When Compton Mackenzie, the renowned novelist and founder of Gramophone magazine, suggested to Tom Walsh that he stage an opera in Wexford, few could have imagined where the idea would lead. But since the first ‘Festival of Music and the Arts’ took place in October 1951, Wexford Festival Opera has grown into one of the world’s leading opera festivals.
Right from the beginning, the Festival made a name for itself by introducing audiences to unjustly neglected works, many of which have since found a place in the canon. For 64 years the Festival has breathed new life into forgotten masterpieces, establishing a reputation for high-quality productions that, every year, bring thousands of opera-lovers flocking to Wexford from all over the world.
But it hasn’t stopped there. Since Tom Walsh first guided the Festival to international success, Wexford Festival Opera has been blessed with a succession of talented and passionate artistic directors, all of whom balanced tradition with bold innovation. Over the years the Festival has begun a Massenet revival, introduced new kinds of event (from talks and recitals to afternoon ShortWorks), and established an international reputation both for attracting and for making major stars. The Festival introduced Western audiences to baritone Sergei Leiferkus back in 1983, while tenors Juan Diego Floréz and Joseph Calleja and sopranos Mirella Freni, Elizabeth Connell, Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona all made early appearances here. Beyond the singing stars, the Festival has also offered a platform to emerging conductors like Vladimir Jurowski and directors like Francesca Zambello.
The celebrated American conductor David Agler first appeared at the Festival in 1996. Agler is the former music director of Vancouver Opera, and since taking over as Artistic Director in 2005 he has presided over one of the most exciting phases in the Festival’s history. The old Theatre Royal, which served the Festival for 50 years, has been replaced by Ireland’s first custom-built opera house: a state-of-the-art building with two auditoriums capable of staging ever more ambitious and spectacular productions. With a world-class venue to match its international reputation, the National Opera House is better placed than ever to champion neglected operatic gems, and in 2014 its staging of Foroni's Cristina, regina di Svezia won Best Re-Discovered Work at the International Opera Awards.
The Festival’s success is due in no small part to Wexford itself. This ancient Viking town, nestled in a wonderful setting on the banks of the River Slaney, has a character and charm all its own. Just two hours from Dublin, in a county renowned for its stunning beaches and rebellious history, the town is a key part of what helps to make the Festival unique. Every year at Festival time the streets, pubs and restaurants are abuzz with excitement, and the warm welcome waiting from an army of Festival volunteers keeps opera-lovers coming back year after year.
With a unique vision, outstanding production values and spectacular setting in a beautiful small town, Wexford Festival Opera is a remarkable success story that looks set to continue for many years to come.
Roll on next year, in the meanwhile I intend becoming a friend of Wexford Opera.