Why do we do this?
Why opera? Why Wexford? I made my first visit to Ireland in 1993 and was contemplating moving to Ireland from Seattle with my soon to be husband, who hailed from Co. Wexford. Though I had already lived many places in the world, both rural and urban, I was essentially a city-girl, immersed in arts and culture. So the thoughts of moving to rural Ireland in the early 90s, in the days before espresso, aubergines and 24-hour anything, was naturally of concern to me. But there somewhere in the Irish landscape of instant coffee and boiled carrots with everything, was this amazing international festival of opera, an oasis of richness and beauty that I had heard about since my early days of training as a classical singer and my flirtation with Seattle Opera. Could it be? It didn’t make sense that this world-renowned artistic organisation existed here. It must be another Wexford. But exist it did and it was a life-line and influenced my decision to move to Ireland. I moved over in 1994 and experienced my very-first Wexford Festival Opera. My first child was born at the end of August that year and I remember endlessly pushing the pram through the streets of Wexford that September just to hear the magnificent voices rehearsing from some unidentified venue above the streets of Wexford. Very soon I entered the game of ‘spot the artist’ the chatter was alive with various languages – something common place now – but not back then. Then I attended my very first opera at Wexford. And if I’m honest, I remember more about the experience than the opera itself. I remember the hundreds of people dressed in their finery, walking in the darkened autumn night up to the Theatre Royal. I remember the thousands of people that came to town for the fireworks and for the window displays, I remember being met and being kissed at the entrance of the theatre by 3 gentlemen, now known to me as Jerome Hynes, Chairman Ted Howlin and Artistic Director Luigi Ferrari. I remember asking my husband how an arts organisation could afford to employ so many professional staff, noticing the plethora of enthusiastic, but highly-trained people in the box-office or taking coats, or ushering you your seat. To say I was astounded to learn that these were no ordinary professionals, but professional volunteers was an understatement to say the least!
Once inside the Theatre, my first thought was, “if this place catches fire, no one will ever get out alive.” A Ryanair flight was spacious by comparison. But then the lights went down and the conductor made his way down the centre aisle to thunderous applause. The house went quiet for a few seconds; the conductor gave the signal; a drum roll sounded; the audience stood and all joined in to sing ‘Amhran na bhFiann’. And in that moment I understood the sense of pride and ownership these people had for the Festival and the town of Wexford. I was in the presence of something great and the curtain hadn’t even opened. But when it did – I was mesmorised with the voices and especially the production itself. As a theatre maker, I appreciated the feat of producing an opera with a set that had to be taken down every night and staging an opera on a tiny stage which could be filled with up to 40 people at any given time. A difficult challenge even for the most experience practitioner. I was hooked and have attended ever since. I thought I was a worldly person before I came to Wexford, but I came to Wexford and discovered the world.
In 2006, my experience with the Festival expanded when I took a temporary job in the general office. The Theatre Royal had been knocked down and the entire organisation was in transition. I had been working exclusively in the arts until that point, acting, directing, teaching, so working there came naturally. My relationship with the Festival changed again the following year, when I was cast as an actor in 2 of the 2007 Festival in Johnstown. A last minute casting change paved the way to also have a small singing role in Die Silbersee in addition to the acting roles.
So in 2008, when Artistic Director David Agler invited me to apply for the role as the press officer or media relations manager – as it is described today, I jumped at the offer. WHY? Why does an actor/performer want to promote someone else’s work? Simple. I’m a storyteller; a producer; a theatre-maker and here was an opportunity to tell an incredible story that is ever evolving. I am so immensely proud of what happens in Wexford, not just in the autumn, but year around and not just in Wexford, but world-wide, to make this very special, very personal, Festival happen every October since 1951. There is an amazing story to tell of the community of Wexford, the volunteers, the artists and the productions. And the stories continue to evolve. They are real stories with real people that have had a far reaching impact on the rest of the world.
I love working and getting to know the artists that come to Wexford.
I love to hear their thoughts on the uniqueness of the rehearsal experience, of being able to put your ‘own stamp’ on a production. Of the warmth and hospitality that they feel during their 2 month stay; of the knowledge and instinct the community has for opera. I understand the fiercely competitive profession and the gruelling and often lonely existence they can have and I want to help them be noticed for their incredible talent and dedication, which even if you possess in spades, doesn’t guarantee you an international opera career. I love hearing the stories from the volunteers about quirky or funny little things that have happened over the years and how they came to be a volunteer. I love hearing people having a heated discussion over coffee about which is the best opera of the 3 operas that year and why. I love that in In 1951 a group of local opera enthusiasts put together a festival of opera specialising in rarely produced repertoire in post-colonial, geographically isolated, economically depressed, rural Ireland and has had a significant impact on the international opera profession introducing little known operas into the mainstream repertoire of top opera houses and providing a spring-board to launch the international careers of many a singer and I love that in the same place you can get something called a rissole and one of the best pints around (also a uniquely Wexford cultural experience.) It’s called balance. And Wexford and the Festival provides balance to the visiting artists, crew and the thousands of visitors that come to Wexford every year.
Wexford Festival Opera has not only survived, but developed against all odds. This latest global economic downturn saw several top opera houses and festivals shut their doors, Vancouver Opera being one of the latest victims, moving from a year-round season to a one-week long ‘festival’. I don’t even mind when people give out about the Festival because it means they care. I love that this community cares so much about the Festival. With so many negative stories happening around the world – it’s important and necessary to remind people of all the things that are good; that work. I want everyone at home and abroad to know about it, because it’s inspirational and informing to the general public as well as to the opera professionals.
Wexford needs opera; for the beauty and richness it brings; for the economic impact it provides; for the opportunity it gives us a community to deliver excellence, both artistically and socially, by any standard or perhaps sometimes to get us through what might otherwise be a dreary autumn (remember the autumn of 2007?).
I am a storyteller and Wexford Festival Opera’s story is worthy of being told.
People want to hear it. It is a unique story, as varied and entertaining as anything. Opera is part of our identity, like the town’s Viking and rebellion history, like its writers, like its rissoles. That’s why I do what I do. And, as they say in America, ‘I’m proud to serve’.