Wexford is still singing and winning with Festival Opera

The venerable Festival Opera has another impressive programme for 2014, says Jo Kerrigan.

WEXFORD is humming. Singers, stage-hands, directors and designers from around the world are arriving as the town prepares for the Wexford Festival Opera, which opens next Wednesday.

Since it began in 1951, the festival has breathed new life into forgotten masterpieces, and reintroduced them to the canon, and established a reputation for award-winning productions.

This year’s festival will feature three main stage operas: Salomé, by Antoine Mariotte (1875-1944), Don Bucefalo, by Antonio Cagnoni (1828-1896), a delightfully good-humoured comic piece; and the European premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, which is set against the backdrop of WWI. American composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell will attend this premiere, and both will also deliver this year’s Dr Tom Walsh lecture the morning after.

Day-time performance include short or condensed operas, lunchtime recitals and a ‘Composer on Film’ concert, featuring music from some of the best-known soundtracks.

Filling seats at Wexford is never a problem. Some performances were booked out a month before the opening. How do they do it? How does the festival continue to punch above its weight? Surely, the well of rare and forgotten operas is running dry by this time?

“Well, we’re passionate about it, for a start,” says artistic director David Agler, sounding surprisingly relaxed given the mounting pressure all around as opening night approaches. “And then, it’s like everything you learn to do in life, once you begin, you can’t stop. I listen to what people say, they come through the door with ideas, I find scraps of paper in my pocket with intriguing titles.

“Of course, there is also a science to it, because one tries to present a large variety of styles of opera, so I do a lot of reading. The thing is, there are hundreds and hundreds more wonderful pieces that have been forgotten and are waiting for us to find them.” Agler’s eyes drift, as if looking at a glittering procession of forgotten operas approaching over a misty mountain pass.

The big attraction this year is undoubtedly Silent Night, the opera based on a true incident in World War I when both sides laid down their arms on Christmas Eve and sang carols together. “It’s been fascinating for me to do this, in the context of Wexford, where I could learn so much about its connection to the Great War — there is a real local feel to the story. But, also, it’s just an extraordinarily moving piece.

“The approach we’re taking is that it really is about the emotions of men in war — they were frightened, they wondered about their families, they longed for home, especially at Christmas.”

Silent Night will be just one of the three main stage operas presented at this, the 63rd Wexford Festival Opera.

Agler is particularly pleased about Salomé by Antoine Mariotte. “Most people know the version by Richard Strauss, but this is based on the original, French version of Oscar Wilde’s play which, of course, gives it that Irish connection. Yes, of course, we will have the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. That is how she extracts the promise from Herod of whatever she wants — which turns out to be the head of John the Baptist.”

Cagnoni’s Don Bucefalo, he says, will offer just the right contrast to Silent Night, and Salomé. “It’s great fun, an opera within an opera, and full of really infectious, wonderful music. Audiences will love it.”

Since Agler’s appointment in 2005, he has had three major artistic goals: the formation of the Wexford Festival Orchestra (established in 2006), the opening of the Wexford Opera House (2008), and the establishment of a Wexford Festival Chorus, made up of young talent from Ireland and across Europe.

“The first thing I wanted to do was have our own orchestra. Before that, it had been orchestras from abroad or the NSO, but in 2006 we started our own and it was such a success for us that I decided, three years ago, to start our own chorus.”

When the festival began, in 1951, local musical talent fulfilled that role.However, as the event grew and developed, so did artistic demands and it soon became evident that a full-time commitment would be necessary. Now, Agler has his chorus and his third wish.

“I am particularly satisfied that the festival will now have a chorus to call its own.

“Singers, directors and conductors come and go. The musical backbone of any fine opera house is its chorus and orchestra. I would like to think that the establishment of the Wexford Festival Chorus and Orchestra will be my lasting contribution.”

Agler also spends a portion of each year mentoring young artists at institutions including the University of British Columbia and the Banff Centre in Canada and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Opera, he says reflectively, is the most expensive live art form and it’s certainly a challenge to keep this remarkable festival going, year after year.

“But there is no point in saying something is impossible. And it brings a quite extraordinary financial boost to the town. Yes, I think I have the best job going, no question,” he says.


European premiere of Pulitzer-Prize-winning opera Silent Night

By Kevin Puts 

The rarely-performed Salomé by Antoine Mariotte, based on Oscar Wilde’s original and sharply perceptive play.

Irish Fantasy: A Family Affair

A celebration of the music of Ireland through songs and music performed by members of a remarkable musical family: sisters Una Hunt (piano) and Fionnuala Hunt (violin) with Una’s daughter Rachel Kelly (mezzo-soprano).

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