Volante Opera Wales

Cheeky Promo
May 2, 2019 · 16 min read
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Hi Rupert, I was tagged in your message on Facebook about looking for music interviewees. I’m not sure if we qualify but our company “Volante Opera Productions” has been working on Demo Recordings of the previously unheard operatic works of composer Paul Corfield Godfrey. Our first CD “The Fall of Gondolin” came out through Prima Facie last September and our next, “Beren and Lúthien”, is being released in August this year. [If] we are what you are looking for we’d be happy to participate. All the best, Simon Crosby Buttle

Hello Simon, Thank you for emailing me. What lead to the decision to focus on Paul Corfield Godfrey’s works? [Best wishes, Rupert]

The choice to do Paul’s works stemmed from some kind of bizarre coincidence. I was arranging a concert for WNO [Welsh National Opera] to go with the WW1 commemorations and the idea was to do a programme of art song by composers and poets who had served in that conflict.

Being a Tolkien nut I knew that he had served and began to write what would eventually become Middle Earth during WW1 and on a long boring journey on tour I started doing random searches for classical settings of Tolkien. I knew about Donald Swann and the writings of the Tolkien Ensemble but assumed someone else must have written something.

The search was appearing to be fruitless until I found a stub of a website mentioning Paul and his works. I then found his website and contacted him to see if I could see/hear any of his work. He responded by saying that scores were available at the Ty Cerdd music library (beneath where I work) and that he lives in Pontypridd (just across the valley from me) [in Wales].

I managed to find a few clips of old synthesised Fragments he had put online and my interest was piqued more so by the fact that even through the old synths there was something that grabbed me.

I met with Paul a couple of times and spent a few merry hours talking about his composing and it was from that I learned of the hoops he had to jump through to get the rights to compose his Tolkien settings in the first place and of proposed and failed attempts at getting them performed over the last 30 years.

Again, as luck would have it, Paul mentioned to me that he had a recovered memory stick with his scores on that he couldn’t open due to the files being so old. I had kept an old copy of Sibelius sat around so I offered to see if I could get into them for him. I managed to gain access but the files were not in the best shape — all formatting had been lost, the notes were in place but it was a long way from printable.

I found an aria from “The Fall of Gondolin” in the files which I cleaned up and put it into my recording software, which I used to make learning tracks for choirs, so I could hear it. It was a bit rough, but with modern sampled instrument sets the sound was incredibly different. I recorded a test vocal and sent it to Paul, I thought it would be nice for him to finally hear someone singing it.

He was amazed at how technology had come along since his original synthesised attempts at a demo and I chatted with a few of my friends at WNO, all profession opera singers, and asked if any of them would be interested in recording the rest of Gondolin (essentially for fun).

I quickly assembled a cast and set to cleaning up the scores, with Paul’s help, and inputting the orchestra into Reaper [more on that later]. This took quite a few months and then the recording of voices about a year in and around our full-time employment and touring.

Towards the end of the recording process Paul had a visit from Steve Plews of Prima Facie Records, who had released a CD of Paul art songs (Akallabeth). Paul played him a large part of our “little project” and he said he would be interested in releasing it. Up to this point we had only been doing this for fun and so this came out of the blue.

I spoke with the cast and said that since everyone had done this initially for nothing that if it was released it would be on a profit share basis — I wanted my friends to get something, even a token [Tolkien?] amount for helping me to record this work. They all agreed, as did famous Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith who supplied our cover art, to the profit share and the results are now out for the world to hear.

During the final months of waiting for Gondolin to release we’d started to clean up the other Silmarillion scores thinking that we could do the same again, if everyone was willing, and get slowly through the cycle. Here we are now, 8 months after the release of Gondolin. The first CD has reached profit, the second “Beren and Lúthien” will be our this summer. We’re about halfway through the voice recording of the third “Children of Húrin” and voice recording has begun of “Fëanor” with germs of plans for beyond that. We’re continuing to work on the same profit share basis, everyone is taking part with only a promise of a share of whatever is made.

