Festival Diary: Out of the fire and into the frying pan

With exactly three weeks to go before opening night, it’s fair to say that all of us in the Opera House are being kept on our toes. It seems like every inch of space here is being used for opera festival preparations, be it rehearsing, costume fittings, prop sourcing or, in my case, writing.

Festival Diary: Out of the fire and into the frying pan

The green room, which was once empty outside of lunchtime, is now constantly full of singers, designers, directors and backstage staff. There has been some contention over plates being left in the sink, along with a worrying disappearance of coffee mugs. However, the green room seems like a better place, especially when games of Uno are now regular occurrences there.

In spite of the hugely different environment in the Opera House, we’re managing to settle into the routine of the festival season. The day begins with a trip to the company management to pick up a day schedule – a detailed outline of the simultaneous operatic activities. At this point, many of the productions are being staged by the directors and cast in the Jerome Hynes Theatre, the O’Reilly Theatre and the Dún Mhuire. The creative teams normally get started at 10am, and some only leave the Opera House around 12 hours later.

Last week, Cristina, regina di Svezia took to the stage for an intense few days of rehearsal.  Since I arrived in Wexford Opera House, I’ve been told how important this particular opera is. Written by Jacopo Foroni, it premiered in Stockholm in 1849. However, shortly afterwards it disappeared and was scarcely performed. It only made a comeback in 2007, when it was revived at the Vadstena Summer Opera Festival in Sweden. Six years on, Wexford Festival Opera will present its third performance in nearly two centuries.

Cristina, regina di Svezia tells the story of Queen Christina of Sweden, who gave up her throne in the 1620s. It is a tale of doomed love, power struggles and betrayal in the Swedish court. Reading about it on paper, I must confess that it didn’t sound like my ideal operatic escape. In fact, it looked like the opera that I would have avoided. Out of all of the productions this year, it sounded like it would be the stuffiest, the longest and the most high-brow. I found myself giving into the idea that seems to pester many people about opera – that it wasn’t ‘for’ me.
It was safe to say that when I went to sit in on rehearsals for Cristina, I wasn’t expecting too much. In fact, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Whatever it was, what I saw blew me away. The sheer size of the ensemble is enough to make even the most reluctant audience member sit up and listen, and that’s before the music starts. The opera has around nine principal roles, and features every member of the Wexford Festival Chorus.

The rehearsal I witnessed wasn’t on the main stage – it was a stripped down version in the smaller Jerome Hynes Theatre. A slightly more sparse set didn’t take anything away from the action on stage though. Cristina, played by the powerful soprano Helena Dix, led the cast in the rousing, passionate final scenes. The performance was electrifying – I put down my notebook and pen and just listened. At the time, it was hard to find the words to describe what it was like. I’m sure I’d be snubbed if I compared it to a rock concert, but I felt the same experience as the voices felt my ears, which continued to ring long after I’d left the theatre.

Whilst being interviewed by Highwind Media, Helena Dix  spoke about taking on the title role in this rare opera. “For my part, it’s a beast,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” She also paid tribute to Cristina’s passionate director, Steven Medcalf, who took the decision to update the opera to the thirties. “He’s turned it into something quite real for people,” she said. “The 1930s works very beautifully. It gives her [Cristina] a certain grace and elegance.”

When I’m not having my opinions on operas drastically changed for the better, I’m helping to organise the final push for tickets. Having seen the tremendous efforts of cast and crew in these crucial final weeks, promoting a night at the opera doesn’t seem like an ad full of empty words. Indeed, knowing that there are only three weeks to go isn’t stressing me out. Actually, I’m all the more excited to see the operas being performed – especially for people who, like me, want to be won over.