In Tune With Ireland

The annual Wexford Festivalmakes opera great fun

FOR centuries Ireland has produced far more great writers than any country of its size deserved to, but literature seems to have exhausted Irish creativity. There are very few famous Irish painters (though I am fond of Daniel Maclise, Nathaniel Hone, and Jack B. Yeats, the brother of the more famous W. B.), and classical music in Ireland has been a thin business. True, Handel's Messiah was first performed in Dublin, but that's one of those curiosities with which the tediously well-informed music lover can win bets--like the fact that Verdi's La forza del destino was first performed in St. Petersburg or Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at La Fenice in Venice (bitterly mourned as I write). Since Handel's day Ireland has had no permanent opera company and, for that matter, no proper symphony orchestra, until recently.

And so a half century ago an Irish provincial town seemed about the most unlikely and unpropitious place in Europe to start an opera festival. Something as unlikely as that needs a visionary or a crackpot. Wexford had Doctor Tom. T. J. Walsh was born in Wexford in 1911, and having qualified as a doctor in Dublin, returned to his home town to practice. There he stayed until he died, in 1988, just short of his seventy-seventh birthday, laden with honors and love. He is still missed.

He would be missed if he had been only a good doctor and a good man. But Doctor Tom was also an opera buff, who decided that his town should have its own opera festival. There have been other improbable venues for opera, from Montepulciano, in the Tuscan hills, to Cooperstown, in upstate New York, but I don't think there can ever have been such an odd idea as Doctor Tom's. Wexford had never been notable as a cultural center. It is a pleasant little country town in the far southeast of Ireland, rising imposingly above the estuary of the Slaney River. Two grand Victorian-Gothic churches dominate it, above a warren of narrow streets and alleys running down to the quay.

Having also decided that if Wexford was to have a festival, it needed an opera house, Doctor Tom serendipitously found the Theatre Royal, a delightful Georgian building on High Street. Despite its name, the street is about twenty feet wide, and despite its, the theater is a little gem that at first held fewer than 400 people and even now, after discreet enlargement, holds only 550. The theater was disused for generations, but under Doctor Tom's direction it was cleared out and tidied up, and an opera was put on.

That was in 1951. A mostly Irish cast was assembled, along with what was then the Radio Eireann Light Orchestra, for a few performances of The Rose of Castile, by Michael Balfe, a nineteenth-century Irish composer with Wexford connections, before tiny audiences. Over the next few years the festival presented operas by Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini--most of them then rarely heard, though some now standard repertory. But by the 1960s Wexford had acquired its unique mission: finding fine but little-known artists to perform operas that even the buffest of buffs know only as names from reference books.

THE first year I went was 1969, when Wexford did Haydn's L'infedelta delusa and Verdi's Luisa Miller, and with rare exceptions the eighty or so operas I've heard in the Theatre Royal have been pieces I didn't know before and haven't come upon since. Forgotten works are often forgotten with good reason. I don't think I shall mind not hearing Ricci's La serva e l'ussero or Lalo's Le roi d'Ys again. And a double bill of Don Giovanni and Turandot--Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni and Busoni's Turandot--seemed a little too cute. But there have also been some real discoveries, operas worth the journey in themselves: Massenet's Hérodiade, say, and Dvorák's The Devil and Kate.

Wexford began as an amateur--maybe even amateurish--affair. Doctor Tom was the amateur artistic director until 1966. But the word "amateur" comes from a word for "love," and Wexford is run con amore. Again, productions vary. Every year there seems to be one good, one painful, and one brilliant production. The first night of Spontini's La vestale in 1979 was a memorable fiasco: a sharply sloping stage had been inadvertently cleaned of its intentionally sticky surface, and in the first act the singers tried to sing while sliding downhill or falling over. Sad to say, it was terribly funny, if not for the singers or the director. But it was also at Wexford that I first saw the stellar work of very young directors who have since become internationally famous: David Pountney, who recently directed Philip Glass's The Voyage at the Met, and Nicholas Hytner, who could have retired on the proceeds of Miss Saigon but who has instead gone on to direct The Madness of King George, among other works.

Musical standards have always been remarkable at Wexford. What was long the orchestra of RTE, the Irish broadcasting company, and is now the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, doesn't have the fame (or the money) of the Berliners or the Viennese, but it is damned good. No artist goes to Wexford for the fees, but it is a career showcase, and the management is always looking for good singers who aren't yet megastars. The bright light of the early seventies was the delicious Martiniquan soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre, and of the early eighties the Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus, who made his Western debut at Wexford before going on to international stardom.

