The Story of Wexford Festival Opera – by Ian Fox
It all began with a gramophone recital. The great Scottish novelist and founder of the Gramophone magazine, Sir Compton Mackenzie, had been persuaded during a visit to Ireland to give a talk to the Wexford Opera Study Circle in November 1950. The Chairman of the Circle, Dr Tom Walsh, struck up an excellent relationship with him and Sir Compton suggested they should stage an opera in their little theatre instead of listening to records. Coming across the programme for the 1949 Aldeburgh Festival, Dr Tom discussed the idea of a local version with his friends Dr Des Ffrench, Eugene McCarthy, the owner of White’s Hotel, and Seamus O’Dwyer, a postal worker with a great operatic knowledge. Despite falling short of their fundraising target, they launched a 'Festival of Music and the Arts' on 21, October 1951. Sir Compton was present and became the Festival President, a position he held until his death in 1972. By selecting less well-known works and exciting young singers, Wexford set itself apart from other burgeoning festivals. Leading international critics were quick to tell the world of the delights to be found on the banks of the Slaney, and the Festival took off.
The theatre was closed for reconstruction throughout 1960 and re-opened with Verdi’s Ernani in September 1961. Dr Tom continued to exercise his skills into the 1960s but made the unexpected decision to step down after the 1967 season. The post was advertised and Walter Legge, the great record producer, was a surprise candidate. However, Legge had a heart attack (he lived on until 1979) and withdrew. Instead a 26-year-old former Trinity College student, Brian Dickie, was appointed; he had been with the Glyndebourne Touring Company and brought a fresh approach to programme planning. A new era of outstanding singing emerged, with emphasis on the French repertory, as well as the first operas in Russian (Ivan Susanin) and Czech (Ká’ta Kabonová). Jill Gomez, Ugo Benelli, Christiane Eda-Pierre, Dennis O’Neill, Sona Cervenka, Matti Salminen and Elfego Esparza all became familiar Wexford names.
His successor in 1974, Thomson Smillie, had been Publicity Officer at Scottish Opera and was the first to enunciate the three-opera format: a ‘singers’ opera’, a comedy and a ‘thinking piece’. Wexford’s Massenet revival began in 1965 with Don Quichotte. This was conducted by Albert Rosen who became the Festival’s most frequent conductor, with eighteen productions to his credit. Smillie added Thaïs in his opening season. In all, seven of his works have been staged, making Wexford a remarkable Massenet centre. One of the Festival’s most memorable productions took place in Smillie’s time in 1976: Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Smillie moved on after 1978, becoming director of the Kentucky Opera in the USA. For the following three years producer Adrian Slack was Director and put his stamp on the Festival with Sesto Bruscantini in Crispino e la Comare (Ricci Brothers, 1979) and Carlisle Floyd’s tense Of Mice and Men (1980) which the composer attended.
Adrian Slack was followed by Elaine Padmore in 1982. She had supervised broadcasts from the Festival for BBC Radio 3. Her thirteen-year reign, only two shorter than Dr Tom’s, brought a wide spectrum of music and singers, and many remarkable productions. Marschner’s Hans Heiling caused quite a stir in 1983 and introduced Sergei Leiferkus to audiences outside Russia. Raul Gimenez, Cynthia Clarey, Bruce Ford, Curtis Rayam, Kristine Ciesinski, Karen Notare and Alison Browner were just some of the singers who thrilled audiences during her era. Other outstanding productions included newcomer Francesca Zambello’s two contributions: L’Assedio di Calais (Donizetti, 1991) with Alison Browner, and Chervichki (Tchaikovsky, 1993), when Alexander Anisimov made his Irish debut. There were Patrick Mason and Joe Vaneck’s two visits with La Cene della Beffe (Giordano), introducing a remarkable young American soprano, Alessandra Marc, and Prokofiev’s The Duenna, with Neil Jenkins in top form.
In 1999 Padmore went to Copenhagen, and then became Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from which post she retired in 2012. She was succeeded by the then Director of the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Luigi Ferrari. This brought a further change of style and direction, including Meyerbeer’ L’Étoile du Nord (1996), with the young Juan Diego Flórez in a small role, and the first Western European performance of Šarlatán (1998) by Pavel Haas, a Czech composer sent to a gas chamber in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
Ferrari’s choices over his nine years ranged widely. As well as Italian works, he introduced Spaniard Enrique Granados (Maria del Carmen, 2003) and brought the first Polish opera to Wexford in 1999 (The Haunted Manor, Moniuszko). He cast such remarkable new voices as Joseph Calleja (1998 and 2000), Iwona Hossa, Tatiana Monogarova and Ekaterina Gubanova. For Si j’étais roi (Adam, 2000) he brought back a conductor who had been well received in 1996 with Šarká (Fibich) – David Agler.