In the meantime Paul has been frantically cleaning up all of his scores and making them available again to purchase — the recording process is routing out the last of the errors in the files. Sorry for the epic answer, but I’ve developed an artistic passion for these projects. I’m extremely lucky to be surrounded by the right people, my friends, who can make these happen. We know we are not going to take the world by storm. The niche Opera market combined with the niche Tolkien market is an interesting combination.

Which other composers served in WW1?

Vaughan Williams, Butterworth (died in the war), Gurney are three that come first to mind, as for poets the list is long but some of the first that come to mind are Hardy, Kipling, Wilfred Owen — all of whom went on to have their poetry set by composers.

And my namesake Rupert Brooke…

I DON’T know about Donald Swann and the writings of the Tolkien Ensemble — enlighten me?

Donald Swann, half of musical comedy duo “Flanders and Swann”, composed a song cycle of Tolkien settings entitled “The Road Goes Ever On” and then added two further songs later “Bilbo’s Last Song” and “Luthien Tinuviel”. One of the songs, “Namarie”, is an adaptation of an Elvish chant that Tolkien himself wrote.

The Tolkien Ensemble is a Danish ensemble who have composed settings of all of the poems and songs of The Lord of the Rings. They have four CDs available and tour Europe performing their works live. They have quite a cult following with Tolkien fans.

Both Donald Swann and The Tolkien Ensemble are part of only a very select few, including Paul, who have the rights to use the words of Tolkien with the approval of both the Tolkien Family and HarperCollins Publishers.

I read The Hobbit when I was at secondary school but I think it took me a YEAR! For those who know little or nothing about Tolkien, could you enlighten us as to the world he created and how Paul’s operas translate them into music? How would you describe Paul’s style?

Tolkien’s created world, known as Middle Earth, was a lifelong endeavour. Whilst he started writing the beginnings of this world early in life it was nearly twenty years later that the first work set in Middle Earth was published: “The Hobbit”. The popularity of this book led to Tolkien wishing to publish his work now known as “The Silmarillion” but this was not to be in his lifetime. Instead he began writing “The Lord of the Rings” as a direct follow up to Bilbo’s adventures which went on to be the enormous success we know of today.

After his death Tolkien’s son, Christopher, set to work on his father’s notes and unfinished works (of which “extensive” would be a gross understatement) and made them into the novel we now call “The Silmarillion”. This book details the entire history of Middle Earth, from the creation of the world to the end of “The Lord of the Rings”. As an idea of scope the events of “The Lord of the Rings”, these days published normally as three volumes, is reduced down to one chapter! The majority of the book deals with what is known as the “First Age”, thousands of years before “The Hobbit”, and deals with the creation of three gems (The Silmarils) by the Elf Fëanor, their theft by the Vala (God) known as Morgoth, his attempt to conquer Middle Earth and the various woes of the peoples of that land to resist him.

This is an atrocious simplification that I’m sure will make most Tolkien fans cringe but in the interest of keeping my answers as brief as possible for those who don’t know the work, I hope that the fans will forgive.

As for Paul’s operas, or Epic Scenes as he likes to call them, he worked hard over many years, working his way through the many versions and publications of Tolkien’s works. He had assistance from Christopher Tolkien in this, along with encouragement from other family members. At a small preview of “The Children of Húrin”, done at a Tolkien Society event in the 1980s with piano and a handful of singers, Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla actually took part in the choir.

The setting of Tolkien and its various joys and woes by Paul is well documented on his website, needless to say the delightful amounts of poetry in the books is a wonderful boon to a composer but in order to tell a story you have to work through the prose and often make story decisions as some of the notes of Tolkien were written decades apart and are often conflicting.

As for Paul’s style, he is definitely a British contemporary composer but is very aware of his style and the ear of the listener. His approach to his Middle Earth works was similar to Wagner’s in his Ring Cycle. He created a large number of themes (or leitmotifs to use the Wagnerian term) that mean different things — be it the Silmarils themselves, every character has their own theme, certain races (Valar, Elves, Men) have different themes as do places.

