University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1870s (Joseph Parry was Professor of Music there 1874-81)
AmeriCymru: Hi Dulais and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. When did you first become aware of and involved with the work of Joseph Parry?
Dulais: I was raised in the town of Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen) and from when I can remember, music was always part of the family. My parents and my sister were singers and it was in Bethania chapel that I learnt about music chords and harmony.
Another childhood musical experience was attending some rehearsals of the local Male Voice Choir: Côr Meibion Myrddin. My father was a founding member and my mother an occasional accompanist. The choir repertoire was ‘traditional-Welsh TTBB music’, so different from today’s choirs (probably in an effort to attract younger singers) arrangements of pop songs and excerpts from musically lightweight and superficial stage spectacles such as Phantom Of The Opera and Les Miserables.
Côr Meibion Myrddin sang quality Welsh TTBB classics such as Myfanwy, Cytgan Y Pererinion, Cytgan Y Morwyr and Iesu O Nazareth – by a composer called Joseph Parry, whomever he was …
Also as a young boy, I discovered the piano bench at home a vocal score of Blodwen – opera yn Gymraeg? My musical curiosity was piqued and at the piano, I gradually worked my way through the score. My opinion was: “Interesting … I want more!”
As a teenager, though my interest in Joseph Parry was peripheral, I began to collect copies of his music and a student at Bangor University in the 1970s, my interest in the music and life of this Welsh-American musician composer continued to grow.
After graduating with music Bachelors and Masters degrees, I was given the opportunity to pursue a University of Wales doctorate: ‘Joseph Parry – ei fywyd a’i waith’
AmeriCymru: Care to say a little about Joseph Parry's life and work?
Dulais: Joseph Parry was the 19 th century’s most famous Welsh musician – if not Welshman. Born in Merthyr Tudful on May 21, 1841, he died on February 17, 1903 and is buried at Saint Augustin in Penarth.
Parry’s enw-yng-Ngorsedd [bardic name] was apt: Pencerdd America, which was bestowed upon him in 1865 at the Aberystwyth National Eisteddfod. Visiting Wales from his home in Danville, Pennsylvania, Parry was also beloved among immigrant Welsh communities in America, his family having crossed the Atlantic in 1853-4. Joseph’s father, Daniel Parry and his sons Joseph and Henry all worked at Danville’s ‘Rough & Ready Rolling Mill’, where young Joseph’s talent for music drew the attention of two of his fellow workers, John Abel Jones and John M. Price, immigrant Welsh musicians who taught Parry all they new about music as well as encouraging their enthusiastic student to enter compositions at local American, then national Welsh eisteddfodau.
As Parry’s fame as a gifted musician spread, a committee (naturally!) was formed in Youngstown, Ohio, to nuture his talents. The ‘Parry Fund’ raised enough money to pay for three years of study at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music.
After graduating with a Mus. Bac. degree, Parry returned to Danville where he opened his own music school, The Danville Musical Institute, for local young students.
In 1874, Parry accepted an invitation from the newly established University College of Wales in Aberystwyth to be the Professor [Chair] of a new Music Department. His tenure there was musically sucessful but educationally disappointing. Following the first performance of Blodwen - the first opera with Welsh words – in Aberystwyth in 1878, it’s music spread like wildfire throughout Wales and beyond, but the consistant call on Parry’s services as a wandering musician resulted in absences that made his position at the College untenable.
Leaving Aberystwyth under a cloud, Parry moved to Abertawe [Swansea], where he was offered the position as organist at Ebenezer chapel. He opened ‘The Musical College of Wales’ and continued to travel extensively as a musician, this time free of employer repercutions - his two eldest sons were now old enough to help with the teaching duties.
In 1888, Parry returned to academic life as music lecturer at the University in Caerdydd [Cardiff], a part-time position which allowed him enough time to continue to travel for work as well as many visits to the United States, where he reunited with family and friends as well as lecturing, performing (including selections from Blodwen), conducting cymanfaoedd canu and adjudicating in eisteddfodau.
