Poetry into opera: Under Milk Wood

Fascinating interview here with composer John Metcalf in The Independent, in which he talks to Jessica Duchen about turning Dylan Thomas’ inventive, dazzling fairy-tale-cum-radio-play Under Milk Wood into an opera.



Bursting with linguistic invention beyond its diminutive published stature, Thomas’ evocative and magical piece often references music; Organ Morgan, devoted to Bach and Palestrina, his wife eternally proclaiming ‘Oh, I’m a martyr to music;’ the music of the spheres heard over the wood, ‘perturbation and music in Coronation Street;’ PC Attila Rees playing cadenzas on his truncheon.

Confronted by the no doubt daunting task of making an opera out of something which each listener owns as a work part radio-play, part drama, revealingly Metcalf says

In general, whenever I got stuck during the composition process, I found that there was one solution: go back to the Thomas.

As with Tokaido Road, turning a poem into an opera represents a challenge for the composer as well as the poet (read Nancy Gaffield’s take on working with composer Nicola LeFanu on turning her poetry-cycle into the opera here). Thomas’ richly inventive language sways and blossoms with a music all of its own; and clothing this in a musical language for the opera would bear its own burdens, not least for something so well-loved in its original form; Metcalf comments that his score looks ‘to pick out the dislocated, alienated quality of the town and its people. But at the same time, my work is very lyrical.’

A fascinating prospect in store; between the 3 to 5 April, Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre might just be the place to be…