In Parenthesis | World premiere of new opera by Iain Bell

In Parenthesis | World premiere of new opera by Iain Bell
The third opera written by Iain Bell receives its premiere at Welsh National Opera in Cardiff on May 13. In Parenthesis is Bell's adaptation of the epic poem by Welsh poet, writer and artist David Jones. The opera is a commission from the Nicholas John Trust with 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War Centenary.

Private John Ball and his comrades in the Royal Welch Fusiliers are posted to the Somme. In Mametz Wood they enter a strange realm – outside of time, dream-like but deadly. Rather than simply reporting the horrors of the Somme, In Parenthesis dares to offer hope. Even here among the destruction, a fragile flowering of regeneration and re-birth can be found. Bell’s beautiful score combines traditional Welsh song with moments of other-worldliness, terror, humour and transcendence. David Pountney’s period production is both an evocation and a commemoration of the events of the Somme.

Plot Summary

In a place out of time, two bards – representing Britannia and Germania – and a Chorus of Remembrance contemplate ‘the many men so beautiful’ who went to war.

A Parade Ground, England, December 1915
John Ball, a young Private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, joins the rest of his platoon on parade, and is reprimanded by Sergeant Snell and Lieutenant Jenkins for being late. Ball and his fellow soldiers – Lance Corporal Lewis, Private Watcyn, Private Wastebottom, and Dai Greatcoat – march through rain to Southampton docks. Ball experiences a number of hallucinations: in the first, his companions appear to transform into hunting dogs, and in the second, when the gangplank of their ship to France is lowered, Ball feels as though they are entering a gateway to the underworld.

France, December 1915
After a period of rest, the peace of the French countryside is shattered by the explosion of a single shell; the men's first experience of the violence of war. Ball’s hallucinatory visions persist as the men make their way to the Front Line for the first time: to him, Lieutenant Jenkins is like Christ leading his sheep through the wilderness. The Chorus of Remembrance looks on, as the platoon is met by the mud-caked Marne Sergeant. Once they have reached the Front Line, Ball and Lewis are put on watch.

Christmas Morning, 1915
At dawn, the tension is broken when a German soldier sings a Christmas Carol, and the platoon responds in English. As the men enjoy their breakfast rations, the two oldest soldiers, Dai Greatcoat and the Marne Sergeant, argue about who has fought in more battles, until a barrage of shelling interrupts them.


Café / Military HQ, June 1916In a French café, the men are enjoying drinks served by a barmaid, Alice, but Ball feels a presentiment of death. The men receive orders to march south to the Somme that evening. As the men march to the ‘Magnetic South’, they sing a marching song, while the Chorus of Remembrance echoes the words of the ancient Welsh battle epic, Y Gododdin.

The Nullah, Somme, July 1916
From their position at the Queen's Nullah near Mametz Wood, Ball and his companion Lewis share a moment of peace, before the order comes to attack the Wood. A sudden bombardment causes Ball to have a breakdown. A shell hits Lewis, killing him instantly. At dawn, the Chorus of Dryads can be heard from within the forest. Ball and the rest of the men are ordered to advance on Mametz Wood. Jenkins is shot, and the remaining men enter the forest in disarray. The Queen of the Woods and her Dryads bring death and destruction to the forest and Ball’s comrades.

Within Mametz Wood, Ball finds himself alone with the Bard of Britannia. The Wood is a place of unexpected beauty. As the battle continues, one by one, the rest of Balls’ comrades die, leaving him as the sole survivor. Ball is shot in the leg, forcing him to crawl out of the woods leaving his rifle behind. The Queen of the Woods and her Dryads garland the dead men with flowers and greenery, bringing regeneration and rebirth with their prayers. 

About Iain Bell
Born in London, Iain Bell is best known for his vocal music (opera and song) and has developed a close artistic relationship with Diana Damrau, for whom he has written various works including Daughters of Britannia and The Hidden Place as well as the opera A Harlot’s Progress (2013, Theater an der Wien). Other pieces include the opera A Christmas Carol (2014, Houston Grand Opera, starring Jay Hunter Morris and directed by Simon Callow), the orchestral song cycle A Litany in Time of Plague and the chamber song cycles Cradle Suite, Day Turned into Night, The Undying Splendour and These Motley Fools. His works have been performed at venues including Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Munich Opera Festival.

Highlights this season include a new production of A Christmas Carol, the world premiere of his third opera In Parenthesis, and the cantata London's Fatal Fire, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London.

Book Tickets

Commissioned by the Nicholas John Trust with 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Supported by The John S Cohen Foundation, the Gwendoline and Margaret Davies Charity and WNO Commissions Group.

First performance 13 May 2016 at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, by the Welsh National Opera, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.

May 13 & 21, June 3 - Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wales
June 10 - Birmingham Hippodrome, UK
June 29, July 1 - Royal Opera House, London

Performances start at 7.15pm, except Royal Opera House on June 29 and July 1 at 7.30pm
Running time approximately two hours and 30 minutes including one interval
Sung in English with surtitles in English (and Welsh in Cardiff)
Music Iain Bell
Libretto E. Jenkins and D. Antrobus, after David Jones
Director David Pountney
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth
Conductor Carlo Rizzi

Private John Ball Andrew Bidlack
Bard of Brittannia/HQ Officer Peter Coleman-Wright
Bard of Germania/Alice the Barmaid/The Queen of the Woods Alexandra Deshorties
Lieutenant Jenkins George Humphreys
Lance Corporal Lewis Marcus Farnsworth
Sergeant Snell Mark Le Brocq
Dai Greatcoat Donald Maxwell
The Marne Sergeant Graham Clark

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