Norman Garrett perfect for the part at Wexford Festival Opera

Norman Garrett sings Koanga in Delius's tale of an African prince sold into slavery.

US star Norman Garrett will perform the title role in the rarely seen Koanga by Delius at the Wexford festival, writes Jo Kerrigan

THE opening production at this year’s Wexford Festival Opera is causing considerable excitement. The rarely-seen Koanga, by Delius, was first performed in 1904, and is based on traditional slave melodies and harmonies that the composer had heard when he stayed on an orange plantation in Florida in the 1880s.

It’s a powerfully atmospheric opera about an African prince sold into slavery in Louisiana, who falls in love with a mixed-race maid, with tragic consequences. It is considered to be the first opera ever written for African-Americans, and as such could have been designed especially for that rising star from Lubbock, Texas, Norman Garrett. A young man blessed with the richest of lush baritone voices, marked by a superb command of legato line, Garrett has been garnering awards and plaudits all over the place for the past few years, and is clearly headed towards great things.

Yet it wasn’t where he had originally envisaged his career going, admits Garrett with a relaxed and rolling laugh, when we talk between rehearsals.

“I didn’t particularly want to be a singer. From the age of five I was determined to be an engineer. Then when I was at college, I joined a choir just because I enjoyed singing as part of a group.”

Two to three operas a year were usual at Garrett’s college, and in fact his first introduction to operatic work was singing bass in The Bartered Bride. “But that had all really been just fun for me. Next day I would be back working on my math classes harder than ever. I mean, I never thought you could make a living or a career by just singing.”

BRAHM’S REQUIEM

The pivotal moment, he says, came when the college did a full Brahm’s Requiem. “I was about 20 at the time and had never before seen or been involved in music of that kind, on such a grand scale. With the Requiem, I began to feel the music inside me for the first time.”

And from that point on, engineering never had a chance. Opera had claimed Norman Garrett. As a postgraduate at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, he was helped to retool the voice that appeared to slip easily between bass and baritone.

“I was at an in-between stage,” recalls the singer, “but at that age your voice is pretty flexible.”

Lying ahead were victories in many of the biggest international voice competitions, including those of the George London, Giulio Gari, Gerda Lissner, William Matheus Sullivan and Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundations. Then came invitations for operatic roles. Now he is in demand everywhere.

DIVA-FREE ZONE

So how does he feel about singing Koanga at the 64th Wexford Festival Opera, opposite South African soprano Nozuko Teto? “Well, I’m just loving it. I have to say rehearsals are going beautifully. We have limited stage time allowed to us, with all that is going on during the festival, but the whole thing is coming together very well.”

What, no temper tantrums, no divas or divos? Another of those rich deep laughs. “You know, that whole diva thing is dying out because people like that don’t get hired any more. If you’re hard to work with, there is always somebody who sings better than you, and who will do it for a lot less.”

Delius, he enthuses, was a fantastic orchestral writer, and director Michael Gieleta has been working his cast hard to ensure that the performance is seamlessly perfect.

The casting of Garrett as Koanga is of course ideal, but does he see problems in the future with the paucity of such perfectly-fitting roles for black singers?

“I haven’t been doing it long enough to answer that,” he says simply. “After all, I only started four years ago. But I think if you’re a good singer, then you will be asked to sing good roles anyway.”

The festival is Garrett’s first introduction to Ireland and he is enjoying it immensely. “I love the small town feel of Wexford, I go out and about, pop into the pubs, enjoy the chat. And I’ve already made lots of friends here. Everybody is so nice.”

FUTURE PLANS

What is next on the horizon for this superb baritone?

“Wherever the wind blows me, I guess. But I am liking Europe so much, I would like to get a couple of things going, perhaps take a few auditions, so I could spend more time singing here.” Judging by the reaction wherever he has sung so far, we shall probably be seeing a lot more of Norman Garrett on this side of the herring pond.

David Agler, the festival’s artistic director, is really pleased to have got Koanga as opener for the 64th Festival. “It’s a ground-breaking opera through its use of African-American music and characters, the first of its kind. I have been asked for this particular opera by festival patrons more than for any other, and it is great to stage it so soon after Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet in 2012.”

Norman Garrett performs in Koanga at the O’Reilly Theatre on Oct 21, 24, 27 & 30. Wexford Festival Opera runs Oct 21 to Nov 1

Other highlights of Wexford Opera

MAIN STAGE OPERAS

Tickets for Koanga, Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni, and Hérold’s last and finest opéra comique, Le Pré aux Clercs, have all been selling well, but seats are available for some performances.

FESTIVAL SHORTWORKS

These take place at White’s Hotel during the day. This year, Hansel & Gretel, Tosca, and Portrait de Manon are all on the Shortworks programme. Performers at recitals include Nathalia Millstein and Tara Erraught, pictured, and several more by some of the principal singers of the festival. There’s also a Gala Concert on Sunday.

JUST BEING THERE

The real delight of Wexford Festival Opera is being there, strolling the narrow winding streets, calling in at White’s, enjoying an expert’s lecture before sampling champagne and canapes, or taking a tour of the Opera House. Perhaps best of all is doing a pub crawl after the evening performance, seeing black ties and evening gowns mingling with cheerful locals and discussing the finer points of an operatic score fiercely over a pint or two. Nowhere does it quite like Wexford.


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