The Birth of the Welsh National Opera Company: Idloes Owen remembered by Mollie Hair

Mollie Hair in Carmen for the Welsh National Opera Company

To help celebrate my mum’s 90th birthday I am publishing here her memory of the founding father of the Welsh national Opera Company, Idloes Owen. As she was in her early twenties at the time, she believes that she is the last surviving founder member of WNO. Here is her memory of the man who inspired her and gave her a life-long love of opera.

At the age of four, Mollie Hair told her mother she was off to dance in Fairyland and promised to come back and visit from time-to-time. At the age of 15 she left her home in Penarth, South Wales and trained at Sadlers Wells and the Cone School of Dancing (now Arts Educational Schools) in London. In 1941 she transferred her talents to help the war effort by joining the army as a physical training instructor.

By 1943, Mollie was stationed close to home in Newport and awaiting demobilisation when she decided that, at the age of 22, she was too old to go back to dancing and decided to train as a singer. Looking around South Wales, one singing coach stood out from all others, so she sought out and engaged Idloes Owen, attending the early lessons in her army uniform. The great baritone, Geraint Evans, was another of his students.

It was at exactly this time that Owen had begun to realise his vision of creating a grand opera company for Wales, bringing in singers and supporters from all over the Principality and from all walks of life. With the emphasis on musical ability, it became clear in early rehearsals that ease of movement did not come naturally to the miners, policemen and shopkeepers who made up the chorus, so he persuaded Mollie to work as a coach to bring visual grace to their performances. She chuckles as she recalls, “Bless them, they had wonderful voices – like angels – but they moved like lumps of wood: if they sang they forgot to move and if they moved they forgot to sing!”

By the time the first production of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci reached the stage in 1946 the chorus had movement and posture and Mollie had moved into the chorus and onto the poster, billed as Prima Ballerina. She continued to develop as a singer until Owen cast her in the principle soprano role of Nedda (a dancer) for the 1954 production of I Pagliacci. Tragically, Idloes Owen died that year at the age of 59 and it was never staged.

“Idloes was loved by everyone and mourned so much by us all when he died. He was quiet, understated, and absolutely brilliant,” says Mollie “He never lost his temper and his brain never stopped working on how to get a successful production to the stage. He was completely dedicated to music: it was everything to him.

“As my singing coach he was patient and gentle and made a singer out of me. He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Now living in retirement in Somerset, Mollie attends WNO performances with her husband, Peter, whenever she can in either Cardiff or Bristol. Being one of the younger members of the company at its foundation, she suspects that she could be the last survivor from the Idloes Owen era, but would love to hear from anyone else who remembers that time.

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11 comments so far

  1. tony ward on

    Barry What a wonderful short explanation of your Mums’ professional career and her inspiration obtained from being a founder member of The Welsh National Opera. I first met Mollie in about 1953, and to this day I remember one of the features Mollie always enthuses me with is her grace and movement.. always moving like a ballerina..which she was..I remember Mollie teaching me how to breathe correctly!..she still reminds me. .Her knowledge of music including opera and ballet is unsurpassed. Peter, her loving husband for over 55 years and is my brother, has shared the love of music with her.. Mollie is my inspiration, and with Peter are my best friends..

  2. Barry G Russell on

    Hi Tony and thank you so much! Grace and movement are undoubtedly one of Mum’s most striking characteristics and her love of life remains as strong as ever. Mum and Dad are a truly amazing couple – a beautiful and humbling example of how good a marriage can be :)

  3. John Dann on

    Hello Barry, What an interesting piece of social history about your mum and her connection with Idloes Owen.
    Idloes was born in the same mining village (Merthyr Vale) as my family and my older uncle and aunt remember him from that time. My uncle Tom Morgan sang in the amateur chorus (as it was then) in the early WNO productions in Cardiff. He also sang and composed some pieces in collaboration with Idloes before the war, as part of the Lyrian Singers. He know doubt would have known your mum? If she has any recollections of him it would be interesting to hear from you. Kind regards and to your mum too.
    John Dann

    • Barry G Russell on

      Hi John and thank you very much for the comment. It all happened a long lifetime ago now, so I am delighted that you saw this. I will email your comment and talk to mum this evening and see if she can recall your uncle and comment further.
      With best regards, Barry

    • Barry G Russell on

      Hi John. Mum was over the moon to hear about your comment and remembers Tom Morgan very well indeed. She describes him as a “big, rugged, handsome man” who she cast in the Bartered Bride. A lovely man and great fun to work with, she says. From what you said, I guess he is no longer alive, but Mum was keen to find out for sure.
      With best regards, Barry

      • John Dann on

        Hello Barry, What a wonderful recall your mother has, I was thrilled to read her comments about him. Sadly Tom Morgan (uncle Tom) died in 1957. That ‘big rugged and handsome man’ was a favourite uncle. I was living with an aunt (Idloes Owen’s friend) in Cardiff and Tom lived in the same house. I was about 7 and he would have been 52. I wrote a short memoir of him and those times some years ago. It is unpublished, but would happily send you an email copy for your mother to read -if it might be of interest or amuse? Let me know. In the meantime please pass my kind regards to your mother – and thank her for her memories. Best wishes to you both for Christmas, John.

  4. Barry G Russell on

    Hi John, that is fascinating and wonderful that we have found this piece of the jig-saw after so many years! Sad that your uncle died so young though. It would be great to see your memoir of him and I know Mum would love to see it too.

    Please email to barrygrussell@gmail.com

    Wishing you and your family a happy Christmas, Barry

  5. Nigel Cresswell -Minett on

    Hello Mr. Russell, I have only recently come across your lovely tribute to your Mum , Molly. It was so nice to read & of course you will have no idea who l am however l just had to leave a reply . I am Zoe Cresswell son Nigel. Of course you will remember that it was my mum that played Carmen in the WNO s 1947 production & your Mum choreographed the ballet scene & danced the solo in act 4 of Carmen I believe , how amazing . I was only one @ that time , however I did see many opera’s later Did you know that Idloes Owen’s wife was my Godmother . Small world isn’t it ? Anyway take care & please give my best to your Mum & Dad Regards Nigel Cresswell.

    • Barry G Russell on

      Nigel, thank you so much for taking the trouble to comment and I am so glad that you found this post! Mum will be absolutely thrilled that you made contact; she had a nasty fall in early September and is recovering from the hip replacement operation that followed. It will give her a huge lift. The very next thing I will do is forward the email with your message to her, as I am currently away from UK, and then speak to her on Skype later today. With warmest regards, Barry

  6. Nigel Cresswell -Minett on

    Barry,Glad you spotted my post. So sorry to hear of MUms fall I do hope she is well on the way back to health again bless her .Please give her my best wishes , Have a safe home run , Take care. Nigel.

    • Barry G Russell on

      Many thanks Nigel. Mum is recovering quickly and both she and Dad remember you well as a youngster. They were thrilled that you made contact. I have given them your email address. Best wishes, Barry


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