Small wonder: Opera in Wexford

The annual festival of opera in the tiny town of Wexford is proving so popular that it is raising money for a state-of-the-art venue, reports Jessica Duchen

The music world's most creative thinking often occurs in unlikely spots far from the madding crowd. And tucked away in the south of Ireland is a venue that remains one of the most unexpected of all. A small, picturesque port founded by the Vikings, Wexford is the setting for an annual festival of opera that, since its foundation in 1951, has focused entirely on the rarest of rare repertoire. A tall order, one might think; opera audiences are notoriously conservative - aren't they?

Each autumn, Wexford Festival Opera scuppers expectations afresh by putting on the kind of works that don't stand a chance of being heard amid the stream of Bohèmes, Butterflies and Brunnhildes that trundle through larger opera houses.

Last year, for instance, it staged Fauré's Pénélope, a subtle, infrequently performed gem; a little-known Donizetti opera, Maria di Rohan; and Susannah by the American composer Carlyle Floyd. Even regular opera-goers could be forgiven for never having heard of any of them. Probably no other festival could pull off a programme like that; but such is the strength of Wexford's niche that its devoted following will, it seems, try anything once.

The operas have always been staged, to rigorous artistic standards, in the 570-seat Theatre Royal. Inevitably, though, Wexford's growing popularity means growing audiences and commensurately growing cost. There has been some criticism of the festival's use of Eastern European orchestras in place of home-grown ones - a matter of cost-saving - but the most urgent matter has been that of upgrading the venue itself.

To this end, building work is shortly to begin on a brand-new opera house on the Theatre Royal's site on Wexford's high street. The state-of-the-art venue, designed by Keith Williams Architects, is due to open in October 2008 and will be able to accommodate audiences of 750, with a 200-seat studio offering a second stage. Wexford Festival Opera intends the theatre to become a vital new resource for cultural activities on both a local and national level.

"The bigger theatre won't compromise what the festival is all about, which is rare opera," says Paul Hennessy, chairman of Wexford Festival Opera. "But it will give us all kinds of capabilities that we didn't have before: rehearsal facilities on site, improved backstage facilities and front of house, the possibility to do education projects and much more." The festival will remain the flagship event, but there will be a high level of activity all year round, says Hennessy: "It's the first lyric theatre of its kind to be constructed in Ireland.

"The experience of making the opera house happen has been astonishing: it's shown that there is a real will for it in the local community, the arts community in Ireland and the opera community. It's an important national institution and it will provide a focus for events to gravitate to that simply hasn't existed before.

"At the same time, we're aiming to preserve the surprise and atmosphere of the Wexford experience: you walk down the narrow, residential high street and suddenly find yourself in an opera house where you enter a different world. But you never lose consciousness that on the other side of the wall is someone's living room."

Opera houses don't come cheap. Wexford's is costing €33m (£22.5m); the Irish government has made a commitment to provide €26m (£17.7m) and the Wexford Festival Foundation has so far raised €3.5m (£2.4m) - 50 per cent of the private funding needed. The festival president, Anthony O'Reilly, donated €1m (£680,000) last October, a figure matched by a donation from Independent News and Media. Now a special fundraising dinner is to be held on 6 June, at Reuters Global Headquarters, in London, to help make inroads into the final €3.5m (£2.4m), money that will also enable the festival to run in alternative venues for two years while construction is in progress.

A suitably musical evening is in store for the occasion, with performances by three rising young singers in whose development Wexford has played a vital role: the Colombian soprano Eglise Gutierrez, who drew rave reviews last year for her performance as Maria di Rohan; the Mexican tenor Dante Alcala, who has starred at Wexford in Granados's opera Maria del Carmen; and the Welsh soprano Laura Parfitt, a recent graduate of the Wexford Festival Opera's artists development programme, which was inaugurated in 2005 to help to train some of the most exciting new talent among Irish and international singers.

A shadow fell across Wexford last year when the festival's administrative director, Jerome Hynes, collapsed while addressing a gathering of his staff and performers and subsequently died, apparently of a heart attack; he was only 45. Much loved for his energy and enthusiasm, Hynes had joined Wexford in 1987 and was also the deputy chairman of the Irish Arts Council.

Speculation has been rife through the music business as to who might be appointed as his successor. "Losing Jerome was a terrible body blow," says Hennessy, "but we have aimed to make an appointment by the end of June and we're on schedule to do that." Will the person in question take everyone by surprise? "I don't think so. Our appointee will not be drawn from outside the world of the arts."

Meanwhile Wexford is gearing up for the 2006 festival, 25 October to 5 November, which will be held in the town's Dun Mhuire Theatre.

Joe Vanek, the noted Irish stage designer, will transform the venue for the occasion and the featured operas are Donizetti's Don Gregorio, a "Neapolitan farsa" from 1826, plus a foray into more recent music with Transformations by the American composer Conrad Susa. Based on a series of poems by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, after stories by the Brothers Grimm, it was premiered in 1973 and draws on musical styles ranging from Monteverdi to Miles Davis; it's believed that this will be its first staging outside America.

The 2007 festival promises even more surprises, taking place in spring instead of autumn, in the extraordinary setting of a temporary theatre designed by Joe Vanek at Johnstown Castle, a romantic Gothic Revival creation from 1840 set among lavish grounds.

And so Wexford seems well on course to build on its distinguished history without losing any of that vital charm. Assuming that its fundraising dinner achieves all it should, the future looks set for Ireland's most unlikely opera house to grow possibly into its most significant.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears