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