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Wexford Festival Opera ‘Now we have a theatre, we must play with the big boys’

Annunziata Vestri in Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni at the Wexford Festival Opera in 2015. Photo: Clive Barda Annunziata Vestri in Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni at the Wexford Festival Opera in 2015. Photo: Clive Barda
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To many people back in 1951, it must have seemed a crazy idea. With the encouragement of the writer Compton Mackenzie, a group of music lovers in the small Irish coastal town of Wexford, led by local doctor Tom Walsh, decided to put on a full-scale opera. They chose a forgotten title – The Rose of Castile by the once famous Victorian Irish composer Michael William Balfe – and in October 1951 performed it with largely local resources in the town’s rickety Theatre Royal. The following year, they selected Gaetano Donizetti’s then neglected L’Elisir D’Amore, and by 1955 they were putting on two operas, while from 1963 it was three.

WFO artistic director, David Agler. Photo: Michael Savage
WFO artistic director, David Agler. Photo: Michael Savage

This has been the pattern ever since – three unusual or even positively obscure operas staged at the Wexford Festival Opera, which takes place in the autumn in a town with a population that even now numbers no more than 20,000 people. Meanwhile, standards have risen steadily, and have never been higher than they are under the current artistic director, American conductor David Agler, who works alongside chief executive David McLoughlin.

Agler first came to Wexford in 1995. “I was conducting Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Reggio Emilia. Luigi Ferrari was the artistic director there, and just about to become artistic director in Wexford. He invited me to come and conduct a Franz Schubert opera in 1996. Then he got in contact with me to ask if I could instead conduct Sarka by Zdenek Fibich – a composer I’d never heard of.

“That was my first time in Wexford. I had a wonderful time. I remember standing in the tiny pit of the Theatre Royal and thinking to myself what a wonderful job it might be to be the artistic director.”

After conducting successfully at the festival – he returned in 2000 for Adolphe Adam’s Si J’Etais Roi, in which the now star Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja made his first international impression – Agler took over the event’s artistic side in 2005 and has run it during a period where it has built and moved into a new opera house on the site of its much-loved but ramshackle predecessor, as well as hiring its own chorus and orchestra.

The exterior of the National Opera House. Photo: Ger Lawlor
The exterior of the National Opera House. Photo: Ger Lawlor

Twice shortlisted at the International Opera Awards as best festival, and the winner in the rediscovered work category in 2014 for Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, Regina Di Svezia (by the end of its first night the previous year, everyone present was convinced they had witnessed the relaunch of a forgotten masterpiece), Wexford is riding high. This year’s mainstage operas – Felicien David’s Herculanum, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa and Donizetti’s Maria De Rudenz – have been sold out for some time and there’s not a vacant hotel room in the town itself during the festival period, which runs from October 26 to November 6.

In terms of standards, Agler has put the orchestra and chorus on a new footing. “In the olden days, the principal singers were professional and the orchestra essentially the National Symphony Orchestra, but the local chorus was completely amateur. My predecessor Elaine Padmore beefed it up with professional singers from Dublin or the UK. Then Luigi Ferrari came and thought that the quality needed to be improved, so he brought in the Prague Chamber Choir, filled out with some UK participants. I always had in my mind that we would start our own professional chorus, and I thought it would be before the orchestra; but in fact the orchestra came first.”

How does he find the singers and players for that big ensemble totalling more than 100 people every year? “The orchestra is 90% either Irish, or Europeans resident in Ireland. The chorus is 10% to 20% Irish, but quite a lot of it is British, with some Portuguese, Japanese, Canadians, Americans, Australians, everything. We audition every year. We put many of the chorus singers into the ShortWorks [small-scale operas performed as matinees away from the main auditorium] and that’s a real incentive to get them to come. In many cases, it’s the beginning of their professional careers.”


5 things you need to know about Wexford Festival Opera

1. Compton Mackenzie (founder-editor of Gramophone Magazine) encouraged the Wexford Opera Study Circle, headed by a local GP, a postman and a local hotelier, to produce its own operas in Wexford. The townspeople supported the idea both financially and as volunteers, and the first festival took place in 1951.

2. Specialising in producing rarely performed or unjustly neglected operas, Wexford is widely agreed to have helped reintroduce several operas into the mainstream repertoire, including L’Elisir D’Amore (1951), Les Pecheurs De Perles (1971) and Thais (1974).

3. The festival operates with the assistance of more than 300 local volunteers.

4. Wexford has established an international reputation for discovering emerging talent and bringing it to the world stage. The festival introduced Western audiences to Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus back in 1983, while tenors Juan Diego Florez and Joseph Calleja, sopranos Mirella Freni, Elizabeth Connell and Angela Meade, and mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona all made early appearances here. The festival has also offered a platform to emerging conductors, including Vladimir Jurowski, and directors including Francesca Zambello.

