Culture Theatre

“Acis and Galatea”: Cardiff University Operatic Society’s take on the English classic pastoral opera

by Vittoria Zerbini

The Cardiff University Operatic Society has, ever since its emergence, staged many concerts. A few examples are the 2011 Händel’s Messiah or the 2014 Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. This year’s production is a nod to the society’s beginnings with Händel’s Acis and Galatea.

Acis and Galatea was written between 1717 and 1718 by Händel, who composed the music, and John Gay, who wrote the English text. This pastoral opera premiered in 1718 and became considered the best example of its genre in England by musicologists like Stanley Sadie. Because of the good reception, the opera has been adapted numerous times over the years, notably by Mozart himself.

However, the adaptation that interests us, is the one that the Cardiff University Operatic Society will be performing over the nights of the 9th and 10th of March at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in Cardiff. Hence why I talked to the conductor, Rosie Howarth, and the director Jessica Thomas, both part of the 2017/2018 subcommittee of the society, to better understand their perspective on the Acis and Galatea.


Vittoria: Rosie, what made you become a conductor? Is there a particular experience that gave you the idea?

Rosie Howarth: I was a singer first, I was at university studying music and German, and I have been in choirs all my life since I was a little kid, so when I finished university I decided to get back into leading and doing some conducting. I did some bits and gulps for free and eventually, I managed to find some work. But I think that the control freak in me prefers being in charge and telling people what to do, as well as singing. It’s quite fun working with lots of other musicians and putting on productions together.

Vittoria: What does Händel’s Acis and Galatea mean to you and why did you decide to create your own version?

Rosie: I sang one of the arias from it, “Heart, the seat of soft delight” when I was a student and I thought it was really beautiful. When I became MD (musical director) of the Operatic Society, I was looking for a work that would suit the singers that we have. We don’t have any massive operatic singers, they’re still learning and young, so I wanted a piece that had lots of chorus in it, so everyone got a chance to sing and join in. And the solos were beautiful but not too demanding from a young singer. In addition, it’s not a long work so there is not much to learn and it’s also quite fun: there is dancing and it’s joyful but there are also villains and death and drama.

Vittoria: What was the biggest challenge you have encountered in adapting Acis and Galatea for students?

Rosie: Students have a slightly different way of working to professional musicians so we had to adapt to the fact that everyone is busy with their studies. We also had lots of students from different departments so organising rehearsals was fun because everyone is working at different times and everyone has different demands. I had to trust that by the last couple of weeks everyone got stuck in and did all the work to pull it off.

Vittoria: Was it challenging to prepare the orchestra and the choir?

Rosie: The orchestra had been brilliant. I’ve got a really great assistant musical director called Callum, and he put together the orchestra from students within the university in the music departments and they have been really fabulous.

Vittoria: Did you find more interesting working on the first act, the sensual one, or the second act, the melancholic one?

Rosie: I preferred the second act, I have to say. There’s much more drama in it:  you get the villain Polyphemus coming along, religion fury… and when Acis dies there’s a really beautiful, slow, sad, melancholic death. That, to me, is much more interesting and fun. I like all the happy stuff too but it’s, more engaging.

Vittoria: I guess it’s more interesting to explore.

Rosie: Yeah, definitely and musically I think it’s more interesting because there is only so much you can do to make things sound happy and joyful, whereas if you want to say something sad or angry, you can really do that in the second act.


Vittoria: And now, Jessica, what convinced you to direct this opera?

Jessica Thomas: It didn’t take a lot of convincing. Last year I worked with the society in their production of Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah and, while a very different project in terms of musicality and staging, I was struck by the sheer talent exhibited by the society’s members. They are a truly amazing group of people from all walks of life who are an absolute joy to direct and generally spend time with. I really wanted the opportunity to work with them again after learning so much from my time with them last year and was lucky enough to be successful in my second application for the role.

Vittoria: What does Händel’s Acis and Galatea mean to you and why did you decide to create your own version?

Jessica: The decision to stage Acis and Galatea was made during the summer of last year by our committee, with our musical director, Rosie Howarth, and president, Heather Fuller, having the final say. We assessed the voice types and abilities of the singers we’d be working with and decided to take the society in a completely different direction from last year and actually go back to our roots; one of the society’s first-ever projects was performing Handel’s Messiah in 2011. The composer’s music tends to suit the voices of younger singers so Handel was an apt choice for a group of students.

Vittoria: How did you envision the staging for the opera?

Jessica: One of the main aspects of conceptualising a physical space is the venue, so when I found out that we would be getting the opportunity to work in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre it became clear that we were on to something really special. Opened in 1927, the theatre houses exhibitions of art, archaeology and natural history collections, so it was exciting to think that the building’s very purpose would reflect the motivic themes of naturalistic beauty presented in the opera’s libretto by John Gay. After that, it was really just a matter of getting in the space and pouring over the score to work out how I could represent the music physically and in a way that would complement the narrative.

Vittoria: Where does your inspiration come from?

Jessica: I tend to read around the themes presented in the opera before I pursue a concept, but the idea that monogamous love is impossible in the utopian realm presented by Handel was striking to me despite the composer’s subtlety in presenting such an idea. Issues of unrequited love, jealousy, and sexual weakness underpin a libretto that is ultimately an extended love letter to the natural world. This led me to a lot of classic poetry by poets such as Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and Robert Burns exploring the tragedy of the natural world itself: that it is both beautiful and mortal. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles also helped inspire a few moments where it was difficult to stage passionate scenes in a way that was appropriately conservative.

Vittoria: Has this project impacted you in any way?

Jessica: I’ve ultimately loved the entire experience, as I knew I would. The entire group has absolutely thrown themselves into this project, so it has been incredibly rewarding and inspiring to see it all come to life these past few months. I couldn’t be more thankful to our committee, especially our president Heather Fuller and production manager Grace Filmer who have worked so tirelessly to make this production everything I wanted it to be and more. I’ve learned so much from this group and will be extremely sad to see the project come to an end, but I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next year.

If the passion these two ladies put in this project has awakened your interest in Acis and Galatea, here is the link to the event and to buy tickets at the door.