At least one operatic marriage was made at Wexford: the English tenor Philip Langridge and the Irish mezzo Ann Murray met in Cavalli's Eritrea. That was also the year when most of the tenors in the chorus were energetically gay. One Wexford landlady was heard to complain, "I've nothing against them boys, but would you listen to the clatterin' and crashin' upstairs--and now the Pope's fallen from off the wall!" which became a company catchphrase for the whole season. Wexford is like that: not crashing tenors or falling Popes but a company, like Glyndebourne in England, that comes together for several intense weeks, with its own romances, scandals, and jokes, and also with a spirit that shows on stage.

It's precisely this quality that explains why, for some of us, Wexford has become the best-loved event on the musical calendar. Festivals begun by true enthusiasts almost always atrophy, as artistic sclerosis is accompanied by social opulence. Salzburg is the prime case: once a great artistic event, now a place that gives vulgar cosmopolitan plutocracy a bad name. If you can manage to get a $200-plus ticket, you may just hear the music above the rustle of furs and the clank of jewelry.

TO be sure, Wexford itself has changed in the years I have known it: the town, the audience, and the festival. It isn't easy to convey, or even remember, just how parochial and impoverished rural Ireland was as late as the 1960s. Since then it has become much more prosperous, a prosperity visible in the shopping streets and just about every other part of town. The audience now includes more visitors from outside the British Isles, and among the local attenders there is less evidence of the "West Brits" or the Anglo-Irish, and more of Dublin's own new class, affluent and confident business folk and professionals.

The repertory is still delightfully recondite: next October, Donizetti's Parisina, Meyerbeer's L'étoile du nord, and Fibich's Sárka (no, I haven't seen any of them before either) will be given. But the amateur ethos has gently evolved. Elaine Padmore was the artistic director from 1982 to 1994, the longest tenure since Doctor Tom's own, and made the name that has now taken her to run the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. She knocked some of the rough edges off the way the festival was run, and enlarged and redecorated the Theatre Royal as well. Her successor, Luigi Ferrari, has brought in some excellent Italian singers and introduced a predominantly professional chorus instead of local lads and lasses. Needless to say, we old hands have been quietly grumbling that Wexford is becoming a little too slick. But somehow I don't think it will ever lose its charm.

Opera is only one of the reasons for visiting Wexford. Doctor Tom chose October and November to test opera lovers' mettle: Irish weather then is at best what's called soft. Apart from the black-tie evening dress that everyone admirably wears at the opera, you need warm waterproof clothes. But the countryside and coastscape are no less beautiful for that. There are plenty of sights to be seen nearby--Johnstown Castle, Rathmacknee Castle, and bird sanctuaries among them. I like walking on the seabird-packed shore just to the north of Wexford, which is pleasingly called the Slobs.

Irish-Americans will want to pay their respects to Commodore John Barry, the father of the U.S. Navy, who gave the Brits a gratifying licking during the War of Independence. His statue stands on the quay; his birthplace is Ballysampson, ten miles from Wexford. Twenty miles to the west, on the far side of County Wexford, is Dunganstown, the ancestral homestead of the Kennedy family, with the John F. Kennedy Park and Arboretum nearby. From there you can go on to New Ross, whence a barge cruises up the river Nore and back, serving a lavish lunch on the way. Or you can go south to the haunting ruin of Dunbrody Abbey, and then to the little village of Ballyhack, on Waterford Harbour, to eat at the excellent Neptune fish restaurant. In Wexford town the best place to eat--apart from the two big hotels, the Talbot and White's--is the Ocean Bed near Westgate.

And there are the bars. Yes, the bars of Wexford require a treatise of their own, which I am well equipped to write. At least one gentle pub crawl is de rigueur: down Main Street, stopping maybe at Kehoe's and the Goal Bar, and then back along the seafront, choosing from another three or four bars. Since the Guinness company has been the most generous sponsor of the festival over the years, the least you can do is to repay it a little. In any case, you will be finding a warmth of welcome that makes every other music festival I know look distinctly chilly.

October will see my twenty-eighth Wexford running, and I look forward to many more. I hope to be there in 2001 for the festival's fiftieth anniversary and, God willing, in 2011 for Doctor Tom's hundredth. "International opera" has become depressingly homogenized and glitzy. It took an Irish provincial doctor to show that opera can be curious, vibrant, and fun.

Related Links

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1996; In Tune With Ireland; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 48-52.