Walk up High Street in Wexford on a sunny afternoon and there’s a good chance you could miss the opera house. The narrow road, lined with houses and festooned with overhanging lights, is an unlikely host to the one of the most celebrated opera festivals in the world.
Having travelled throughout Europe for various classical music festivals (Parma, Salzburg, Berlin), I wasn’t sure what to expect of this little seaside Irish town and what it might present. Many famous opera people performed here at the dawn of their careers: singers such as Mirella Freni (1962), baritone Sergei Leiferkus (1982) and tenor Joseph Calleja (1998), as well as conductors such as Maurizio Benini, Paolo Arrivabeni and Yves Abel.
Since its founding in 1951, the festival has remained committed to programming unknown works. Would Wexford open the door to a whole new world of opera or would it confirm an opinion that some works are best left forgotten?
Along with the three mainstage productions at the National Opera House, there are numerous additional musical presentations (recitals, concerts) at smaller venues, and a number of other local events that piggyback off the annual festival traffic.
Highly walkable, with an abundance of good restaurants, friendly locals and a rich pub culture, Wexford is one of the most unpretentious music festivals within the classical-music world. Started by four opera-loving locals, the festival got its start through the sheer resilience and passion of a raft of volunteers, who did everything from set building to costume sewing. “Sometimes, there wasn’t enough electricity in the theatre,” artistic director David Agler says, “and people would string extension cords from houses across street so there’d be enough juice in the theatre.”
The American-born, Canada-living maestro has, over his decade-plus tenure at the festival, overseen the establishment of the Wexford Festival Orchestra and the Wexford Festival Chorus, as well as the construction and opening (in 2008) of the National Opera House, an acoustic and architectural marvel which is lined with gleaming planks of warm-hued elm sourced from Quebec. “It all says ‘Canada’ – each piece,” he says proudly.
Agler has also worked at bringing more contemporary works into the festival’s programming.
“We have a long tradition of doing unknown operas,” he says, “like all the belcanto stuff from middle of 19th-century Italy; another strain is music of the Czech lands. My emphasis has been on opera in English. Many of those have been from our own times.”
Under Agler’s tenure, works such as Susannah by American composer Carlisle Floyd and The Mines of Sulphur by British composer Richard Rodney Bennett have been produced, alongside lesser-known works by well-known Italian composers (Donizetti and Cilea, for instance), and Eastern European ones such as Statkowski and Smetana. This year’s lineup featured Saverio Mercadante’s epic 1839 work Il Bravo, a verismo double-bill of Franco Leoni’s 1905 dramatic one-act work L’oracolo and Umberto Giordano’s Mala vita from 1892, and William Bolcom’s Dinner At Eight, which premiered at Minnesota Opera in 2017. “When I was hired here in 2004, one of the mandates they gave me was to show some examples of North American operatic writing,” Agler says. “I regard these contemporary American operas as unjustly neglected. It’s a great way for the European public to see what we are capable of.“
Dinner at Eight was a sharp contrast to the more traditionally operatic Il Bravo, which featured Verdi-style chorus writing and soaring vocal lines. In its commitment to programming rarely performed works, the festival always risks having duds amidst the gems. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, however, thinks it’s precisely the commitment to the unknown that affords the festival and its artists a remarkable degree of freedom. “Had they been producing all popular titles, like so many other opera companies do, there would have been much more pressure.”
Jurowski made his operatic debut in Wexford in 1995, with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mayskaya noch’ (May Night). Five years later, he was appointed general music director at the Glyndebourne opera festival. Positions in Berlin, London and Moscow have followed, and in 2021, he will become general music director of the Bavarian State Opera. “I went [to Wexford] without any expectations,” he recalls, “in the firm belief that my first operatic experience would be very calm, away from the spotlights. Then, May Night became a huge success and immediately I received invitations to Welsh National Opera and Covent Garden, and … my career got started. I owe Wexford a lot, really.”
Canadian conductor Leslie Dala, who appeared at this year’s festival for the first time, assistant conducting on Dinner At Eight, agrees that Wexford’s eccentric programming is a big part of what makes it special. “You won’t come here see a Traviata or Bohème or Carmen, you come here to see pieces you’ve never heard, or even composers you’ve never heard of, and because of that, clearly there’s more risk-taking.”
Adventurousness and tradition rub shoulders easily the moment one steps through the entrance of the O’Reilly Theatre of the National Opera House; locals and visitors alike are dressed to the nines, adhering to the festival’s mantra of dressing “to celebrate, not intimidate.” Tuxedos, gowns and jewelled masks are all part of any given night at the nearly two-week festival, which ran Oct. 19 to Nov. 4. Late fall in Ireland means the weather can be unforgiving, and the cold wind filtering into the lobby-bar area meant that most ladies kept their wraps and furs firmly around shoulders as they huddled with glasses of Champagne.
“It’s a kind of a community that likes to have a chance to get dressed up,” says Canadian baritone Brett Polegato, who made his Wexford Festival Opera debut this year as Dr. Talbot in Dinner At Eight. “They embrace the fact Wexford was chosen for this. There is no pretension, but locals enjoy the specialness of the opera.”
Despite the hit-and-miss nature of the programming, Wexford holds a special spot within the ecology of opera festivals. Just be sure you bring a warm coat, a sense of adventure and keen vision – the opera house is easy to miss.