'This music crept by me upon the waters': Colm Tóibín on Wexford Festival Opera 

The celebrated author attended his first opera in Wexford at the age of 16, and was happy to write of his appreciation for the festival for a new history book 
'This music crept by me upon the waters': Colm Tóibín on Wexford Festival Opera 

A history of Wexford Festival Opera.

Colm Tóibín's contribution to The History of Wexford Festival Opera, 1951–2021, by Karina Daly, published by Four Courts Press

Wexford has a strange beauty in the washed light of late October. The town still looks like a medieval port, with narrow streets leading from the quays to a single long main street, also narrow. Wexford got its name from the Vikings, but its tone was set by the Normans. Half the surnames of the people are Norman, and in the plainness of the architecture, and the lack of pretension in the citizens, there is a Norman austerity. The other elements include not only the Gaelic, but also the English and Huguenot.

The train journey along the river Slaney between Enniscorthy and Wexford passes through what is for me one of the most moving and resonant landscapes. In that silvery still afternoon light, for several miles you see no roads and hardly any buildings, just trees and the calm strong river. If you are travelling to Wexford in late October, with the promise of music, these ten or fifteen minutes offer a special happiness.

 Colm Tóibín first attended the festival as a teenager. Picture: Fergal Phillips
 Colm Tóibín first attended the festival as a teenager. Picture: Fergal Phillips

There is a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that goes: ‘This music crept by me upon the waters’. In Wexford, the autumn light over wide estuary water, by some miracle, has over seventy years been the light beneath which a great opera festival takes place.

I saw my first opera in Wexford precisely fifty years ago, in 1971 when I was sixteen. Those of us in school who wanted to go to the dress rehearsal of the opera had to assemble every afternoon before study to listen to a recording and have the story explained.

I have a clear memory of the stereo record-player being rigged up and the light from the sea shining through the long windows in a seldom-used room of one of the front buildings in the old St Peter’s College. The opera was The Pearl Fishers. At home, we had a record of John McCormack singing the famous duet with a baritone. The soprano in Wexford that year was to be Christiane Eda-Pierre.

The yellowish lighting of the opening scene is vivid in my mind, and the extraordinary precision of the singing of the chorus and the heightened emotion. As I write this, the word motif comes back to me. In the talks about the opera each afternoon, we were told to watch for motifs, but that did not sink in. 

Now, as I sat in the old Theatre Royal in Wexford, I recognised the motif which came before the first duet and I was ready for those soaring moments when the two voices merge and move apart and compete and merge again.

The Mines of Sulphur by Bennet, at Wexford Festival Opera in 2008. Picture: Clive Barda / Arenapal
The Mines of Sulphur by Bennet, at Wexford Festival Opera in 2008. Picture: Clive Barda / Arenapal

What is extraordinary about the Wexford Festival Opera is how much has changed, but how much the sacred core has been preserved. The Festival is longer; the opera house is new. But there is something wonderful and special about walking those streets in your best clothes on those Festival nights, when you know that you are going to see an opera you will probably never see again, an opera that deserves to be better known, or has strange and interesting flaws or contains hidden, forgotten treasures.

It is important to remember that the celebration of beauty did not happen in Wexford by accident. It belongs to a spirit that has nourished this place for a long time. A spirit that lives, for example, in the work of the novelist John Banville and the playwright Billy Roche. 

A spirit that, in the 1790s, distributed pamphlets about liberty and studied the example of the French Revolution and the American Revolution. A spirit that enticed Pugin, the greatest church architect of the age, to Wexford to design the cathedral at Enniscorthy, the chapel of St Peter’s College and other churches in the county.

A spirit that created a Festival which specialises in the creation of pure magic and giving this, as the years have gone on, greater scope, larger possibilities, sharper resonances.

  • Wexford Festival Opera 2021 takes place October 19-31

Excellent book takes us behind the curtains on Wexford's unlikely festival success 

Des O'Driscoll 

Karina Daly and the cover of her History of Wexford Festival Opera.
Karina Daly and the cover of her History of Wexford Festival Opera.

Why Wexford? It's the obvious question for observers of how the town's annual opera festival has evolved into a major fixture on the nation's cultural calendar.

 Surely Dublin had the venues, the population and the power. Even Cork looks a more suitable candidate, with its long-established Opera House, and a local appreciation of the genre from the top of Gurranabraher to the drawing rooms of the Rochestown Road.

As Karina Daly explains in her excellent book, the seeds of Wexford's incredible success can be traced back to one man. TJ Walsh was the local doctor and music lover who had the vision, the drive, and possibly the naivity, to found the festival in 1951.

We read how Walsh had mixed feelings about his home place, a “dull country town”, but found relief from the tedium at the local theatre. He was eventually inspired along the festival path by a programme from Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh event while browsing in Foyle’s Bookshop in London.

Initially, many locals were circumspect at best, and the wider world paid little heed. Fast-forward 70 years, however, and Wexford has a worldwide reputation for staging quality operas, and gets to host its sold-out events in a purpose-built opera house. Not bad for a town with a population of just 20,000.

Of course, it hasn't been all plain sailing for the festival, and Daly's book charts many of the ups and downs through the decades.

In hindsight, situating the festival in a small town has even proved an advantage in many ways, with the charm of Wexford offering punters quite a different experience than they'd get in one of the bigger centres.

One of the many international visitors to appreciate this aspect was William Mann, the late music critic with the Times of London, who described Wexford as his favourite festival: “It’s small scale but totally delectable. The place is small enough to surround you with new friends all the time, if you were sociable. Food, drink and gossip are everywhere on tap at all times. Salzburg in the early 1920s must have been like this. It is how an opera festival should be.”

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