The WNO Chorus embark on The Mayflower. Pictures: Bill Cooper


Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Will Todd, whose opera Migrations enthralled Birmingham's Hippodrome in a brilliant, energetic premiere by Welsh National Opera, may not be a name as familiar as Mozart, Mendelssohn or Grammy Award-winning Eric Whitacre in Classic FM's regular repertoire.

Of other Contemporary composers the station is fond of featuring , John Rutter, doyen of beautiful carol arrangements and finely crafted popular anthems, perhaps shines out.

Yet to be fair, not only is Will Todd's hugely popular, jazz-inspired (and widely performed) Mass in Blue (2003) an exception, being often played there in whole or in part, but Classic FM has paid him this wholesome tribute: "Will Todd's music is now synonymous with a delicate choral beauty". No mean accolade.

That exceptional jazz Mass setting certainly catapaulted him into a deserved place in the top bracket. Todd's first opera The Blackened Man won top international prizes twenty years ago: by then he was well on the way to deserved fame to becoming, without a shadow of doubt, one of the most exciting composers at work in England today.

Will Todd is delightfully prolific: his endlessly imaginative output ( builds and builds, all to rich advantage. His first major orchestral work, Winter Dances, was composed when he was just 19: and dancing, jazzy and spirited, is what his invariably gripping music so often does.

Not merely that: his oratorio St. Cuthbert begins like dark mysterious Mahler, and feels a match for any European composer of the 20th century. His thunderous, deeply pessimistic cantata The Burning Road, to an inspired text, is a match for Britten or Tippett, its lamenting solos riddled with beauty. Passion Music, some 40 minutes long, is for a female Gospel soloist, SATB & jazz ensemble.

His opera Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with its dazzling (and fun) accompaniments, has also a clever, witty - and immensely sensible, thoughtful - libretto. And it's conceived with not self-advertising, but modest intentions: "Our Alice opera", he says, "is totally a homage to Lewis Carroll's books and characters. If we have made them alive in music on the stage in a way that doesn't belittle them, we are happy." But spot the magical influences: Leonard Bernstein; Kurt Weill; Glenn Miller!


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A new life in a new world with the Pilgrim Fathers

Cheering a cold Birmingham, Migrations is Todd's latest opera, and has already won acclaim. "Migrations pulses with life", said The Times. It certainly does. What's more, its six separate yet closely intertwined sections employ not one, but six librettists. One is Sir David Pountney, WNO's previous Artistic Director (and before that, Scottish Opera, ENO and the picturesque, Lake Constance-bestriding Bregenz Festival), who penned the first sequence, in which he captured the famous story of the Mayflower and the dissenting Pilgrim Fathers, whilst devising and overseeing this entire production for its Cardiff premiere.

Add the leadership - of WNO's as usual first-class orchestra, which rose magnificently to the different instrumental colourings (not forgetting the lulling sound of the sitar in the final part) and of its famous massed chorus too - provided by conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren (who conducted the premiere of Will Todd's Alice at Holland Park, and is himself of part Ghanaian descent) and lo! Migrations at the Hippodrome proved a palpable hit with Birmingham's ever-receptive audience.

WNO's General Director Aidan Lang, who returned to head the company via New Zealand and the USA's Pacific coast (Seattle), and whose inventiver planning magnified the opera status of Buxton's celebrated festival, gives an insight into current thinking: "Our overall programming," he explains, "reflects our mission as a Company to find connections between our work and the lives that we all live today."

Well, it certainly does that here. The subject of Migrations, perhaps a mite fashionable, yet deeply emotive, and highly relevant today, is black slavery, much of it stemming from west Africa. The opera explores, quite expansively and in detail, the four subsequent centuries. It starts in the early 1600s; assails head-on the appalling and heartless human trade pervading (and disgracing) the 18th century; and notes a hopeful Quaker-led abolition movement opposed to slavery vocally, in written tracts and through a run of unsuccessful attempts in Parliament.

There was far more opposition to this obnoxious trade, once so taken for granted, than is usually (or currently) credited. The great independent reformer William Wilberforce (1759-1833) spearheaded the movement - launched in the latter 18th, till Westminster finally yielded and eradicated the whole ugly practice in 1833, just days before this noble campaigner died. Later stages bring us to the present day: anger, outrage, and - however you view them - demands for retrospective retribution.

This whole admirable dramatic concept worked: avoiding the admitted danger of disparity, the outcome was strikingly unified. This team of different writers and stage directors clearly worked well, and with admirable consistency, together: the designer, Loren Elstein; costumes (a huge number to design or locate) April Dalton; choreography Melody Squire; and Sarah Crisp's faithful precision in taking over from Pountney the heavy task of coordinating these whopping great forces.

The Children's Chorus of Birds

Exquisite Dance, involving several differently composed ensembles, embracing young and community, permeates Migrations. Above all is a sensational, touching evocation of bird flight by enchantingly dressed children. Nursed by Squire (she choreographed Tiger Bay - The Musical for Wales Millennium Centre in 2017) they created a blissful, beautifully rehearsed display. The second, penultimate and final scenes (librettist/writer of two of them is Sarah Woods), especially Shreya Sen-Handley's staging of the Indian-infused last, bring us virtually up to date. ' The English Lesson' (no. 5) examines social prejudice and rejection in the otherwise liberated 1960s (hostility to the large postwar Caribbean community) and hence challenges our view of immigrants today - even though such an asset to Britain's economy and well-being.