Wagner haters need not despair though, the comparisons with Wagner end there. I’ve had various people compare his style to either Sibelius or Vaughan Williams and I would agree with that and add a twist of contemporary but never unnecessarily atonal. None of his operas reach the lengths of Wagner either, the four works total about 9 hours as compared to the 15 of the Ring Cycle.

Which order do the Gondolin, “Children of Húrin”, “Fëanor” go in and what’s next?

The four works of Paul’s version of the Silmarillion go in this order:

Fëanor” — This deals with the creation of the world, the crafting of the Silmarils, the betrayal of Morgoth and the drastic measures the title character embarks upon to try to retrieve his creations.

Beren and Lúthien” — This is set many years later and deals with the love story of the title characters, an elf maid and a Lord of Men, and a quest to retrieve one of the Silmarils from Morgoth’s crown.

Children of Húrin” — Again, set years later and deals with the cursed family of Húrin amid Morgoth’s sacking of Middle-Earth.

The Fall of Gondolin” — Set around the same time as Húrin, dealing with his nephew Tuor and his quest to find the Hidden City of Gondolin to warn them of the oncoming onslaught of Morgoth.

Again, gross oversimplifications: please forgive!

As for the order we are working on them: Gondolin [4], Beren [2], Húrin [3], then Fëanor [1]. That order was determined simply by the fact we were working on Gondolin first due to me putting Tuor’s aria in first and expanding forwards and backwards through the score. Gondolin has quite a large cast, so after that we went to Beren, which is a little smaller. Fëanor I deliberately wanted to leave until last as it is the most chorus heavy — there are no soloists in the entire first act! This meant that Húrin came third.

How big is this project? (Number of people, who, which roles / voices, orchestra etc). How much more work is there to do?

As projects go, the cycle in its entirety is a big undertaking. By breaking it down and working out the minimum number of people we can do each opera with it became manageable. Gondolin has a cast of 12 singers for our recording, that includes 8 of us doubling as the chorus and one singer, Julian Boyce, pulling double duty on roles. Húrin will be the same number but with three people pulling double duty on roles and Fëanor has the same number again but with six people doubling up. Beren has one less person involved and no one doubling up, but the title roles in that work are quite an undertaking!

All of our singers are my wonderful friends and colleagues who are full time singers from Welsh National Opera and appear by kind permission of that company. All have given me their time as a favour, one for which I will be forever in their debt.

The orchestra for Paul’s work is a massive 80 piece one, as this is what I still refer to as my “little side project” and having no budget I have used the orchestral samples from EastWest’s Symphonic Orchestra. These are real instrument sounds that are recorded by that company playing every note and articulation possible and are then assigned to an application that reads in the information I give it regarding notes and articulation and then plays back with as close to a real sound as you can get without having an actual full orchestra. It takes a long time to input, I have to put every instrument in individually and check every note it plays. This is the reason I made sure the recordings will go out with “Demo Recording” written on them. The sampled orchestra is not meant to replace the real thing, it’s what we could afford to use to get the music heard.

The works are also written for a full opera chorus of around 40 singers, I managed to pair this down to 8 for the purposes of these recordings. In real life that number would not be heard. Due to the wonders of modern technology though, and again for the purposes of a “Demo Recording”, I’ve managed to balance these 8 voices with the massive orchestra so you can get a great representation of what it might sound like with full forces.

I must add another compliment to our singers though — due to the limitations of my recording setup I can only record them one at a time. People singing duets, scenes and ensembles were all on their own. This includes the chorus work where each of them have to record without the other parts there physically. It is due to their great musicianship and experience in an ensemble that I have managed to get the chorus to sound as it does. It will never sound like 40 people in the same room with a conductor in front of them but I hope I’ve managed to get it as close as I can with our limitations.

Work still to do on the remainder of this cycle, after this year’s release of Beren, is mostly voice recording. This takes the longest as we have to work around our busy schedules at WNO, often in fits and starts around touring. After that there will be balancing of the orchestra with voices and sound effects etc. When waiting for singers to become available I inputted all of the orchestra for the final two works and with Paul’s help we’ve got them as ready as they can be until the voices are added. The voices in Húrin are about halfway; Fëanor we’ve only just begun voice recording.

