Jump to content

Helen-Jane Howells, November 2013

It’s a week now since I left the brisk climes of Cardiff Bay for the more chilly corridors of Cambridge but I still have the music of the previous fortnight spinning around my head and the happy memories of new friends made, challenges met and good fun had working on the new opera Under Milk Wood by John Metcalf for the upcoming Dylan 100 Festival (2013-2014).

Before we began it seemed a huge undertaking:  two weeks to learn very intricate music, tricky rhythms and put it all together with Foley sound-effects, movements and, in some cases, dance (see Paul Carey-Jones’s blog on the subject).  But the piece is so good, the vision so exciting that I think we all saw what it could be and pushed ourselves to achieve in two weeks what we thought impossible.

I very much enjoy singing contemporary music, I think it’s a huge honour and real thrill to work with the composer on his/her work and to be the first to perform a piece or a role is very special and the pressure is on to make that part your own and to bring it to life. There are no previous recordings to learn from or get inspiration- there is no shortcut and I love that aspect of performing brand new work. John’s piece is beautiful, funny, moving and is such a feat of expertise and achievement- I hope we gain the funding needed to take it on and on and also to record it.

undermilkwoodoperakirstenmcternan10.jpg (site)I have a few roles in the opera but by far the stand-out role for me is Lily Smalls, largely in part due to the main aria ‘Lily Smalls Makes Tea’. Since I left teaching in 2007 and pursued a career in singing I have been asked to do some pretty strange things in the pursuit of ‘art’: at Glyndebourne I donned a fig-leaf bikini, at the Royal Festival Hall I’ve worn a two foot wig, I’ve performed in woodland and been stung by hornets and even dug my own grave on stage and sung half-naked in the rain...! But this fortnight I have gone one better- in one of the most pyrotechnic arias I’ve ever sung I have also been encouraged (in fact it is written into the score) to play spoons, trill saucepan lids, pour water and honk a car horn!

I have enjoyed perfecting my cutlery noises (and chicken/turkey sounds) and feel sure that if this singing lark ever packs up I’ll be well-qualified to give The Archers a call and ask if they want an extra sound-effects person!



Back at home and preparing for the Christmas run of Messiahs  I miss the haunting, catchy music (a rarity in much modern music it must be said) and I look forward to getting back in the Spring to bash those pans and rattle my castanets. My puppy is being very helpful in providing us with a steady supply of new sound effects as he demolishes his squeaky toys one by one. 

If you are in Cardiff do visit the Peter Blake exhibition celebrating the characters and scenes from Under Milk Wood and please book tickets to see and hear us all in this exciting piece.

Helen-Jane Howells, November 2013

Rehearsal photographs courtesy of Hywel Harries. Helen-Jane is pictured here on the left alongside Michael Douglas Jones and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers.


And here is the puppy picture: Helen-Jane's dog Albie, helps her learn scene 8a before coming to Cardiff!

albie.jpg (site)

Copyright © Taliesin 2021. All rights reserved