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Festival News

Chairman, Paul Cleary, writes about his passion for opera, his county, and his history with the beloved Opera Festival

Paul Cleary

I guess my love of opera and especially Wexford Festival was always destined. I am fortunate to come from a family with a strong musical background.
Thanks to my father’s varied record collection, from a young age I was familiar with all types of music: pop, traditional, country and opera. My mother was from Mary St (the street opposite the stage door), and hearing stories from her childhood of certain singers turning her skipping rope tied to the theatre gates, and of the crowds assembled in High St on Gala night to watch the audience arrive always fascinated me.

Growing up in Wexford, the arrival of October meant one thing: the fireworks. In those days before the pyrotechnic extravaganzas that we have enjoyed in recent years, we jokingly referred to the annual event as “the firework”. If you looked closely, you could see a man throwing the fireworks into the air from the Ballast Bank! Nevertheless, the quays were always lined with the people of Wexford crowded together to enjoy the display.

I always wondered, what was the reason behind this autumnal excitement? I soon discovered that fireworks were the answer. But not the ones on the quays; rather the vocal fireworks in the Theatre Royal where the Wexford Festival Opera was taking place.

In 1981, two events steered me firmly into opera, and more precisely, the Wexford Festival. The first was hearing a recording of the Italian tenor, Nicola Monti, singing the aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s ‘L’Elisir D’Amore’. Monti had performed in the opera in Wexford in 1952, becoming something of a Wexford legend, returning frequently. His singing of that aria was just so perfect. The fact Monti had appeared at the second festival made me realise how important Wexford was in the international opera world. He also turned my mother’s skipping rope!

The second event was attending the dress rehearsal of ‘I Gioielli Della Madonna’ by Wolf-Ferrari. The combination of the music and the drama I found bewitching. That this was happening here in my hometown, with my fellow Wexfordians singing onstage and working behind the scenes, made it even more special.

From then, opera and especially the Wexford Festival, has played a huge part in my life. I decided I wanted to be part of this magic, so I became a voluntary worker; that dedicated team who work so tirelessly to ensure the smooth operation and success of the festival.

Following a very brief stint backstage (two nights!), I joined the Front of House team. People assume it must be tiresome checking tickets and showing people to their seats. It is anything but and has been a hair-raising experience on quite a few occasions! Over the years you become acquainted with so many people. It is always exciting to see familiar faces as festival time comes around again, but there is also sadness when you don’t.

Over the 40-plus years since my first Wexford Festival experience, much has changed. Wexford town has expanded considerably, its population now fantastically diverse. The Theatre Royal made way for the fabulous National Opera House, a prominent fixture on the Wexford skyline. The “new” bridge of my childhood has long been replaced - the wooden works only remembered by those of a certain age.

Of course, I have also changed, but my passion for opera and Wexford Festival is still burning strong. Over the years, my involvement with the festival has deepened. It is a great honour for me to be appointed as Chairman of Wexford Festival Trust, a role I am proud to undertake as a volunteer. But whether I am in the audience, on duty front-of-house or quietly listening backstage, I still feel the wonder, just as on my first night many years ago.

Paul Cleary is Chairman of Wexford Festival Trust.