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Adele Thomas - hometown glory

As she prepares for her Glyndebourne debut directing the new production of Semele in Festival 2023, Adele Thomas talks about growing up in Port Talbot where she found much of her inspiration.

As she prepares for her Glyndebourne debut directing the new production of Semele in Festival 2023, Adele Thomas talks about growing up in Port Talbot where she found much of her inspiration.
Invariably the first thing I tell people about myself is that I come from Port Talbot. Port Talbot is a coastal steel town in south Wales. It’s a truly fascinating place with a reputation for producing a disproportionate amount of Hollywood film stars, artists, poets and even some opera stars for a town of its size and scale.

Adele Thomas, photo by Huw Evans

By the 1950s, Port Talbot had aspirations of becoming a seaside destination. It – still – has amazing beaches and the town backs onto acres of mountain and woodland. But in the 1960s, Port Talbot’s steel works were absorbed into the mighty British Steel, who then turned the small plant into the second biggest steel works in the world. Shortly after, BP built the largest petro-chemical plant in Europe on the other side of the town. To accommodate the logistics of shipping raw material and the tens of thousands of workers needed to man the sites, the M4 motorway extension razed through the centre of the town. No regard for the homes of the people who lived there – just sliced right through. There are streets in Port Talbot where the motorway brushes the roofs of houses that sit in its path. There are streets in which the odd numbers are missing, and the even numbered houses look out to the colossal concrete underpasses of the motorway. There are ghost villages on the edge of the town that were vanished to make way for the motorway’s expansion.

Growing up, Port Talbot was always a punchline, even, and possibly especially, within Wales. The huge bookending industrial plants give the town a Soviet dystopian nightmare vibe. At night, the town is lit up with sci-fi lights and the blazing fire of blast furnaces. It is extraordinarily beautiful in its own way but there’s no doubt that it’s bleak. And the beauty is undercut by the fact that, on a regular basis, the town stinks of eggs: a byproduct of the vast quantities of sulphur used in steel making. Because the motorway runs above the houses below, the town feels subterranean, hidden. A Methodist minister in the town once told me ‘the people of Port Talbot are a bypassed people’. The first thing people say about Port Talbot is ‘Oh I’ve been to Port Talbot… well, I’ve not been there, I’ve driven over it.’ The second thing they say is ‘it looks like Blade Runner’. And inevitably the third thing they say is ‘it stank of eggs.’ When you say you’re from Port Talbot, people tend to joke about giving you a wide berth.

Port Talbot from Mynydd Dinas, photo by Steve
Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

Port Talbot Centre, photo by Chris Shaw
Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

But this bizarre experiment in town planning was a huge inspiration to me growing up there. The networks of under passes. The epically scaled bypasses. The enormous concrete pillars. The semi-abstract concrete crucifix on the side of the church. The almost hieroglyphic mystery of faded graffiti. The tunnels that lead to industrial reservoirs and to mysterious silos and dead ends. I have no doubt that this brutalist playground is responsible for my becoming an opera director. I never went to the opera or the theatre as a child, but I did have these monumental structures to cast my imagination onto. Directing opera and theatre is the act of manipulating three-dimensional space, and those massive concrete edifices were an early education into conceiving a story in three dimensional space: they were Julius Caesar’s Rome, they were New York City, they were whatever castles or cliff faces we dare imagine. They were my first opera houses.

All of this is a very long preamble as to why I was so drawn to directing Semele. Semele has a very specific reputation in Handel’s canon. She is his bimbo. She is the silly girl who longed for endless mindless pleasure and, in the end, got what she deserves. She is the embodiment of the woman who sleeps her way to the top; whose illegitimate ambition cannot be tolerated and – as this is a myth and apologies but, *spoiler alert* – whose hubris brings her swift and brutal death upon herself. My hunch going into the project was that there was maybe more to Semele than that. Not just the opera, but the woman.

It was a huge pleasure to go back and trawl through The Metamorphosis and revisit her story but disheartening to find that Ovid doesn’t allow Semele a voice. The only words that come out of Semele’s mouth in Ovid’s poem are those that she has been told to repeat. The words that were deliberately fed to her by Juno, the wife of the god that Semele is having an affair with: the words that have been deliberately planted to unlock her death like a timed bomb.

Above: Adele Thomas’s Oliver Award nominated production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet. Photograph: Irish National Opera/Kip Carroll

But Handel is the ultimate composer of human empathy. He is incapable of creating a character without a fully formed soul. Semele gets a lot more to say in Handel’s opera than in Ovid’s poem and a surprising amount of it is more equivocal, more uncertain than her reputation would suggest. At the start of Handel’s opera she is unsure and desperate; when she gets to heaven she is riddled with what we might now call imposter syndrome and paralysed by feelings of inadequacy; and, yes, she does sing about adoring herself, but she does so as a result of the skilled manipulation of a much more powerful goddess, a goddess who is deliberately leading Semele to commit a fatal act of hubris.

I started to wonder if the issue here wasn’t Semele’s ‘ambition’, but rather a wider cultural objection towards anyone who ‘overreaches’ themselves.

And this is where Port Talbot starts to creep in. While I love the place with all my heart (and I was hugely fortunate to spend 18 months making The Passion there in 2011), growing up, I was always looking for the way out. I felt like I was always staring down the M4, looking up at a slate grey sky and knowing that I was supposed to be somewhere else. I would have panic attacks because I had no idea how I would do that or by what means. I felt a deep empathy with Semele. She’s young. She has absolutely no idea what she wants.

She knows that she cannot find what she needs at home. And she knows that she needs to leave. Jove’s love is an open door. Of course she is going to run through it.

I realised that there had been very little attention paid to why Semele runs away with Jove to heaven other than the surface glamour. Maybe she was running away from something as much as she was running towards something else.

Soprano Joélle Harvey stars in the title role. Image: Giulio Cesare, Festival 2018,

The designer Paul Steinberg introduced me to Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. In that book, Calasso writes about how, in the myths of the ancients, death by burning is often the punishment for hubris. He writes: ‘Beyond the limit laid down for what is acceptable burns the fire. Apollo and Dionysus are often to be found along the edges of that borderline, on the divine side and the human; they provoke that back-and-forth in men, that desire to go beyond oneself, which we seem to cling to even more than to our humanity, even more than life itself.’ This quote unlocked the piece for me. The human condition contains a compulsion to reach beyond, to go further, to aim higher. But we also contain within us an unquenchable urge to punish those that dare to overreach themselves. This cycle, of rise and punishment, maybe this is at the heart of the opera.

Towards the end of the opera, Handel’s chorus sing:

Nature to each allots his proper sphere,
But that forsaken we like meteors err:
Toss’d through the void, by some rude shock we’re broke,
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.

The horrifying, brutal justice of this libretto. Know your place. If you don’t know it, we’ll make you know it.

I am not setting the opera in Port Talbot, but Port Talbot is in the DNA of my making it. In the glorious three-dimensional abstraction of its space, its inherent theatricality. But also in the knowledge that there are always girls staring off at the horizon, searching for what they don’t know. Maybe it’s in heaven amongst the gods. And maybe it’s somewhere down the M4.

Semele is on stage from 23 July to 26 August 2023

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