Operatic tribute to Welsh miners celebrates their heroic achievements

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The Independent Culture

The triumph of 250 miners who bought their closure-threatened pit and turned it into a profitable co-operative is being celebrated as an opera.

The triumph of 250 miners who bought their closure-threatened pit and turned it into a profitable co-operative is being celebrated as an opera.

Four years ago, the men of Tower Colliery, near Aberdare, in the South Wales valleys, each chipped in £8,000 of their redundancy money to rescue the pit when British Coal was privatised.

The opera based on their struggle - a three-act work entitled simply Tower - has been two years in the making and will have its premiÿre at Swansea Grand Theatre on Saturday.

Conceived by Opera Box, a company based near Brecon in mid-Wales, it received a £290,000 Lottery grant and £30,000 in sponsorship from Marks & Spencer. Brenda Wheatley, Opera Box's director, commissioned Alun Hoddinott, widely held to be Wales's leading composer, to write the score with a libretto by John Owen. The composers and members of the cast spent hours underground researching the project.

Plot and personality are the opera's driving forces, Mrs Wheatley said. "The Tower saga has a moral. If you want something badly enough you have to go out and get it. The miners wanted to safeguard their community as well as preserving their jobs."

The National Union of Mineworkers' lodge secretary, Tyrone O'Sullivan, who led the buy-out struggle and is now a director of the co-operative, is a dominant figure in the story. "We were ordinary men; we wanted jobs, and we bought the pit," he said. "Having an opera written about our struggle is incredible - it's a tribute to the whole workforce." Robert Lloyd, principal bass at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is cast in his role.

Another pivotal figure in the Tower saga was Ann Clwyd, the local Labour MP, who staged an underground sit-in that forced the sturggle into the media spotlight. Evading security staff and led by a retired veteran who knew every inch of the subterranean workings, she stayed below for 24 hours, emerging to be carried shoulder-high by the miners waiting at the pithead. Ann Atkinson, a leading mezzo-soprano, plays the MP, singing in both Welsh and English.

Making the opera was as tough as saving the pit, Mrs Wheatley declared. "Now, like Tyrone and his colleagues, we are seeing the fruits of our labour. Like the miners and their families, we kept going until we got there. Everything's ready for curtain up on Saturday night and the three-month tour, which will take the opera to every corner of Wales."

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