The founder of Only Men Aloud is feeling festive as the choir prepare to take their Christmas show on the road. Duncan Seaman reports.
Christmas may be five weeks away but Tim Rhys-Evans is already getting into the festive spirit.
The founder and conductor of Welsh male voice choir Only Men Aloud is preparing to take his ensemble on the road on a tour titled We Need a Little Christmas.
“It will be our sixth consecutive Christmas tour since 2008. It’s going to be a festive affair,” he says.
“It’s an evening of Only Men Aloud in their inimitable style. There will be glitz and showbiz but it will also be intimate and a cappella. There will be songs from musicals and films – there’s a strong Hollywood and West End theme. It should be really just a lovely evening to get people in a Christmas mood.”
Having been run as an “entirely amateur group” for more than a decade, last year OMA slimmed down to an eight-piece professional outfit.
“It was an artistic decision,” says Rhys-Evans, who founded the choir in Cardiff in 2000. Eight years later they went on to win the BBC competition Last Choir Standing and signed a five-album deal with Universal Music. In 2012 they performed at the Olympics.
“As much as we have loved everything in the past, you always have to change and evolve,” he explains. “This [move] showcases the vocal talent of each member of the group. You also now get a much better idea of their personalities. If you get 20 people on stage, you see a choir. Here you have eight different men with different characters, you’re hearing different voices. They might be fewer in number but the effect is definitely not less.”
In fact the group is busier than ever in its 15th year. They recently completed a US tour and have filmed a television programme. There’s also a new album – Only Men Aloud Unplugged – in the works.
“All the tracks are a capella or just piano,” Rhys-Evans says, explaining he’s keen for others to share the “unadulterated” power of the group that he gets to hear at every rehearsal.
“We’ve worked with orchestras and big bands but I always thought I’m the luckiest man,” he says. “I get to hear the purity of their singing in its most simple form.
“I decided we really should try to share this. It’s really pared back but I think you get to hear the real quality of the voices.”
A former operatic baritone, Rhys-Evans “fell into” choral conducting 20 years ago. “It was one of those Damascene moments – I realised, ‘This is what I need to be doing’,” he says.
Having worked with Welsh National Opera and Youth Opera for whom he ran an education programme for 16 to 25-year-olds, he decided to concentrate solely on OMA in 2008. “I’m so glad I did that,” he says. “The work we’ve done is really fantastic. It was an opportunity I would never have had when I was in the choir of Faust.”
One of the highlights of OMA’s career came in 2012 when they performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. “That was incredible,” recalls Rhys-Jones. “The most incredible thing for me was going into the studio in Stratford where the creative decisions were made and meeting the creative team. We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, it was incredibly covert.”
Rhys-Jones remembers with pride hearing his choral arrangement performed in the Olympic Stadium.
“Hearing the music sung and seeing that torch was one of those iconic moments. I imagine in a hundred years’ time people will be looking back on when the torch was lit and it’s nice to think we were part of the soundtrack.
“When you are doing that you’re in the moment, you’re doing a job. Then you look back and think, ‘Did we actually do that?’ It’s one of those moments you will never, ever forget.”
Last year Rhys-Jones was awarded an MBE for his services to the choir and its off-shoots, Only Boys Aloud and Only Kids Aloud, as well as his charity work.
He says his trip to Buckingham Palace was “very special”.
“I was pleased firstly it was for music – that’s my life,” he says. “The best thing was being able to take my nana, who’s 89, and my mum.
“They have been rocks, they’ve given such support to me over the years and my nana has been a royalist all her life.
“I took them with me to Buckingham Palace. It was a very special moment as much for them as myself – they got to put on a posh frock and meet the Queen.”
With the formation of Only Boys Aloud, one could be forgiven for thinking Rhys-Evans has an eye to the future of his senior choir.
“That’s not why we started it,” he says. “We started Only Boys Aloud to encourage lads from South Wales to change their lives. We never set it up thinking, ‘Let’s find the next generation of Only Men Aloud’.
“In many ways it would be the easiest thing to do, but we wanted to make this opportunity widely available. We have worked with over 300 boys in 10 years. It’s now part of the charity.
“One of the boys’ choirs was in Britain’s Got Talent [where they finished third in 2012]. Their performance of Calon Lan has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It’s something we are really proud of. There’s Only Kids Aloud as well.
“We are all very aware of how fortunate we have been to have music as such an important part of our lives, particularly in an area that has been socially deprived. We do feel we have a responsibility.”
• Only Men Aloud play at Harrogate Theatre on December 1 and Bridlington Spa on December 2. For details visit http://www.onlymenaloud.com/