Raising the rafters at the Wexford Festival Opera

Since 1951, the festival has built itself a solid reputation. Now, by extending its theatre into a state-of-the-art venue, it is moving into a different league, says Roderic Dunnett
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It was the critic and opera- lover Bernard Levin who, quoting a friend, dubbed Wexford Festival Opera, "the world's best children's party for adults". Under Elaine Padmore, who advanced the festival's international standing, and Luigi Ferrari, who placed an emphasis on vocal talent, Wexford has gone from strength to strength.

Sadly, the party was marred last month by the untimely death of the festival's chief executive, Jerome Hynes, who nurtured Wexford for more than 18 years, boosting audiences and revelling in the festival's unique focus on rare operas - Italian, Czech, French, German, Russian, even Brazilian and Spanish.

Along with the chairman Paul Hennessy and a far-sighted committee, Hynes also set in motion major plans, which garnered wide support and the necessary planning permission, to expand Wexford's Theatre Royal. The project is the most exciting development in over 50 years of the festival, launched in 1951 by a local doctor, Tom Walsh, and Sir Compton Mackenzie, with a production of the Irish composer Michael Balfe's The Rose of Castile.

Ever since, it has built up a reputation for being the friendliest festival in Europe. But what makes Wexford so special? Paul Hennessy takes up the story: "I think the feeling starts even before you enter the building. You're strolling down this plain, unpretentious street, then a door opens and you suddenly walk straight into the magical world of stagecraft and opera. It's a stark contrast. You're ambushed by the theatre, and move instantly from one world into another.

"Our new design will retain that feel. You will still walk up High Street, enter the same door, experience the same magic. But what's important, " Hennessy adds, "is that this festival grew up from the Wexford community. It was started by those with day jobs in the hospital, in the post office. People felt a sense of ownership right from the start. They're proud of it. Everyone in the town is touched by it. There's a huge involvement in fringe activity. It has a major impact on the town's economy during the fallow period between late summer and Christmas."

The Theatre Royal remains the festival's greatest asset. The company owns the freehold, and recently bought five adjacent properties, making possible an enlargement to two-and-a-half times the size. Currently, the theatre is occupied for about 150 days a year, receiving local and touring groups as well as hosting the festival. There are plans to double that.

The current expansion, to a 750-seat state-of-the-art auditorium specially designed for opera, reconfigurable to accommodate a smaller audience of 430, plus an adaptable 200-seater studio, will transform the interior. " We've simply outgrown our space," says Hennessy. "We've been limited to working in what is effectively a 19th-century shell. That's simply not what Wexford's patrons deserve. So the plan now is to erect a purpose-built 21st-century space."

Enhanced backstage areas will include facilities for directors, conductors, designers and singers; the front-of-house will acquire two separate lobbies.

One frequent criticism of Wexford has been that insufficient Irish performers are included. Recently, because of union rates that gnaw away at the singers' budget, orchestras from Belarus and Poland have occupied the pit instead of Ireland's National Symphony Orchestra. But discussions are under way with the Arts Council of Ireland on the involvement of Irish orchestras, and instrumental music could form part of the festival, too.

Part of the remit of Wexford's new artistic director, the North American-born David Agler, is to redress the balance: "I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that there's a perception in Ireland that the Irish needn't apply to Wexford," Agler says. "Cast lists have always been weighted towards people from outside the country. Luigi Ferrari brought in a Czech chorus. People do have the right to ask what is Irish about the festival. There are some excellent young performers here nowadays, and I spend a lot of time trying to hear every Irish singer I can. Some are exceptionally talented, having learnt their craft at the National Opera Studio or Royal Opera School; others are training in Philadelphia and Houston."

Wexford has gone one better. "We started an artist-development programme this summer," says Agler, "under the directorship of the tenor Dennis O'Neill, who spent his boyhood summers in Wexford. It will form a crucial part of the festival's annual work."

During August, selected young artists were put through intensive training. "Over 50 per cent of them were Irish. And we would expect some of them to form part of the company in the future." Indeed, this process has already begun, with the engagement of the young soprano Niamh Kelly. There's also a "pick-up", or second chorus, to allow more young singers to be involved.

Wexford's "Short Works" (formerly Operatic Scenes) are another way of involving young performers, offering them a chance to demonstrate their skills in lead roles, while also growing the audience profile and bringing in new faces. "People can come along in the afternoons," says Hennessy, "and put a toe in the water of the world of opera. It doesn't cost an arm and a leg - just €15 - and gives them a chance to see whether they enjoy opera.

"Ideally, more people will sample our lunchtime recitals (€10, including lunch), move on to the short operas, and then become part of the main season's audience. New technology will allow these smaller events to be played on the main stage, too, potentially increasing the uptake on seats to double."

Alongside rare Fauré (Pénélope) and Donizetti ( Maria di Rohan), this year's Wexford operas include the American composer Carlisle Floyd's Susannah - a work roughly the same age as the festival. It's an opera, David Agler reckons, that, "given America's current political preoccupations, will feel very relevant to people. It's very musically accessible, but also one of the best of its kind. Floyd composes extremely well for the voice - and writes melodies. It makes an extremely attractive introduction to American opera." With the composer planning to attend, the event should have an added buzz to it.

Above all, Wexford's world-famous opera festival has achieved continuity. "The critical decision," says Hennessy, "was whether to stay in the town or move to a greenfield site. We've decided to stay right in the heart of Wexford - on people's doorsteps, where the festival belongs.

"You'll still be able to walk down High Street and hear someone frying their breakfast in one house and a singer warming up in the next."

Wexford Festival Opera (00 353 53 22144; www.wexfordopera.com), 20 October to 6 November

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