Festival Diary: A Sneak Peek of Wexford Festival Opera

If you had come to the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin for our In Coversation lecture, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Wexford Festival Opera had already started. Indeed, the first In Conversation event for Friends of Wexford Festival Opera marked the official beginning of the countdown to the festival.  Opera lovers and supporters made their way into the RHA’s exhibition space, for the first in what have become annual events in the Wexford Festival Opera calendar.

Festival Diary: A Sneak Peek of Wexford Festival Opera

I think I’ve probably highlighted the fact that I am not completely au fait with opera, so I was a little nervous before I attended. At the same time, I was looking forward to learning as much as I could about the interpretation of this year’s programme. I was also a little curious to meet some of the Friends, whose opinions and suggestions seemed to be highly revered, but also slightly feared.

While special events about all three mainstage operas are organised for friends every year, this festival sees a major revamp of what Friends can expect. The In Conversation events are just that – instead of listening to lectures, the audience are invited to pose questions to the directors and designers behind the productions. It’s another glance at the creative process that drives Wexford Festival Opera year on year.
Conor Hanratty and Sophie Motley, two up-and-coming directors based in Ireland, took centre stage at last Tuesday’s event. Conor will be directing the ShortWork production of Losers by Richard Wargo. Losers is the sequel to the 2010 ShortWork, Winners. Both are based on two one-act plays by Irish playwright Brian Friel. 

Conor previously directed Ulysses Opera Theatre’s production of FLATPACK during last year’s Absolut Fringe Festival. This opera, based on the oft infuriating experience of dealing with IKEA furniture, was nominated for three Fringe Awards. It was also tipped for Best Opera Production at The Irish Times Theatre Awards.

Meanwhile, Sophie is currently Staff Director at English National Opera, Artistic Director of Willfredd Theatre and a former Assistant Director at the Abbey Theatre. She was presented with a Spirit of the Fringe Commissioning Award for her production of Follow in 2011. Sophie will be taking charge of the ShortWork production of The Sleeping Queen, composed by Wexford’s own Michael William Balfe.

An opera set in a small village in Northern Ireland, Losers may seem like a far cry from the more avant-garde FLATPACK. However, Conor’s enthusiasm for the production was infectious. “It’s a beautiful thing to direct,” he told those gathered. Sophie added that she wanted to reintroduce Wexford audiences to the music of Balfe. “Balfe is an incredible Irish composer,” she said. “I think the aim of the production is to allow Balfe’s work to be more accessible.”
The two directors will also serve as Assistant Directors for two mainstage productions. Having experience in other theatrical forms, both agree that there is something different about directing opera. According to Conor, directors can do “a lot of great things that only opera can afford.” It’s a view that Sophie shares. “Because we have the music with us, we can get away with magic,” she said. “I much prefer opera assisting. In opera, you are very much part of the company,” she added.

It’s worth mentioning that one of my worst nightmares is being stuck at a dinner, or wine reception, or something similar, and being left on my own with nothing to say. It worried that this would be the case before the Friends event. To my surprise, there was little of the snobbery that might be expected of this kind of evening. Instead, the passion and ardour for opera was palpable. It was fantastic to see this passion shared by the young directors as well as the opera patrons who have been coming to Wexford for years.

Last Wednesday, you might have heard our Artistic Director, David Agler, speaking to Marty Whelan on Lyric FM about this year’s festival. Just a few minutes later, our CEO David McLoughlin took to the airwaves to tell Alan Corcoran about the final preparations on South East Radio. Expect to hear much more about Wexford Festival Opera from both these stations in the very near future.
At this point, almost 80 per cent of tickets for the opera festival have been sold. With just more than five weeks to go, it’s a healthy figure. However, I wouldn’t recommend leaving your booking until the last minute. Visit wexfordopera.com or call in to Wexford Opera House’s box office to get your tickets before they are all snapped up. 

By the time you read this, the Wexford Festival Chorus will have arrived and rehearsals will be in full swing. The second In Conversation event was in the Opera House last Thursday, where Technical Director David Stuttard explained the intricacies of set design. As far as we’re all concerned, the festival is well underway.