Ever considered applying for any kind of grants or funding?

I have to be honest, no. The first of these recordings was done for fun, the fact it was released by Prima Facie was a wonderful bonus. We’ve continued to work on in the same manner. I’m not sure how we would qualify for funding but I’ll happily take suggestions!

How is it informing your other work / how is your other work informing your approach to Paul’s operas?

These projects have been a wonderful diversion for myself and, I hope, for the other singers. Being an opera singer is a wonderful job, you get to be onstage hearing wonderful music and singers every day. As a full-time singer at a company though, and this is not the company’s fault, you don’t really get much artistic input into what you do and when. This was one of the reasons that Julian Boyce formed Volante Opera Productions and I came on board with him so that we could organise concerts and performances outside of the “day job”, these recordings we happily put under our “Volante” banner. These days Julian mostly handles the “live” aspect and I handle the “recording” side with both of us taking part in the other’s projects.

As for our approach to Paul’s operas, over the last decade of working at WNO we have been exposed to all kinds of music. The glory and emotion of Puccini and Verdi, the epic Wagner all the way to the contemporary (including serialism and brand new commissions). Paul’s music has its difficulties but is very much in the middle of all of these styles. Challenging to sing but not difficult, for the most part, to learn.

Could you tell us more about what / how technology has played a role in bringing these operas to a new audience? What is Reaper? What was the process of ‘cleaning up the scores’ with Paul like? I’d love to hear about how tech helped Paul to compose as well too.

I’ll start at the beginning… Paul composed his music originally on manuscript, during the 90s he transferred his scores to Sibelius, the music notation software, when it was relatively new on an old Acorn computer. Whilst some of his music he eventually transferred to a Windows computer, a large portion of it remained in the old format — which didn’t matter as the early PC versions of the software still read the files. The newest versions however do not read those files, which is why I had to use an old version of the software to transfer his music to PC and then update it to the latest version.

This had a similar effect on the files that opening an old text document has on new word processing software — the words are there but the formatting and layout had gone.

Whilst we had the notes everything else needed work. Paul has been working hard restoring these files and updating the formatting whilst I, using the recording process as a guide, help him with proofreading and error checking. A number of transcription error from initial input into the old software have also come to light (e.g. transposing instruments playing at the wrong pitch) which we have been routing out. This means we have a great number of emails and telephone calls checking anything that seems awry. There have even been a few moments of “re-composition” where, upon hearing a singer do it for the first time, Paul has decided to change the odd bit. The vocal scores of these works have also had a major overhaul, again helped by the recording process.

As for Reaper, it is a Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) that takes various audio inputs from either external means (microphone etc.) or digital means (like the exported files from Sibelius). It then works as a more powerful modern day equivalent of the old style mixing desk. In this software I can, with a few well placed clicks, make one of my friends sound like they are singing off stage or, for more fun, have them sound like a dragon. The transfer over is a long, slow painstaking process but a fun one. You have to remember that I have not heard this music before as I am inputting it, it’s great to hear it building up.

Thank you to Jeroen van Luiken Bakker for connecting me and Simon. Read Jeroen’s review of Gondolin on his website.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of “The Fall of Gondolin” it is available now online via Prima Facie’s website, Amazon etc. or from us in person. Digital purchases also available via iTunes and Amazon Music.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the Vocal Score for Gondolin please visit our website (www.volanteopera.wales) and details are on there. The other vocal scores will become available as we work our way through the recordings with the Beren score releasing at the same time as the CD this summer.

We keep our website and social media feeds (@operavolante on Twitter & Facebook, Volanteopera on Instagram) up to date with all information about the works in progress, so please follow us on there if you want to keep informed.

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Cheeky Promo

Written by

Be part of something bigger. http://cheekyfest.live rupert@cheekyfest.com

Cheeky Fest

Cheeky Fest is an arts community + festival

Cheeky Promo

Written by

Be part of something bigger. http://cheekyfest.live rupert@cheekyfest.com

Cheeky Fest

Cheeky Fest is an arts community + festival

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