Still grand at 60

Wexford Festival Opera will mark a significant milestone with a typically elegant programme of events, says Nicki ffrench Davis.

WEXFORD Festival Opera, one of Ireland’s most renowned cultural events, will pay tribute to its founding director, Tom Walsh, as it opens its 60th season this weekend.

Current director David Agler relishes the challenge of producing three full-scale operas, building a 16-day programme of concerts and events around them, and galvanising a team of hundreds to welcome thousands of passionate opera fans to the south-east town.

With half the audience arriving from abroad, Wexford Festival Opera has built its reputation on discovering lesser-known operas. This year it is Maria, written in 1903 by the Polish composer Roman Statkowski, that Agler seems most excited about.

“Maria is not even performed in Poland. It’s a very strange situation, it is just beautiful,” he says. The opera was discovered by chance. “A rare concert performance was given by the Polish Radio Orchestra 2008 in Warsaw, and a recording of it was broadcast on radio. A friend of mine was driving through Poland on holiday and he heard it and called me up, saying it was unbelievable and I had to hear it. That kind of thing happens all the time. People will come through the doors during the festival and stick a piece of paper in my hand. My predecessor had a great deal of encouragement to go down certain roads.

“Maria is just wonderful music. Tchaikovsky was his hero and you can hear that influence in the music, it’s a wonderful Slavic Romantic sound. It’s also very well-constructed, what I would call very professional. It’s something the public will like a lot, and is very different from the other two operas. I’m very happy with the variety this year.”

Wexford will also stage two comic operas. Gianni di Parigi, by Donizetti, is one of the much-loved composer’s least-known pieces. With a mainly Italian production team, its fun story of royal romance and disguise with a happy ending should be popular.

The third opera is La Cour de Célimène by Ambroise Thomas, which has not been performed since its first production in Paris in 1855. It’s the story of a humiliated woman determined to break men’s hearts.

Irish performers this year include Claudia Boyle, who stars in La Cour de Célimène, and bass John Molloy. “Claudia has a wonderful voice, a very wide range with top notes that are just brilliant, and she is an extremely charismatic and committed performer. John is too, and he’s a natural comedian on stage. I’m also impressed by how good their French dialogue is. They are very promising and I’m sure they will make the big time,” Agler says.

Conducting La Cour de Célimène will be Venezuelan Carlos Izcaray, who conducted Virginia in Wexford in 2010. This led to an invitation to conduct Carmen in the United States, and to many European engagements. “As is often the case with people who come to perform here, it really does help to advance their careers,” says Agler. “There’s such a collection of international critics. All the British press, and directors of important festivals, come too.”

Agler’s back goes up at the question of opera’s reputation for financial inaccessibility, no less so in these economically-troubled times. Opera is, after all, the ultimate art form. “Since the birth of opera in 1620, it has been an expensive affair — it combines all the elements of a play, a ballet and a concert, alongside scenery and costume. One of the great myths one still hears, especially in Ireland, is that opera is elitist. To meet the people that come year after year, you might be surprised to realise they come from all walks of life. When I worked at the San Francisco Opera, one of many studies showed that people who love opera would usually rather give up something else than do without the experience of live opera,” he says.

With rock festival tickets that cost several hundred euro selling in their thousands throughout the summer, it is a question of priority, and much like the Electric Picnic, glamour is all part of the experience. “We do have a kind of style at Wexford. ‘Posh’ is a word I learned recently when I came to Ireland, but I get it. Since the earliest days of Wexford, people have dressed up to come to the opera, particularly as, in those days, it was a rare opportunity and is something the festival encouraged. You’ll find that dressing up is something the young people really like to do,” says Agler.

The three main operas run on alternate nights throughout the festival, presenting an enormous challenge to the production team who must put up and take down an elaborate set every night. “Leaving aside the three main operas, we also have extensive day-time activity,” Agler says. “The three Shortworks operas are much lighter and have more mainstream appeal.” Fifteen concerts that include orchestral, choral, brass and cabaret ensure there is plenty for visitors.

An exciting first for the festival this year is the debut of the Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera, a new 32-voice chorus that will nurture the stars of the future. “We have had the Prague chamber choir for the past 15 years or so,” says Agler. “In 2006, we established an Irish orchestra and it has been an immense success. It’s the choir’s debut this year, we call it an Irish-based choir as it includes many singers from Ireland and the Britain, alongside singers from all over the world.”

The festival’s annual Tom Walsh lecture, held in honour of its founder, will this year be given by Brian Dickey, who succeeded him as director in 1967 and is currently director of Chicago Opera Theatre.

The festival’s 60th year is also Walsh’s centenary, and the lecture will focus on the man himself. “Tom Walsh was an anaesthetist at Wexford Hospital but he was a real scholar, and I think Brian’s going to talk about Tom’s place in opera in Ireland and what he has contributed to the country’s culture. He wrote several excellent books on opera in Ireland and Italian opera. Brian will also talk about the festival’s relationship with Glyndebourne — in some quarters they call it the Irish Glyndebourne.

“I think a lot of people are especially looking forward to remembering Tom Walsh and seeing Brian Dickey again. There’s a real sense of continuity at Wexford. Often people will say to me something like ‘this is my 40th year at the festival’ and very occasionally, still, someone will tell me they have seen every opera at Wexford,” Agler says.

* Wexford Festival Opera, Saturday, October 21 – Sunday, November 5. Tel: 1850 467372

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