Access All Arias: Bookings For The Wexford Festival Opera 2024 Are Now Live - The Gloss Magazine

Access All Arias: Bookings For The Wexford Festival Opera 2024 Are Now Live

As booking for this year’s Wexford Festival Opera opens, plans are underway for this autumn’s programme, on stage and off. Opera buff Raymond Blake reports …

As Georges Bizet’s “March of the Toreadors” boomed out from a host of loudspeakers, Wexford’s quayfront exploded – literally – into life as the annual fireworks display to launch the Wexford Festival Opera lit up the night sky on the evening of October 24 last. For a delicious couple of minutes we were all children, filled with awe and wonder, gazing skywards with goofy, juvenile smiles. The fireworks traced lucent arcs into the dark before booming farewell the Toreadors segued into Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”. It was time for curtain up.

It is appropriate that fireworks are used to launch the Festival every year, for the sense of wonder they engender is the perfect preparation for the operatic genre, where a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way towards ultimate enjoyment. And opera does not get more enjoyable than at Wexford every autumn when, weeks before the official opening, as the leaves begin to fall, the town comes alive and rings to the sound of soaring soprano arias counterpoised by sterner bass voices, expansive choruses and lavish orchestral playing. Anticipation builds, fuelled by speculation as to what will be this year’s star production, culminating in the public dress rehearsals, for which demand is always high.

For the past 17 years, I have been a regular at the Festival and have spent much of that time championing it as a cultural jewel that commands a level of international respect and admiration that many Irish people are not aware of. It occupies a unique place in the operatic firmament and, over a span of seven decades and counting, it has proved to be remarkably vibrant, creative and imaginative, sustained by constant innovation and inspired, not inhibited, by what has gone before. What is Wexford’s secret? How has it escaped consignment to the fuddyduddy pigeonhole in which so much opera languishes?

The answer is hiding in plain sight, for the Festival is a “whole town” experience, stitched seamlessly into the life of Wexford itself. The Festival grew out of Wexford and is Wexford, as much part of it and essential to it as a limb. For visitors, evidence of this is best found in the extraordinary roster of ancillary events that surround the three, fully staged productions every year.

Come October, it is barely possible to walk ten paces along the main street without encountering a Festival-related event or happening. A personal favourite is the window display competition, where local shops dress their windows with eye-catching opera-themed displays. Committed opera lovers will want to take in some of the lunchtime recitals given by the lead singers from the principal productions, before checking out the scores of other attractions: pop-up events, historical walking tours, the annual Tom Walsh lecture in memory of the founder and, a recent innovation, the Community Opera, where members of the community perform alongside a professional cast. This year will also see the production of two “Pocket Operas”, including a new work by Colm Tóibín and Alberto Caruso. And those who still have the energy can take in the new late-night “Bach at Midnight”.

Management of such a diverse and ambitious programme of events calls for a staffing level that would not be sustainable without the legion of volunteers who, strictly speaking, are amateurs but only in the French sense of amateur – great lovers of opera who are well capable of executing their assigned tasks to a professional level.

And if all the ancillary attractions have a “centre of gravity” it is Green Acres, the wining and dining headquarters of the Festival for a madcap three weeks at the end of October, bolstered by the annual art exhibition held in the gallery above Green Acres’ magnificent wine shop, which is a must-see for any visit to the Festival. It is the creation of James and Paula O’Connor, their son Patrick, and fellow director Donal Morris. James O’Connor, a member of a local dynasty, is Wexford to the core; I suspect his blood runs in the county colours of purple and gold.

A caveat: however attractive the roster of peripheral events is, do not let it distract you from the main stage operas that form the backbone of the Festival and which burnish its international reputation. If it is your maiden visit to the Opera House, make every effort to arrive early for, hiding behind its plain street frontage, barely distinguishable from the surrounding houses, is a magnificent auditorium. It’s a Tardis, bigger inside than out, and it never fails to wow firsttime visitors.

I always draw attention to its marvellous, wood-panelled interior as I encourage neophytes to make a journey to Wexford, before expanding on the glorious spectacle that marks the Festival out as being on top of its game: the principal singers, the chorus, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the lighting. Former Artistic Director David Agler explained how opera’s greatest strength is its ability to give singing voice to thoughts and emotions that cannot be expressed by the spoken word, dealing with issues that are timeless. Granted, some plots can stretch credulity but my advice is to allow for an element of fantasy, buy into the make-believe and let the music carry you along.

The programme at Wexford does not consist solely of works from centuries past. Contemporary works are strongly represented. Two, from opposite ends of the past decade, claim joint first in my affections: Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, the European premier of which was presented at Wexford in 2014, and Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara, every performance of which was greeted rapturously at last year’s Festival. In both cases the composer was in attendance to see his work performed.

After the gravitas of last year’s theme – “Women and War” – this year sees a less exacting offering under the heading “Theatre within Theatre – All the World’s a Stage”. As Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi put it: “After the deep emotion of the 2023 season, I wanted to give the public a peek behind the curtain where anything can happen and everything is possible … with a touch of lightness.”

The three main stage operas this October will be Le Maschere by Pietro Mascagni (1901), The Critic by Charles Villiers Stanford (1916) and Le Convenienze e Inconvenienze Teatrali by Gaetano Donizetti (1827).

Wexford Festival Opera will run from Friday October 18-Saturday November 2. Priority booking for Friends of Wexford Festival Opera opened in April and general booking is open now; or 053 912 2144.


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