Musical influences and inspiration in Rhondda Rips it Up!

When David Pountney set the brief for Rhondda Rips it Up! back in 2016, one of his main stipulations was that the piece should not be a contemporary opera in the usual sense, but should rather hark back to the genres of music hall, vaudeville and operetta. He was also keen that we include some of the songs and anthems from the period. As such, Elena and I had great fun researching the music and traditions. Since we had decided that our Emcee character would be based upon the legendary Male Impersonator, Vesta Tilley, she was an obvious place to start:

One of Vesta Tilley’s most famous acts was Burlington Bertie and although we could not find a recording of her singing this number, another Male Impersonator, Ella Shields, gives a fabulous rendition:

While scouring recordings of music hall and vaudeville, we stumbled upon an extraordinary number called My Girl’s Pussy which really does have to be heard to be believed. Although written slightly later than the period in which Rhondda is set, we felt it would be perfect for the musical entertainment on board the Lusitania ship which Margaret and her father took on their return from America. I texted David Pountney and sent him the link asking; “do we dare to include this saucy music-hall gem?”  Needless to say he replied immediately with a resounding “YES!”.

Elena and I were also very keen to use some of the original suffragette anthems and of course this meant including Ethyl Smyth’s famous The March of the Women.  In Rhondda Rips it Up!, Margaret leads the ladies of Newport in a rousing chorus of this song as they march to their first rally:

While I was writing, I spent a lot of time looking at the libretti of W.S. Gilbert, in particular the patter songs as I was keen to have some patter numbers in our piece. Below is a small section of the libretto which shows the text from a patter song that the ladies of the chorus sing during the Elocution class scene in the Newport Temperance Hall:

EDITH

They put her into prison and she paid the price.

Like every suffragette she made the sacrifice,

but a Parliamentary pardon

chased her up and down the garden

and put paid to penal antics ‘ere she tried it twice.

TUTTI

They put her into prison and she paid the price

Like every suffragette she made the sacrifice,

but a Parliamentary pardon

chased her up and down the garden

And put paid to penal antics ‘ere she tried it twice.

A fond farewell!

A prison cell!

A week long spell!

A living hell!

But Parliament’s decision

foiled her abstinential mission

and curtailed her opposition

in a legal vice!

Elena spent a lot of time listening to Big Band jazz music of the 1920s, George Formby and songs by Weston and Lee such as Goodbyee-ee.  Songs like Arthur Lamb’s A Bird in a Gilded Cage also had particular significance for us, especially given the subject matter:

Working with Elena and delving into the wonderful world of vaudeville has been a truly joyous experience and a fantastic collaboration.  We had tremendous fun researching the era and re-imagining this genre for a modern audience.