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Thursday 19 January 2017

The festival that found its voice

Published 15/10/2011 | 05:00

Over 60 years ago in Wexford, a group of like-minded locals known as The Gramophone Society used to meet up regularly to listen to operatic recordings and attend lectures on the subject. Kind of like a book club, except for opera.

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In 1950, they managed to secure Compton Mackenzie, the renowned Scottish author and journalist with Gramophone Magazine, to come to Wexford and give a talk to their study group.

Mackenzie suggested they should put on an opera instead of just listening to records. And so Dr Tom Walsh, the local anaesthetist, along with a group of other doctors and professionals, went about organising what would become the Wexford Opera Festival, which has run every year since.

One of the doctors involved in the founding committee was Dr James Liddy, whose daughter Nora, also a doctor, was just 13 at the time.

"I was in boarding school and my father took me out to attend the first festival. Being 13 then was different to being 13 now; it was De Valera's Ireland so the opera was just so wonderful and colourful and tuneful. It was only one performance then and the theatre was very small. The cast had to get changed in Whites Hotel and run through the streets in the rain to the theatre."

Whites plays a part this year too as the festival is running cabarets in the hotel bar. The festival is known for its selection of rarely performed or little-known operas and this year's programme is attracting even more attention than usual due to the inclusion of a performance of Maria by the Polish composer Roman Statkowski.

The opera has been performed just a handful of times in Poland and this is the first time it is being performed outside of its native country.

Artistic director David Agler says, "I'm very fascinated with this opera. It's practically unknown in Poland and it's not performed there. There is an enormous amount of interest in the international critical community and they are all travelling here especially to see it. There's also a Polish TV crew coming to do a news story about it."

Also on the programme this year are Ambroise Thomas' La Cour de Celimene, which has not been performed since 1855, and Donizetti's Gianni di Parigi.

Why are these operas performed so little? "Some things we perform here don't get performed because directors are lazy," says Agler, "but we're in the business of doing these rare ones. It would be difficult for a normal company not to do popular operas. The pleasure is these operas sometimes get picked up by other companies after we perform them."

The festival has come a long way since 1951 and, despite having been through much change, it has managed to keep going every year and now even has its own opera house, which opened in 2008.

Nora Liddy moved back to Wexford in 1984 and has gone to the festival every year since. "It's different now because it's a completely new theatre and everything is really posh but the new theatre made a huge difference. You wouldn't believe how uncomfortable the old place was. To keep it going so long is huge because most festivals just stop and it is important to the town."

So what is it about opera that inspires such passion?

"There are lots of reasons people go to opera," says Agler. "Some are overwhelmed by the music, some find it deeply spiritual even though it's about murder and mayhem, and putting on these very human situations and mixing it all with great music can tell us things about ourselves that other art forms don't. Some people just like the spectacle and others think it's important for their community.

"For those to whom opera matters, it matters a lot. The ones for whom it means the most just get quiet and don't know what to say when you ask them why they love opera."

Agler includes himself in that group of people but will admit he likes the ritual of it. "There's something wonderfully ritualistic about it, it's like going to an old-fashioned solemn high Mass."

The Wexford Festival Opera runs October 21-November 5. www.wexfordopera.com; tickets 053 912244.

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