Obituary: John Moody
Friday 30 April 1993
IT WAS John Moody's production of Verdi's Nabucco in 1952 which established the reputation of the fledgling Welsh National Opera. Until then most music critics had considered them just enthusiastic amateurs, while the Arts Council put them on a par with the Cardiff Organ Club or the Banbury Co-op Choir. Nabucco, with its theme of national oppression and long choral scenes, suited the Welsh admirably and became their calling card for many years.
It was Moody's idea to stage the piece. Shortly after being appointed Drama Director at the Arts Council in 1949, he was on holiday in Switzerland with his wife Nell, saw a production and knew immediately it had to be done in Britain. He recommended it to WNO's Chairman, Bill Smith, who managed to persuade the Arts Council to release him part-time to produce it. While the principals rehearsed in London, Moody travelled to Wales once a fortnight to rehearse the chorus. The entire production, the first to be staged in-house, was put on for under pounds 1,500 and Moody's greatest triumph was in getting the amateur chorus to act effectively.
Moody himself trained as an actor and singer, winning an open scholarship to the Webber-Douglas Academy. He made his debut in Derby Day at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1931, appeared in Old Vic seasons with Charles Laughton, worked with Laurence Olivier and took the leads in plays by TS Eliot and Auden and Isherwood for the Group Theatre which he helped found. He worked as a director at the Old Vic School, the Liverpool Old Vic, Birmingham Rep, for the Carl Rosa Opera Company and then at Sadler's Wells where he was resident producer for five years, staging the first British production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.
In 1949, after joining the Arts Council, he had to visit a production of Ibsen's Ghosts at the Grand Theatre, Swansea. The same night WNO were playing The Bartered Bride at the Empire and the young director of the Welsh Arts Council, Huw Wheldon, a passionate advocate for WNO, insisted he see the company in action. Moody watched Act 1 of The Bartered Bride, was driven by Wheldon at breakneck speed to the Grand for Act 2 of Ghosts, then back to the Empire for Act 3 of the opera. He was hooked. Bill Smith, keen to progress towards a fully professional company, tried to get him to direct a production but his work at the Arts Council precluded it; until Nabucco.
His next production for WNO, seven years later, was another rarity, Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night. By then Moody was ending a spell as Director of the Bristol Old Vic. He and his wife had suffered personal tragedy when their only son was killed in a boating accident and it was partly to use work to counteract his grief that Moody accepted Smith's invitation to become WNO's Director of Productions, a post he held for nine years. Among his most memorable productions were the first staging in Britain this century of Verdi's La Battaglia di Legano, Rossini's William Tell, the premiere of Grace Williams's The Parlour, Macbeth, and a Boris Godunov considered at the time to be the finest ever seen in Britain.
By 1969, WNO had became fully professional. Moody, thought by some to be too associated with the amateurs, sensed what was coming and resigned rather than waiting to be pushed. His expertise was not lost to the company, however, for he became Counsellor to the Board.
Moody was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was not only a producer but (together with Nell) a translator, publisher and painter (he taught at Wimbledon Art School). A quietly generous person, he always put others before himself. For a performance of The Seraglio on tour, when the soprano Elizabeth Vaughan broke a bone in her foot and no replacement could be found, Moody donned costume and went on as a deaf mute to push her around in a wheelchair. During the Sixties many young singers were given their first opportunities by WNO, including Vaughan, Josephine Barstow, Thomas Allen, Margaret Price, Delme Bryn Jones, Donald Macintyre, Ryland Davies and Anne Howells. It was with Moody that such artists first learnt how to appear on stage and delve into character. Their success, and today's pre-eminence of WNO, are part of his legacy.
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