Begun in 2010 by a small group of opera professionals, who saw in the wonderful surroundings of Lismore Castle an opportunity to bring music and environment together, it’s now a hugely popular event that packs the five days spanning the bank holiday weekend.
This year, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, with Irish soprano Carolyn Dobbin and Puerto Rican tenor Javier Abreu, directed by Dieter Kaegi, is the central focus, surrounded by recitals, concerts, dining and general festivities.
The opera is staged in the stables and courtyard of Lismore Castle, while related events take place in other gracious homes in the Blackwater Valley, as well as in St Carthage’s Cathedral.
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Jennifer O’Connell is the driving force behind the Lismore festival, throwing herself heart and soul into making it a success for both residents and visitors.
Each year’s event is the culmination of 12 months of organising, arranging, persuading, co-opting, and persisting. When we talk, she is still mentally juggling a dozen other urgent issues, but finds time to explain why this unique occasion matters so much.
“Well, where else will you get the chance to enjoy opera in such surroundings? When we first thought of setting up this festival, Dieter Kaegi saw the courtyard and stables of the castle and said that was where we simply had to stage the opera. It was Carmen that first year and it worked superbly there. Now, we pick each year’s opera with that setting in mind. It totally lends itself to something like this. A beautiful art form in a beautiful place,” O’Connell says. Tickets for La Cenerentola range from €95 to €120. “The higher-priced are the front row and they always go immediately. Everybody wants them.”
Live broadcast, Wagner's, The Flying Dutchman, directly from Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to the Ballymaloe Grainstore at 7.15 Tue 24— Blackwater Valley Opera Festival (@Lismoreopera) February 20, 2015
Doesn’t she consider that rather a hefty cost? Actually, she doesn’t, and neither, apparently, do some other opera buffs.
“If you love opera, then you’ll want to be there, the same as in any other musical field. After all, what does a big show at the Aviva or 3Arena cost?”
Opera, she says, is the most expensive of all the art forms.
“You have professional singers, a chorus, an orchestra, you have to accommodate everybody. On top of that, here we construct a pop-up opera house every year with a roof and tiered seating. That is a huge cost,” she says.
Locally, though, it’s very good for business.
“We’re not-for-profit, we are seriously under-funded, we would love to have a wider range of prices, but we’re creating opportunities and jobs and an experience. We’re dedicated and we hope that, eventually, everybody will realise just what we’re achieving.”
Part of their plan is to engage audiences of the future. To this end, local schoolchildren are invited free of charge to the dress rehearsal. For many, this is the very first time that they experience opera or classical music live.
“We’re going to have a full house for that — it’s already over-subscribed. The kids do fall in love with the art form when they experience it here,” O’Connell says.