When Compton Mackenzie, the renowned novelist and founder of Gramophone magazine, suggested to Tom Walsh that he stage an opera in Wexford, few could have imagined where the idea would lead. But since the first ‘Festival of Music and the Arts’ took place in October 1951, Wexford Festival Opera has grown into one of the world’s leading opera festivals. In 2017 Wexford Festival Opera won Best Festival at the International Opera Awards.
From the beginning, the Festival made a name for itself by introducing audiences to unjustly neglected works, many of which have since found a place in the canon. For nearly 70 years the Festival has breathed new life into forgotten masterpieces, establishing a reputation for high-quality productions that, every year, bring thousands of opera-lovers flocking to Wexford from all over the world.
But it hasn’t stopped there. Since Tom Walsh first guided the Festival to international success, Wexford Festival Opera has been blessed with a succession of talented and passionate artistic directors, all of whom balanced tradition with bold innovation. Over the years the Festival has championed the works of Donizetti, having staged more of his operas than any other opera company in the world outside his native Bergamo, sparked a Massenet revival, included a variety of daytime events to compliment the evening operas and established an international reputation both for attracting and for making major stars. Over the past seven decades, the Festival introduced Western audiences to baritone Sergei Leiferkus back in 1983, while tenors Juan Diego Floréz and Joseph Calleja and sopranos Mirella Freni, Elizabeth Connell, Angela Meade, Ermonela Jaho and mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona all made early appearances here. Beyond the singing stars, the Festival has also offered a platform to emerging conductors like Vladimir Jurowski and Michele Mariotti as well as directors like Nicholas Hytner and Francesca Zambello.
The former Artistic Director, David Agler (2005-2019) presided over one of the most exciting phases in the Festival’s history when the old Theatre Royal, which served the Festival for 50 years, was replaced by Ireland’s first custom-built opera house, a state-of-the-art building with two auditoriums capable of staging ever more ambitious and spectacular productions. With a world-class venue to match its international reputation, the National Opera House is better placed than ever to champion neglected operatic gems, and in 2014 its staging of Foroni's Cristina, regina di Svezia won Best Re-Discovered Work at the International Opera Awards.
In 2020 a new adventure for the Festival began with the appointment of Rosetta Cucchi as the new Artistic Director. Rosetta, an internationally-renowned pianist and director, has been a regular presence at the Festival for more than 25 years as Assistant to the Artistic Director, first under Luigi Ferrari and later under David Agler. Her passion, knowledge and respect for Wexford and the Festival places her in the fortunate position to honour Wexford’s traditions while simultaneously introducing a new and innovative vision to bring the Festival to a wider audience locally, nationally and internationally. Her appointment represents a choice consistent with the past and at the same time focused firmly towards the future.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and the inability to invite a public audience into the National Opera House, the Festival was forced to reimagine both the programme and the way of bringing the Festival to its audience. Rosetta’s new programme and format proved successful in keeping the Festival alive. Instead of audiences coming to Wexford, Wexford came to its audience by partnering with our National Broadcaster, RTÉ to live-stream the evening events. The daytime events were available to view through the Festival’s YouTube Channel. This also gave the opportunity to invite a new, curious audience to the Festival for the first time.
But of course, the Festival’s success is due in no small part to Wexford itself and the hundreds of local, dedicated volunteer force who complete the Wexford experience. This ancient Viking town, nestled in a wonderful setting on the banks of the River Slaney, has a character and charm all its own. Just two hours from Dublin, in a county renowned for its stunning beaches and rebellious history, the town is a key part of what helps to make the Festival unique. Every year at Festival time the streets, pubs and restaurants are abuzz with excitement, and the warm welcome waiting from an army of Festival volunteers keeps opera-lovers coming back year after year.
With a unique vision, outstanding production values and spectacular setting in a beautiful small town, Wexford Festival Opera is a remarkable success story that looks set to continue for many years to come.