English arts `snobs' snub Welsh coal mine opera

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The Independent Online
A REAL-LIFE opera based on the epic struggle to save Wales's last coal mine from closure has been refused funds by the Arts Council because it is not considered suitable for an English audience - although it is sung in English.

Last month, Tower, named after the Tower colliery, won wild applause on its premiere at Swansea's Grand Theatre and a tour of Wales is going ahead thanks largely to a pounds 290,000 grant from the Welsh Arts Council.

But an appeal by the producers, Opera Box, a Brecon- based company, has been turned down by the Arts Council of England.

It would not pull the crowds, claimed the organisation that lavishes money on the Royal Opera House which last week was forced to cancel one production reportedly because of faults in new scene-shifting machinery.

Enter stage left Ann Clwyd, the MP whose Cynon Valley constituency includes Tower - now run profitably as a workers' co-operative. In April 1994, when British Coal's campaign to close the colliery was at fever pitch, she staged an underground sit-in, a bravura performance that forced the issue into the media spotlight.

Like her 27-hour protest in Tower's labyrinthine tunnels beneath the Rhigos Mountain, direct action holds the key. Now she has hired the Hackney Empire in east London for a St David's Day performance of the opera.

Ms Clwyd was going to pay the pounds 3,000 production cost herself but the Post Office Board in Wales has agreed to sponsor it. Dismissing the Arts Council's claim that the opera will not appeal to English audiences, she said yesterday: "Tell that to the old coal-mining communities of England. Or to London boroughs like Islington, which was twinned with the Cynon Valley during the 1984 miners' strike."

She might have added: "Take note Culture Secretary Chris Smith - your Islington South and Finsbury constituency is just up the road from the Hackney Empire so come along on the first of March."

The ingredients of opera a la Verdi and Bizet give Tower an edge as sharp as the machinery cutting coal hundreds of feet underground. There's conflict, suspense, romance and, in the end, triumph.

Tyrone O'Sullivan, the National Union of Mineworkers' lodge secretary who led the buy-out, is played by Robert Lloyd, principal bass at Covent Garden. Under a huge pit wheel dominating the set, he leads the miners and their families in a victory chorus: "Walking, walking, walking towards the light - the light that made us free." The price of that freedom was the pounds 8,000-a-piece redundancy money the 239 miners chipped in to buy the colliery.

Today the enterprise pays good wages - face workers earn over pounds 400 a week - sponsors a host of good causes from the local rugby club to a horse riding scheme for the disabled, and makes money. Mr O'Sullivan, a giant of a man, worked underground for more than 30 years. Now a director of the co-operative, he says firmly: "We don't object to profits. What matters is the use they're put to."

The spirit that enabled a David in the shape of men fighting for their jobs to triumph over the Goliath of British Coal plays well on stage. "It's the story of ordinary working men fighting for what is just," explains Brendan Wheatley, who runs Opera Box productions with his partner Bridgett Gill. "Opera is not just for posh people and social climbers," he adds with feeling.