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Island of Glass community opera springs from mystical past

9 April 2013

The community of Merthyr Tydfil is premiering a new opera Ynys Gwydr: The Island of Glass, telling a little-known story from its early medieval history this weekend.

The new work was given a root in its past by Cardiff archaeologists and National Museum staff who worked on the Llangorse site at Llangorse Lake/ Llyn Syfaddan near Brecon. The tenth century tale revolves around the mysterious destruction of the royal court of the Kings of Brycheiniog, built on a man-made island (Crannog) in Llangorse Lake. Excavations of high quality artefacts indicate that this was a very sophisticated culture in a troubled age that came to a violent end at the hands of King Alfred’s daughter the Queen of the English kingdom of Mercia.

The new community opera premieres at Theatr Soar on Friday 12 April at 7.30pm, with further performances on Saturday 13 April at 2pm and 7.30pm, before a final performance at Wales Millennium Centre's Glanfa Stage in Cardiff on Saturday 20 April at 1.30pm. For Theatr Soar tickets [£5/£3.50], call (01685) 722176. The Cardiff performance is free and no booking is required.

Cardiff Senior Archaeologist Dr Alan Lane, who worked on the site, explains: ‘The site at Llangorse in Powys is the only crannog known from the British Isles outside Scotland and Ireland. It helps confirm the local legends that the little Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog (Breconshire) has strong Irish connections in the pre-Norman period.

‘Excavation of the crannog demonstrated that it was built in the 890s and destroyed by fire a few decades later. This allows it to be identified with Anglo-Saxon documentation which records a royal site of the kings of Brecon which was destroyed by a Mercian army in 915. In a project funded by Cardiff University, the National Museum of Wales and other bodies, a joint  university/Museum team excavated the site and discovered artefacts which confirm the historical identification of the site as a royal residence of the local kings.

Fragments of an enamel decorated ‘house shrine’, broken brooches and pins give us a glimpse of life in Wales in the middle of the historical period known as the Viking Age. Some of these are on exhibition in the Origins gallery of the National Museum in Cardiff. University specialists have studied the animal remains from the site and have shown they represent feasting on wild boar and venison as well as cattle, sheep and pigs. The most remarkable find was a unique carbonised silk decorated textile which has helped to inspire local people to re-engage with their heritage. The Llangorse site gives a unique and dramatic insight into this stormy period of Welsh and British history and figured prominently in the recent BBC Story of Wales documentary series.’

About the project

The community opera performances build on the “History and Mystery” project engaging community groups from across the county in partnership with the National Museum of Wales and Cardiff University Archaeology. With the help of a grant from the Arts Council of Wales, a team of professional artists coordinated by Head for Arts (Merthyr) have worked with 500 local people to turn the archaeological and historical research into an innovative opera production. The HLF funding has helped the Merthyr arts team provide lectures, workshops and guided walks, and shows the links between Merthyr and Llangorse, which lies just 12 miles across the hills north of the town.