Abdul Shayek, the highly intelligent, articulate director, recognises the deeply unpleasant experience gone through by so many. His family arrived as so-called 'economic' (not war-battered) migrants. England has always been a melting pot, a millpond of immigration and - within a generation or two (as now) their children are all totally integrated, being schooled together as equals: as British as anyone. Shayek underlines why these Romanian builders, or Polish plasterers, nurses from east or west Africa, or subcontinent doctors, are of such immense benefit to us. We simply could not do without them.

In Migrations, as usual, WNO's large and versatile chorus members creating individual and varied characters, coloured by contrasting, almost counterpointed moves. Here, sharing their skills with others, they shine. Thanks to Will Todd's intelligent, and almost instinctive, weaving together of disparate yet finely juxtaposed stories, we found in his music all we could ask for: a score of staggering dexterity, replete with anger and disgust offset by sensitivity and insight, lent this haunting staging enormous potency.


Tom Randle in The English Lesson

It allowed for some star performances, too. The soloist to lather with praise was Tom Randle. American-born (in Hollywood), Randle is very much a 'known'. He played the doomed Earl of Essex, in Opera North's (and ENO's) unforgettable Gloriana (an opera which WNO were among the first to record, under Sir Chartles Mackerras).

Tom Randle has gone on to make himself one of the UK's supreme opera singers as well as character actors. Our own Midland opera festival (Longborough) cast him (like ENO) as Ulysses in Monteverdi's monumental opera about Odysseus's return home. Randle was Judas in Glyndebourne's premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper; Achilles in Tippett's King Priam; and the crazed Monostatos in Kenneth Branagh's memorabler film of The Magic Flute.

Everything Randle touches turns to gold. Migrations only confirmed this. The voice is purest of the pure, utterly captivating, absorbing across the full tenor range and beyond. Here in Birmingham he, uniquely, featured in three separate scenes: no. 2, 'Treaty Six', an amazingly evoked retelling of the story of a woman of the Cree tribe battling the oil exploitation that threatened to destroying the virgin forests of (at least part of) Canada: pristine Alberta versus the whole of capitalist enterprise. Marion Newman sang notably this extraordinary woman, batting for the sustaining, not the undermining, of the planet, aided by a handful of chiefs of the north American Cree population (including Randle, 'Chief Pay-Pay-See-See-Moo').

Will Todd has an undeniable gift of writing for voices (over 30 carols published by Boosey & Hawkes, a Jazz Missa Brevis, or 'In this Wondrous Burst of Starlight', premiered this month by the Immanuel Church, Shillington, Pennsylvania). It extends not just to numerous choir groups, but - as with Randle - to solo roles. Sometimes Todd displays invaluable pre-knowledge of the intended performer. Moreover, if he has not previously composed for that particular singer, he has a gift of writing as if he knew them; thus time again, his music fits the role to the letter.


Marion Newman (left as Dawn) amd Isabelle Peters as Nadine in Treat No 6


Having already launched out as a composer while studying in Bristol, and now just into his fifties, Todd is patently as youthful, cheerful and characterful as the student of 1992. His opera Isambard Kingdom Brunel coincides, intriguingly, with the third, and possibly hardest-hitting passage in Migrations: an indictment of the brutal 18th century abuse of the enslaved, in Migrations, packed, rather like the channel crossers of today, in vast, cramped numbers. Randle sings Pero (1740-1818), a known slave in (coincidentally) Bristol whose life paradoxically - because he did occupy quite an elevated rank as a senior domestic servant - is quite well documented.

Perhaps a last word might be to revisit the fourth section, Birds, whose librettist Eric Ngalle Charles was born and till the age of 17 grew up in south-west Cameroon. Mocked and maltreated there, he was, as he describes it, trafficked to Europe: he'd aspired to get to Belgium but ended up in a corrupt and corrupting Russia, where in a suburb of Moscow even (particularly) his fellow expatriate Africans mocked, belittled and - worse - tortured him.

To counteract such misery, on even virtually sleepless nights he used to dream, wishing that he was a bird, guided by the winds, enjoying complete freedom: the rain-bringer bird, the Ezruli or weaver-bird, the ever-flitting South African Kwai bird. Birds' migrations are not enforced, but natural. In the end Wales has been his haven; and still the birds - swallows, kites, starlings - enchant.

So how fitted he is to have conceived this most charming of the opera's six scenes, where the magical bird-costumes and evocative acting of the meticulously choreographed children evoked such an endearing, contrasting sense of freedom.

Migrations, Will Todd recalls, "is the most complicated piece I've ever worked on", seeking 'sufficient connectedness' within the music to do justice to, and intertwine, this essentially moral tale, whilst offsetting the savagery with glimmers of charm and hope.

He has surely triumphed. The enraptured Birmingham audience evidently thought so. If it has been filmed, could it not go on to DVD?

Welsh National Opera returns to Birmingham Hippodrome in 2023 with (at the Hippodrome) a new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute (Wednesday 3rd to Friday 5th May); plus Blaze of Glory!, a new work (Saturday 6th May) extolling the efforts of a handful of South Wales miners to resurrect a Male Voice Choir, trying to restore morale after a castastrophic mining disaster.

Finally (Wednesday 12 July) they will bring Leonard Bernstein's rip-roaring Candide to the Alexandra Theatre).

One other piece of news: the WNO Orchestra has been invited to perform at the world-famous Prague Spring Festival in May.

Roderic Dunnett


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