Wexford Festival Opera: A tenor’s kiss
Originally a Viking trading post in the tenth century, Ireland’s historical south-east coastal town of Wexford lies at the mouth of the River Slaney in Wexford Harbour. The Anglo-Normans arrived in 1169 and the town ultimately passed to Strongbow, or Richard Fitz Gilbert, also known as Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Strigoil. He landed in Waterford in August 1170 and quickly took control of Wexford and much of the south-east. He died from a foot injury in 1176 and is buried in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin.
A new wall with five gates and towers was built in the fourteenth century, and much of the medieval street plan is retained in the present day town, though only fragments of the wall remain. In honour of Wexford’s famous son, an impressive statue of John Barry (1745-1803), a seaman who became known as ‘Father of the American Navy’, stands at the town’s Crescent Quay.
The Bullring or market square was the site of bull-baiting, a Norman pastime, and also the traditional site of a Cromwellian massacre of Catholics during his ruthless domination of Ireland (1649-53). The square has been redeveloped as a Memorial to the 1798 Rebellion, with a statue holding an Irish pike, a weapon of choice for many of the rebels during the 1798 Rebellion.
Wexford Festival Opera
In 2011, the Wexford Festival Opera celebrates its 60th anniversary and also the 100th anniversary of the birth of its visionary founder, Tom Walsh. The main aim of the festival has always been to rediscover forgotten operas as well as less familiar works by famous composers.
Having grown out of the Wexford Opera Study Group, the first festival took place in 1951 under its artistic director, T.J. Walsh, and president, Sir Compton Mackenzie. The festival’s inaugural work was The Rose of Castille by Michael William Balfe, performed at the Theatre Royal. From 1955 the festival staged two operatic works. The Theatre Royal was demolished and replaced with a state of the art Opera House since 2008. The festival now incorporates many other events and offers audiences a packed programme of lectures, concerts, recitals, short operas and late night revues.
In 2011, the principal works of La cour de Célimène (1855), Maria (1903), Gianni di Parigi (1839) were sold out performances offering magnificent theatre, brilliantly sung, and proved a discovery of opera in all its drama, depth and range of the artistic form. Lunch time recitals, afternoon short operas and evening Pre-Opera Talks in less formal settings gave a welcome opportunity for both performers and audiences to closely interact.
The Wexford Fringe Festival provides a wide range of cultural experiences including drama productions, historical tours, classical recitals, jazz, musicals, light opera, antique and second hand book fairs, the Open Festival Golf Cup, the Wexford Races, and art and photography exhibitions. There is also the Singing and Swinging Pubs contest involving most of Wexford’s many pubs and bars and provides a stage for talented local singers, instrumentalists and comedians. It has become a showcase for Irish arts nationally and internationally, squeezed into the small town with stunning scenery.
A tenor’s kiss
After the last lunchtime recital in St. Iberius Church a special souvenir is a beautiful rendering of the Rose of Tralee sung by the talented tenor as a parting tribute to mark the end of his first appearance at the Festival. He was rapturously applauded and his warm handshake awaited the audience on leaving the church. Unexpectedly I received a soft kiss on my left cheek. It has left an indelible memory of my first visit to the Wexford Festival Opera, a unique experience.
Ita Marguet, November 2011
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows my visit to the Wexford Festival Opera in (2l October – 5 November 2011) and participation in other events, Nov. 2011.