First Opera Experiences – Part Two | Welsh National Opera

First Opera Experiences – Part Two

27 April 2017

We hope you enjoyed the first two accounts in our ‘first opera experience’ stories (if you missed part one, read it here). Now it’s time for the next instalment, this time from Ian Siddall, Scenic Art Manager.



'Madam Butterfly was the first opera I worked on in September 1978 as a young 24 year old and was my first introduction to opera.

I helped make the cut cloths and paint the set. I also got to see the production and it was my first introduction to opera and scenery production.

At the time the workshops were based in Llandough Trading estate just off Penarth Road and were solely Welsh National Opera workshops.

I can remember being overawed by the size of the painting studio, (which is quite small by modern standards) but looked huge to me, for the first few days I struggled to get my head around all the processes involved in creating all the flown cut cloths for Madam Butterfly.

There was a team of about 12 people working on the cloths and the process involved nailing out the cloths on the floor, painting them, drawing the branches out, cutting out the gaps between the branches, and then turning the cloths to apply the netting to the back to help the branches hang properly.

Needless to say it involved a lot of working on the floor and hours of cutting out canvas shapes and gluing silk panels and netting on the backs of the cut cloths. The working days were around 10 hours long so knees and hips were pretty stiff at the end of each day. 

The hardest thing to get used to was the amount of tea people drank.  We just kept on working and cups of tea appeared every 45 minutes. The weather was hot and the workshop doors were open a lot which meant that we were sometimes plagued by biting horseflies which were always a problem at that workshop. I seem to remember that the key talking point was that the director and designer were German. I think it was quite a big thing at the time to land such a prestigious team.

What really amazed me was when the carpenters started to assemble the Japanese house with its tatami mating and sliding silk screens. It looked fantastic and I wanted to live in it.  Over the years I have worked on the show many times changing items and even redesigning parts of it that were lost or beyond repair. I have seen the show many times over the years as well but the first time I saw it I was incredibly impressed by the production.

Throughout my career Madam Butterfly has re-entered my life every few years reminding me of my first encounter with opera and Scenic Art. This September it will be 39 years since we first made the show and we have just made a completely new version of the Japanese house which has reinforced the circular nature of my relationship with the set. This time around my son was working on the set which makes the whole experience even richer as he is roughly around the age I was when I first worked on it making it feel even more like circles within circles.'


Experience Madam Butterfly and the incredible set described by Ian for yourself, Thursday 27 or Saturday 29 April at Southampton Mayflower or 27, 29 or 30 June at Birmingham Hippodrome.