was present at the 2014 world premiere that members of the venerable Dylan Thomas Society were in attendance. The premiere wasn’t just anywhere, but at the Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea, where Dylan Thomas—and John Metcalf—were born. If there were archers among the listeners, their longbows weren’t in sight. At the end of the performance, the packed house, members of the Dylan Thomas Society included, rose as a body for a standing ovation. It was the first of many as the production toured Wales, and it has garnered praise and honors ever since. Now, with grateful thanks for the excellent recording from Tŷ Cerdd Records, anyone, anywhere, can turn the dial and listen in.

  Susan Scheid writes about music, poetry, and other matters at Prufrock's Dilemma. Last year, she reviewed two works by John Adams for IPR.