Deep beneath the earth a new jewel of opera is being mined

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Tony Heath

The story of Tower Colliery, saved from closure three years ago when the 250 miners bought the South Wales pit with their redundancy money, is to be turned into an opera thanks to a pounds 290,000 lottery award from the Arts Council of Wales.

Opera Box, a company based near Brecon, aims to create a production described by the director Brendan Wheatley as a tribute to the miners, their wives and the community in the Cynon Valley which cooperated in the rescue. He said: "The way they persisted and eventually won through epitomises the struggle of many people throughout the world.".

Drawing on the long fight to retain the colliery which British Coal declared to be a lost cause, the score will be written by Alun Hoddinott, widely regarded as Wales' leading composer with John Owen, a BAFTA-winning scriptwriter supplying the words.

Mr Wheatley, Bridgett Gill, his wife and co-director, and Mr Hoddinott have already gone down the pit to research sequences depicting life hundreds of feet underground.

A cast of 12 is envisaged. One lead is based on Tyrone O'Sullivan, the former National Union of Mineworkers lodge secretary and the driving force behind the buy-out who is now a director of the co-operative. Another is based on Ann Clwyd, the MP whose dramatic underground sit-in forced the miners' fight on to the national media. Robert Lloyd, a renowned bass who has sung at the Royal Opera House for 20 years, is keen to take the O'Sullivan role.

Seventeen venues around Wales are being lined up for the work which will have its premiere at Swansea's Grand Theatre in the autumn of 1999 before touring the Principality.

Choirs - male voice, mixed and children's - will be recruited en route to help bring opera to a wider audience. Side-by-side the company plans to visit schools and stage opera "teach-ins".

The colliery, now in its third year as a workers' co-operative, is flourishing. At the turn of the year every employee received a pounds 1,500 dividend. More than 90 extra miners have been recruited bringing the workforce to 340.

Mr O'Sullivan declared: "It's a great story - a story about working people fighting for themselves and achieving their objective.

"It doesn't matter how the story's told - and the barriers of culture are being crossed when coal mining and opera meet."