5. Artistic director David Agler has presided over one of the most exciting phases in the festival’s history. The old Theatre Royal, which served the festival for 50 years, has been replaced by Ireland’s first custom-built opera house, now Ireland’s National Opera House – a state-of-the-art building with two auditoriums. In 2006, he established a dedicated orchestra, and in 2010 a dedicated chorus.

This year, the festival’s chorus numbers 40 singers – “that makes quite a racket on the stage of the opera house” – while the largest orchestra the festival has fielded so far was 74 for Frederick Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet in 2012 – “though we can fit 77 or 78 players in the pit”.

To find principal singers, Agler regularly auditions in Dublin, London, Paris, Parma, New York and Toronto, while as a member of the juries of several international singing competitions, he come across many talented young artists.

Interior of the National Opera House. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Interior of the National Opera House. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The real game-changer for Wexford was the building of the opera house – something that was in the planning before Agler arrived, but which finally took place during 2006/07. The festival temporarily decamped to alternative venues while the old Theatre Royal was torn down and the new Wexford Opera House was built precisely on its footprint: other than the flytower rising over the town’s skyline, you would never know, as you walk along the row of small, plain terraced houses in the high street, that in the middle of them is a finely equipped modern opera house capable of staging full-scale productions. But there is. Compared to the Theatre Royal’s official capacity of 550, the Opera House seats 771.

It was not long before the new theatre was officially designated the National Opera House, and in fact it is the only purpose-built opera house in Ireland. While sterling work is being carried out by the Dublin-based touring Opera Theatre Company, and Northern Ireland Opera consistently punches above its weight under the artistic direction of Oliver Mears, there’s nonetheless a dearth of large-scale, locally created operatic activity, north or south.

“Because of our specific mission and limited resources, we will never satiate the desire of many opera-loving Irish people for the traditional repertory that they can’t hear. I had a dream of coming up with a second season of opera, but then the financial crisis hit us. Finally, we’re applying to the Arts Council for seed money to begin a new season of opera in the spring of 2018.

“I think it’s sad that so many excellent Irish singers cannot perform in the country of their birth. I recently gave a talk to a bunch of financial people in Dublin, and I was asked: ‘Why isn’t there an opera company in Dublin?’ I just said: ‘Folks, if you feel that, go out and start one. Don’t count on the government to do anything for you.’”

Norman Garrett in Koanga in 2015. Photo:  Clive Barda
Norman Garrett in Koanga in 2015. Photo: Clive Barda

Meanwhile, Wexford continues to face its own funding challenges. “We have money for the festival, but we receive no government subvention for the building, which the festival trust owns. It’s now 10 years old and it needs capital investment. If we had more programme money, we’d be heavily into arts education.”

When the National Opera House was new, one visiting critic warned Agler that the international press would expect more from Wexford than ever before.

“’Well, David,’ he said, ‘we all used to come. We realised that it was ridiculous, really, that you tried to do all this, but you know we supported it, and we loved the works that we’d never heard. But now that you have this new theatre, you’re going to have to play with the big boys.’ That’s true.”

Yet by now, Wexford has established its solid claim to excellence as well as uniqueness. As John Allison, editor of Opera Magazine and co-founder and jury chair of the International Opera Awards, told me: “Wexford is an essential and indeed unique fixture in the international operatic calendar. It was the first festival to devote itself to operatic rarities and – thanks to a combination of place, people and intriguing repertoire – it remains the greatest. More to the point, it is also the most enjoyable.”

Profile: Wexford Festival Opera

Chief executive: David McLoughlin (2007-present)
Artistic director: David Agler (2005-present)
Number of performances: 12 evening opera performances (four performances each of three operas in 2016: Herculanum, Vanessa, Maria De Rudenz), 11 daytime ShortWorks performances (In 2016: three performances of The Bear, four each of Il Campanello and Riders to the Sea), Seven lunchtime recitals, Four other concerts/recitals, 12 lectures/talks, 46 total
Audience figures: More than 20,000 tickets were sold for the 2015 festival; 33% of the audience comes from abroad (24% from Great Britain), 66% from across Ireland
Number of employees: 14 full-time staff equivalent throughout the year. During the festival period (August to November), the full company is in excess of 200
Number of members: 750 friends
Turnover: Total company turnover (Wexford Festival Opera and National Opera House): €3.8 million (2016). WFO artistic and admin budget (2016): €3.58 million
Funding levels: €1.06 million for WFO (2016) from the Arts Council of Ireland. Additional support comes from Failte Ireland (tourist board), Wexford County Council and various other sponsors
Key contacts: David Agler, artistic director; David McLoughlin, chief executive; Ger Lawlor, chairman; David Davies, president

This year’s Wexford Festival Opera runs from October 26 to November 6

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