In 2005 Agler succeeded Ferrari as Artistic Director. From the start he showed he was going to be adventurous and innovative, choosing Carlisle Floyd’s 1973 opera Susannah in his first season, only the fourth opera by a living composer in the Festival’s history. After his initial season the Theatre Royal was closed for two years when it was rebuilt completely. During the reconstruction the Festival moved to temporary homes, first to the venerable Dun Mhuire Hall and then to a magnificent tented structure in the spectacular grounds of Johnstown Castle. Agler’s programmes continued to be varied and imaginative and he would continue to present contemporary opera during his tenure, with Conrad Susa’s Transformations in the Dun Mhuire Hall the next year (2006) and then in 2008 for the new Theatre’s opening season came The Mines of Sulphur (Richard Rodney Bennett 1965) a work requiring large forces which would have been impossible in the old Theatre Royal, soon followed by The Ghosts of Versailles in 2009 (John Corigliano 1991). He would stage eight works by modern composers in the main house, plus other pieces in the Festival’s lively “ShortWorks” programme, in particular important one-act operas which would be too short for inclusion in the main Festival programme.
The magnificent new National Opera House was launched in September 2008 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka opened the first Festival in the new building on 16, October 2008 to great acclaim. The whole reconstruction project created an elegant, modern ambiance which has proved an outstanding success. There is increased seating in the auditorium with spacious foyers and a second smaller venue, as well as a much larger stage, extensive backstage facilities and a large orchestra pit on a hydraulic lift. This has made it possible to extend the range of works the Festival could present, as with Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket in 2010 and the colourful operas of Frederick Delius – A Village Romeo and Juliet in 2012 and Koanga in 2015. The year 2010 also saw Virginia, the fifth Mercadante opera to be staged, a composer closely associated with the Festival since 1988; it featured Metropolitan Opera star Angela Meade’s European debut and won one of the nine Irish Times Theatre Awards the Festival has collected over the years. The 2013 production of the long-neglected Cristina, regina di Svezia by Jacopo Foroni from 1849 also drew wide international attention, winning the prize for Best Rediscovered Work at the International Opera Awards in 2014. In 2017, Wexford would go on to be named Best Opera Festival at this prestigious ceremony.
In 2014, the Irish Government designated the impressive new building as the Irish National Opera House, a title it carries with considerable pride. It also marked the centenary of the start of World War I and Agler secured the European première of Kevin Put’s 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning war drama Silent Night for that year’s Festival; based on a true 1914 story, it proved to be a deeply moving experience, creating an extraordinary effect in the Opera House. A number of co-productions have also featured during Agler’s tenancy including Ferdinand Hérold’s 1832 opera Le Pré aux Clercs, which was staged in 2015 as a co-production with the Opéra-Comique in Paris, and William Balcom’s Dinner at Eight in 2018 in association with Minnesota Opera.
David Agler announced he would retire in 2019, making him the second longest serving Artistic Director, only Dr Walsh served a year longer, at 16 years. In his final season he included a co-production with La Fenice, Venice: Vivaldi’s Dorilla in Tempe (1726) and the first opera by an Irish composer to be staged in the main programme. This was Andrew Synnott’s La Cucina, a curtain raiser to Rossini’s Adina (1826). The libretto was by the opera's director and the newly appointed Artistic Director, Rosetta Cucchi. She first came to Wexford in 1995 as a répétiteur and became a regular at the Festival, being appointed Associate to the Artistic Director in 2005 and Artistic Director in 2019. She has directed four operas at Wexford, so she has a thorough and unique experience of the Festival. For her inaugural 2020 season, the 69th Festival, she planned a set of works with Shakespearean themes. Then Covid-19 struck, public gatherings were not allowed and her Festival plans had to put on hold. However, an enterprising online programme was created, including a version of Verdi’s Falstaff and a new work was created by Andrew Synnott, which was filmed with three different endings, What Happened to Lucrece. It was a very successful enterprise and an important contribution to life under lockdown. Plans for 2021 await Government decisions on the pandemic, but a full programme is planned with over 50 events. Whatever the outcome, it demonstrates what a small town with vision can achieve and how it can look to the future with renewed hope and fresh ambitions.