Elizabeth Rose-Browne, the Festival media relations officer, has invited me to consider why I volunteer at Wexford Festival Opera. The question is posed: “What inspires you?” To this question I can only answer with one word –‘Love!’ Yes, plain and simple, I do it, because I love it!
As a young boy I was lucky enough to be living in High Street two doors away from the Theatre Royal, and as a result was well used to the festivities attendant upon the opera each year. Although no-one in our house could be regarded as an ‘opera buff’, my late uncle and guardian was a man who had a great love for the wireless. I grew up on the fare provided by programmes such as Friday Night is Music Night, Your Hundred Best Tunes and Semprini’s Serenade to name but a few. As regards what was happening a few doors from our house however I had no idea. I had, however many intimations, my earliest memories of the event are of Mr. Willis’s many coloured fairy-lights adorning our street nightly, the strange accents and grandeur of the opera-goers passing our window each evening and in particular the queues for the public dress rehearsals. Back then in the early sixties, the demand for PDR tickets was great, but the theatre foyer, small. The queues for these tickets would form early in the afternoon and stretch all the way down the street around the corner into Rowe Street. It was a long time for people to be waiting, and so often as a result we would have our tea standing at our kitchen-table, owing to the fact that Granny had given all our chairs out to the people in the queue. Most of our neighbours did likewise and umbrellas were also supplied when the weather demanded.
This love affair with Wexford Festival unexpectedly began for me one day in 1967, when I was eleven-years old. This was a day that was to change my life forever. Along with three other boys I made my Wexford festival stage debut as a page-boy in Rossini’s ‘Otello’. I can still vividly recall standing backstage in the darkness listening to the strains of the overture. The smell of the greasepaint in my nostrils, I was entranced by the feel of the fabric of my costume and then the heat from the many spotlights trained on the stage as the curtain opened and we made our entrance during the opening scene of Act 1. It was all so spectacular.
For me that Act 1 entrance was more than a walk onto a stage, it was a portal into a different world. A world of fantasy, a world of romance, a world of musical ascending beauty that I never knew existed and it was all happening just two doors from where I lived. I was completely enthralled and so excited to be a part of it all. The next morning I was out in the street singing at the top of my voice in my childish made-up Italian the tune of the opening chorus. The only words I definitely had correct were ‘Viva Otello, Viva Il Prode’. From that moment I was hooked.
My early years as a volunteer were spent in the wardrobe with Wexford’s wardrobe legend, Dorrie Pettit. Here, as a young boy I helped carry the chorus costumes for each evening’s performance up and down four flights of stairs. Tough work but enjoyable. I also acted as ‘assistant’ to my favourite stage-manager Sally Thomas, for whom I harboured a huge boyish crush. I ran like the Greek messenger Pheidippides around the dressing-rooms calling instructions such as ‘Ten minutes to Curtain!’ and ‘Beginners on Stage Please!’ etc. And all the while I was being weaned on ‘bel-canto’. Yes, I listened enthralled from the props side wings to works by Rossini (L’Equivoco Stravagante & L’Inganno Felice); Donizetti (Giovedi Grasso); Verdi (Luisa Miller) and Bellini (Il Pirata). My early teens also saw me take part on stage in operas by Mozart (La Clemenza di Tito), Verdi (Luisa Miller), Delibes (Lakmé), and Bizet (The Pearl Fishers) all wonderful experiences for a boy my age.
As the years moved on and my voice broke, my next phase of voluntary input was as a member of the local volunteer chorus. Having passed my audition with Artistic Director, Elaine Padmore I made my chorus debut as a baritone in the 1983 productions of Marschner’s ‘Hans Heiling’ and Donizetti’s ‘Linda di Chamounix’. Being a member of the chorus was an amazing experience. For us locals, rehearsals usually began in June for one night each week, working up to at least three by the time the visiting professional choristers arrived in October. The arrival of these choristers was something to look forward to as it was always interesting to hear not only their superb trained voices, but how they all felt about Wexford and the idea of working alongside volunteers. This unique mixture of amateur and professional singers dated back to 1954 when the festival’s founder, Dr. Tom Walsh first introduced choristers from Glyndebourne to boost the ranks of the locals. To work together with these singers was a great pleasure. The banter was always good natured. We learned a lot and made many friends. To perform works in a foreign language was always both fun and a challenge but we seemed to do quite well and before my chorus swansong in 1993 I had performed in over twenty operas, singing in French, German, Italian and a couple in English.
After the demise of the local chorus, I attended the festival as an entranced member of the audience. However, the urge to be a volunteer always lingered and in 2008 I joined the ranks of the Front-of-House staff in the brand new Opera House.
Moving from behind-the-scenes to this new location gave me an insight into yet another aspect of this wonderful event’s organisation. I hugely enjoy meeting old friends and encountering new people while engaging in the interval chat. The comments and critiques are always so insightful to hear. Along with my fellow colleagues I stand back, with great pleasure, when each patron is seated and another mesmerising performance is about to begin.
I can only imagine the sense of achievement and pride swelling the hearts of the founders and pioneering volunteers sixty-four years ago when the curtain rang up on the first performance of ‘The Rose of Castile’, The current crop of volunteers have inherited that excitement and pride and for me continues to be one of the main motives of why I love to volunteer and take part each year in this event which has given me such wonderful joy since that day in 1967 when I was asked – ‘Would you like to take part in an opera?’.
Long may it continue.
Kevin Lewis 2015