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…

A Coffee With: Nancy Gaffield

Taking time out from her busy schedule of teaching and writing, I caught up with Nancy Gaffield and asked her about the impact turning her cycle of poems, Tokaido Road, into a libretto has had on her work.

What impact has creating a libretto from your cycle of poems had on the poems themselves ?

Nancy Gaffield

Nancy Gaffield

I was thinking about this, even before you asked the question. When you write, you are always aware that your work is going to be released into the world and become its own entity, although you’re not often mindful of this until you see a review! So you have no control over people or their responses to your work. But now I see people quoting my lines on Twitter! People are reading them in so many ways, and the poems take on a life of their own. Still, it’s surprising! Not negative; just surprising. Ownership is much more collective. I think Nicola now knows my poems better than I do…

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