Back in Wales, following an unsuccessful operation, Y Doctor Mawr (as he was affectionately called) died in 1903, aged 61. Though his passing was an enormous loss, his name and influence as Wales’ best-known and much-loved musician remained strong through most of the 20 th century.
AmeriCymru: Do you regard 'Blodwen' as a major work?
Dulais: A qualified ‘Yes, I do’ … but I am biased! In 19 th century Europe, the world of opera saw the birth of thousands of forgettable and mediocre operas. Exceptions closer to Blodwen are masterpieces such as Die Walkure (1870), Aïda (1871), L’Arlesienne (1872), Die Fliedermaus (1874), Carmen (1875) and to open the new Opera House in Paris in 1876 and Wagner’s new Music Festival in 1877: Samson et Delilah and Parsifal. Compared to these still-popular operas, Blodwen pales into insignificance, but within the context of 19 th Welsh music, Blodwen is ‘major work’ of national cultural significance – it is Wales’ first opera as well as the first opera written with Welsh words.
Bear in mind that, unlike Italy, Wales was never an ‘operatic country’ and since neither Joseph Parry nor his librettist ‘Mynyddog’ (folk poet Richard Davies) had any national models to follow, as a ‘first attempt’, both composer and librettist managed to create a minor masterpiece: an opera with a strong nationalistic plot that includes love, loss and war, singing beatifully melodic music sung by believable characters.
Parry & Mynyddig were also battling a 19 th century Welsh bias against everything theatrical. Nonconformist religions considered the theatr as a place of sin – similar to a pub or brothel – where Christians wore false clothes, painted their faces and become other people.
Neverthless, Blodwen rose to a level of success unmatched by Parry’s following eight operas!
AmeriCymru: Where and when was the recent first U.S. performance of the opera?
Dulais: Four performances at NOVA Center for the Perfoming Arts in Billings, Montana on May 10, 11, 18, 19 2019 3
AmeriCymru: What was your role in bringing this about?
Dulais: By 2015 I had completed reworking the orchestral accompaniment of Blodwen from full orchestra to a chamber (in the sense of a ‘room’) version of a minimum of 13 players: 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 horns and a string quintet.
Then I contacted opera companies in Wales – from the largest (Welsh National Opera) to smaller companies such as Mid-Wales Opera – to see if any of them would be interested in perfoming my new chamber version of Blodwen. Sadly, the only response I received was from OPRA Cymru, a small Welsh-language opera company, who showed interest but could not accomdate my Blodwen request at that time. Thinking the best, I assigned the non-replies from the other opera companies to my email having ended up in spam or junk – especially since my request eminated in San Francisco.
Since immigrating there in November 2011, I had learned this about America(ns): “If ya don’t ask, ya don’t git!” So my next Blodwen target was American opera companies! Working my way through every state, I contacted hundreds of opera companies of all sizes and status, including the Met in New York City. Why not? It was no surprise to me that – unlike Wales – some of these companies took the trouble to respond to my out-of-left-field request: thanking me for asking but regretting that Blodwen would not be a ‘fit’ for their company. Then out of the blue, Rimrock Opera Foundation in Billings, Montana, wanted to perform my Blodwen!
AmeriCymru: How was the production received locally and nationally?
Dulais: Unusually for the venue, every perfomance was a sell-out and received a standing ovation. There was a great deal of press coverage pre- and post-production on both sides of the Atlantic in both Welsh and English-language newspapers and media.
AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about your recent book 'Blodwen Yn America'?
Dulais: Its self-explanatory title includes Joseph Parry’s life story, operas and his connection with the author, the creationg of the chamber version of Blodwen and how the opera came to be performed in Billings – the initial negotiations, casting of the singers, rehearsals and performances.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Dulais Rhys? Any further musical or literary projects in the offing?
Dulais: 2028 will be 150 years since the first performance in Wales of Blodwen …