Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera

The Wexford Festival Opera is an opera festival that takes place in the town of Wexford in South-Eastern Ireland during the months of October and November.

Festival origins under Tom Walsh, 1950 to 1966

The origins of the opera Festival lie in a visit to Ireland in November 1950 by Sir Compton Mackenzie, the founder of “Gramophone” magazine and an erudite writer on music, who gave a lecture to the Wexford Opera Study Circle. Mackenzie suggested the group should stage an opera in their own theatre, the Theatre Royal (now the Festival’s permanent venue; "see separate article"), a theatre which he felt was eminently suited to the production of certain operas.

The result was that a group of opera lovers (including Dr. Tom Walsh who was to become the Festival's first Artistic Director) planned a “Festival of Music and the Arts” (as the event was first called) from 21 October to 4 November 1951. The highlight was a production of the 19th Century Irish composer Michael Balfe’s 1857 "The Rose of Castile," a little-known opera which had also been mentioned by James Joyce in "Ulysses" in a striking pun. (Balfe is probably best known for "The Bohemian Girl)."

Setting itself aside from the well-known operas during its early years placed Wexford in a unique position in the growing world of opera festivals, and this move was supported by well-known critics such as the influential Desmond Shawe-Taylor of "The Times," who communicated what was happening each Autumn season.

During its first decade Wexford offered an increasingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience such rarities as Lortzing’s "Der Wildschütz" and obscure works (for that time) such as Bellini’s "La sonnambula" was staged, with Marilyn Cotlow as “Adina” and Nicola Monti as “Elvino”. Bryan Balkwill, Charles Mackerras and John Pritchard were among the young conductors, working with subsequently famous producers and designers like Michael MacLiammoir. For the time, the results were astounding and the Festival was soon attracting leading operatic talent, both new and established.

Increasingly, it was possible to recruit singers like Nicola Monti, Afro Poli, Franco Calabrese and Paolo Pedani as well as rising British and Irish stars as Heather Harper, Bernadette Greevy, Thomas Hemsley and Geraint Evans.

Due to the renovation of the Theatre, the 1960 season did not take place, but at its re-opening, Verdi’s "Ernani" was presented in September 1961.

Problems in obtaining the Radio Éireann Light Orchestra (now the RTÉ Concert Orchestra) led to the involvement of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for this one season while, the next year, the Radio Éireann Symphony (now the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland) moved into the pit, a role it maintained up until 2005.

The 1962 "L'amico Fritz" brought the talented young Irish singers Veronica Dunne and Bernadette Greevy to international notice, while other distinguished names from the 1960s included Mirella Freni in Bellini’s "I puritani." Massenet’s "Don Quichotte" was another standout in 1965 with the veteran bass Mirsolav Cangalovic as Cervantes’ old Knight.

Albert Rosen, a young conductor from Prague, began a long association with the company in 1965, and he went on to conduct eighteen Wexford productions. He was later appointed Principal Conductor of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra and was Conductor Laureate at the time of his death in 1997.

Wexford under Brian Dickie, 1966 to 1974

By 1966 a new generation, in the form of the 26-year-old former Trinity College student, Brian Dickie took over the running of the Festival from its founding Artistic Director, Tom Walsh.

A new era of outstanding singing emerged, with the first operas in Russian by Glinka and Czech plus a new emphasis on the French repertory as represented by Delibes’ "Lakmé" in 1970 and Bizet’s "Les Pêcheurs de Perles" in 1971.

Wexford under Thomson Smillie, 1974 to 1982

Dickie was persuaded to return Glyndebourne, but his successor in 1974 was Thomson Smillie who came from the Scottish Opera. He maintained the three-opera format. Much neglected during this period, Massenet’s operas quickly became his favourites, and Smillie staged "Thaïs" in his first season, starting a series of the composer’s operas which included the rare "Sapho" produced in 2001.

In 1976 Britten’s "The Turn of the Screw" was presented along with a rarity in Cimarosa’s one-man piece "Il Maestro di Cappella." Other rare Italian operas of the 18th century were presented in 1979 and subsequent years.

Wexford under Elaine Padmore, 1982 to 1995

Elaine Padmore had been a BBC opera producer and had supervised transmissions of the productions for BBC Three and, during her tenure as Artistic Director, a wide spectrum of music and singers with many remarkable productions made appearances at Wexford. Sergei Leiferkus was introduced to audiences outside Russia along with many other newcomers such as the American dramatic soprano Alessandra Marc during her era. Other outstanding productions included new-comer Francesca Zambello’s two productions, the first of Donizetti’s "L'assedio di Calais" in 1991 and Tchaikovsky’s "Cherevichki" in 1993.

A new idea introduced by Padmore in 1982 was the “Operatic Scenes”, the presentation of excerpts from operas. This provided a lower cost alternative for younger audience members as well as offering more work to the chorus, and the idea proved to be very successful.

Wexford under Luigi Ferrari, 1995 to 2004

In 1995 the Artistic Director became Luigi Ferrari, then Director of the Rossini Opera Festival at Pesaro and later Director of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. Naturally, he developed his own style by emphasizing Italian and late Romantic works such as Meyerbeer’s "L'étoile du nord" in 1996.

In 1994, a four-year series of commercial recordings from the Festival was started, plus there have been Radio Telefís Éireann broadcasts from the Festival from the beginning, and many seasons have also been broadcast by BBC Radio 3. In 2001, the Fiftieth Festival was a special event marked by the introduction of surtitles.

Wexford under David Agler, since 2005

David Agler became Artistic Director and programmed the 2005 and subsequent seasons. He is an American conductor, previously the Music Director at Vancouver Opera and Resident Conductor at the San Francisco Opera.

One innovation, following up from the original idea of “Opera Scenes”, has been the “mini opera” concept, presenting the more mainstream works in condensed versions, was developed with huge success.


In a bold move the festival's home, the Theatre Royal, has been demolished and is being replaced by the Wexford Opera House on the same site. The first opera in the new building will open on 16 October, 2008. Wexford Opera House will provide the festival with a modern venue with a 35% increase in capacity by creating the 771-seat O'Reilly Theatre and a second, highly flexible Jerome Hynes Theatre, seating up to 176.

In 2006, a reduced festival took place in the Dún Mhuire Hall on Wexford's South Main Street. Only two operas were staged over a period of two weeks, instead of the usual three operas over three weeks. In 2007, the festival took place in the summer in a temporary theatre in the grounds of Johnstown Castle, a stately home roughly 5 miles from the town centre.

The Wexford Opera House was officially opened on September 5, 2008 in a ceremony with An Taoiseach Mr. Brian Cowen, T.D. followed by a live broadcast of RTE's Late Late Show from the O'Reilly Theatre.


*Daley, Karina, "Tom Walsh's Opera: The History of the Wexford Festival, 1951-2004" , Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004. ISBN 1-85182-878-8
*Fox, Ian, "100 Nights at the Opera : An Anthology to Celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Wexford Festival Opera", Dublin: Town House and Country House, 1991. ISBN 0-948524-32-4
*Levin, Bernard, "Conducted Tours", London: Jonathan Cape, 1982 . An overview of 12 favourite music festivals, including Wexford.

ee also

*List of opera festivals

External links

* [http://www.wexfordopera.com/ Wexford Opera Festival official website]

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