THE LONG READ - WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA
In the second of our long reads, we take an in-depth look at the history and success of Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland.
In a country steeped in ancient stories, the Irish city of Wexford is no exception. This medieval town on the banks of the River Slaney in the country’s historic south east was founded in the early 900s by the Vikings, and their legacy includes the town’s many narrow winding streets and its name, derived from the Norse, Weissfiord - meaning ‘inlet of the mudflats’.
After nearly 300 hundred years of largely independent Viking rule, Wexford was besieged in 1169 by Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster and his Norman ally, Robert Fitz-Stephen. The Norse inhabitants resisted fiercely, until eventually accepting a settlement. In the Middle Ages Wexford experienced relative stability as an English settlement, and it was also home to the Knights Templar in the 12-century following the Crusades.
In the 1640s the town produced strong Confederate support along with nearby Waterford in the Eleven Years’ War, the most destructive conflict in Irish history. In 1798 Wexford was once again the centre of the Rebellion against British rule, and was the scene of a notorious massacre of local loyalists by the United Irishmen, who executed them with pikes on Wexford Bridge.
The town’s grisly and colourful history lives on in its many historical monuments, including: the gated entrance to the walled town dating from c.1300 complete with cells for those travellers not willing, or able, to pay their entrance tolls; Selskar Abbey, one of the oldest sights of worship in Wexford dating from the 12th-century, built by Alexander Roche upon returning from the Crusades; the Bullring, home to bull-baiting from 1621 until 1770, introduced to the town by the Butcher’s Guild; and many other churches, monuments and historic buildings.
Given its location on the estuary of the River Slaney, Wexford was a bustling seaport throughout its history. However, the constantly shifting sands of Wexford Harbour meant that by the mid 20th-century, it had become unprofitable to keep dredging the channel to accommodate larger ships. What served as the lifeblood of the town since its Viking foundation was no longer able to be maintained, and the once-busy port closed for good.
Despite the economic hardship which resulted from the port’s closure, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in mid 20th-century Wexford. In 1950, the renowned novelist, musicologist and founder of Gramophone Magazine, Compton Mackenzie, travelled to Wexford to give a lecture to the Wexford Opera Study Circle. At the close of his lecture, Mackenzie suggested that rather than listening to records in their little theatre as they had done for many years previously, the group should instead stage an opera of their own.
The appeal of Compton Mackenzie’s suggestion to the music lovers of Wexford began to take root, and after coming across the program for the 1949 Aldeburgh Festival, Tom Walsh, an Irish doctor, writer and long-time resident of Wexford, discussed the idea of a local festival with his friends. By the end of 1951 the first Wexford Festival of Music and the Arts took place, with the focal work being a performance of The Rose of Castille by Irish composer, Michael William Balfe. It was a little-known opera mentioned in passing in James Joyce’s Ulysses ("What opera is like a railway line?" "The Rose of Castille. See the wheeze? Rows of cast steel.”).
During its first decade, under the guidance of their now official Artistic Director, Dr Tom Walsh and the Festival President, Sir Compton Mackenzie, Wexford offered an increasingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience rarities such as Lortzing's Der Wildschütz and obscure works for that time including Bellini's La sonnambula. By selecting lesser-known operas and inviting exciting young singers, Wexford set itself apart from other burgeoning festivals of that time. 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.
Young artists to feature in the early days of the Festival included conductors Bryan Balkwill, Charles Mackerras and John Pritchard, and international singers like Nicola Monti, Afro Poli, Franco Calabrese and Paolo Pedani. Many British and Irish rising stars also featured including Heather Harper, Bernadette Greevy, Thomas Hemsley and Geraint Evans.
Tom Walsh continued to shepherd the Festival into the 1960s but after the 1967 season he made the unexpected decision to step down. Since Dr Tom first guided the Festival to international success, Wexford Festival Opera has had a succession of talented and passionate Artistic Directors who have balanced tradition with bold innovation. Many have moved on to distinguished and high-profile positions in the world of opera after their time at Wexford, given the Festival’s high regard.
In 2005, the American conductor David Agler became the current Artistic Director, having previously served as Music Director of Vancouver Opera, Principal Conductor of West Australian Opera and Resident Conductor of San Francisco Opera. After his first season at Wexford, the old Theatre Royal in the town’s centre, which had served the Festival for over 50 years, was demolished and 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. The stunning landmark building now stands proudly over the historic town, as a clear indication of how bold programming and a passion for the art form can put a small town like Wexford on the operatic map.
When Compton Mackenzie 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 it was recognised globally as it received the Best Opera Festival in the World prize at the 2017 International Opera Awards.
The Festival’s success is due in no small part to Wexford itself. The ancient Viking town, nestled on the banks of the River Slaney, has a character and charm all of its own and is a key part of what helps to make the Festival unique. Every year in October, as the excitement builds to opening night, the streets, pubs and restaurants are abuzz with opera fever.
Once the Festival begins, not only are there the three main evening operas, but the Festival also offers the Shortworks program, a selection of condensed operas performed during the day, along with recitals from Festival artists, concert performances, talks and lectures and the Wexford Fringe, which runs in parallel with the opera festival and features the now legendary Guinness Wexford Singing and Swinging Pubs Competition!
With a unique vision, a spectacular setting in a beautiful charming Irish town, and the enthusiastic welcome from an army of local Festival volunteers, opera-lovers from all over the world look set to keep coming back to Wexford year after year.
WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA IN 2019
Hayllar Music Tours will once again travel to Wexford for this year's Festival, and we are delighted to announce the program of operas for 2019.
Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz
Considered by Wagner to be the 'most German' of composers, Weber was highly regarded for his natural folk style. His opera Der Freischütz shines brightest of all his ten operas, based on the German folk legend of the Freischütz or Freeshooter.
A double-bill of Gioachino Rossini’s Adina and Irish composer Andrew Synnott’s La Cucina
The last of Rossini's one-act operatic farsa, Adina tells the story of the abduction from the seraglio. This is a co-production with the Rossini Opera Festival and is performed alongside the world première of La Cucina by Irish composer Andrew Synnott.
Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte
Based on Cervantes story Don Quixote, Massenet's lush, romantic score showcases the exotic colour and excitement of the eccentric knight's adventures with his squire Sancho Panza.
These three operas feature on the tour in addition to the following performances:
Last Orders at the Dockside by Dermot Bolger at Abbey Theatre in Dublin, also known as the National Theatre of Ireland.
A theatre production at the prestigious Gate Theatre in Dublin.
A private recital in spectacular Dromoland Castle.
"The Wexford Festival is a dream. If you love opera, then you must go. The focus on Irish history was beautifully planned and executed. Our Irish historian John Ducie was brilliant. You could not do better than to join this tour if you have an interest in both Ireland and Opera. Or even if you have an interest in only one of the above! Just do it."
Irene and John, Music, Theatre & History in Ireland 2018