Tuesday 15 October 2019

'I don't like the word legacy, but I suppose I have started reflecting'

Next year will be David Agler's last one at the helm of the Wexford Opera Festival. The Indiana native tells Hilary A White about a colourful 13 years in a role he was destined for

Changes: Agler oversaw the move into the new custom-built opera house. Picture by Michael Savage
Changes: Agler oversaw the move into the new custom-built opera house. Picture by Michael Savage

In 1996, an American conductor found himself in a small coastal town in a damp south-east corner of Ireland early one morning. He was trying to find the Theatre Royal, the venue he would be performing at while he was in town. Eventually coming to the narrow street where the venue sat, he was faced at the entrance by opera-festival linchpin Jim Golden smoking a cigarette, who turned to look at him. "What the hell are you doing here?"

David Agler can afford a hearty chuckle at that memory. It was possibly the first words ever uttered to him in Ireland's opera capital where, little did he know at the time, he would become as well-worn a part of the furniture as the famously gruff and much-missed Golden. Fourteen years into his job as artistic director, string-puller and chief-problem-solver of Wexford Festival Opera, Agler has surely asked himself this same question over the years?

"He was a crusty old gentleman," Agler says of Golden with much affection. "But the other side of that day is standing in the middle of the orchestra pit and thinking what a great job it would be to have - artistic director here. It was inevitable I was going to end up here."

You'd be forgiven for wondering how Agler has time to sit and reflect when there must be a million things to do (next weekend, Wexford will open its doors for its 67th instalment of its opera festival, an event some would argue is the brightest and most storied presence on the Irish arts calendar).

Well, the truth is, he probably doesn't - later this evening, he has to co-ordinate the arrival of a 60-piece orchestra, bringing the festival's manpower figure to 225 - but it's happening nonetheless. Agler has announced that next year's edition of the festival will be his last.

"I suppose I have begun reflecting," he admits. "I do not like the word 'legacy', but looking back on the years, it's been very dynamic and sometimes challenging."

He jogs through the "colourful" times.

There was that infamous first day on the job in 2005 when then-chief executive of Wexford Opera Jerome Hynes dropped dead mid-conversation ("We were having a party down in the foyer and he was just about to introduce me as the new artistic director - as he read my name out, he fell over").

Then there was the homeless years following the demolition of the Theatre Royal and the logistics of relocating to a vast marquee in Johnstown Castle ("the largest temporary building ever erected in Ireland") in 2007.

And after all that, with a spick-and-span custom-built opera house about to open that would crown Wexford as one of Europe's capitals of the art form, the country's economy goes and collapses a year later.

"It's been a very interesting time," Agler euphemises in that polite, engaged Midwest delivery that belies his 71 years.

He is quick to remind, however, that satisfaction is the overriding sentiment when he looks back. The formation of Wexford's own chorus and orchestra, the nurturing of now lauded international talent that has taken place under the festival's banner, and the enjoyment he has experienced while learning how to use the revamped opera house in "imaginative and creative ways".

And then there is Wexford. Since Dr Tom Walsh and his fellow opera enthusiasts dreamt up the whole thing in 1951 - when imagination was in short supply on this island, you presume - Wexford has seemed to walk forward hand-in-hand with its idiosyncratic little opera festival whose niche would be to polish up forgotten, lost or neglected works.

An incredible 42pc of its footfall now comes from overseas, something probably unparalleled anywhere else in Irish arts programming. All of these guests spill out from the arias into the capable hands of the town pubs where a happy ending is secured, even if tragedy unfolded on stage. There is also the large volunteer core that keep everything moving along as it should, and the general feeling that everyone is in this for the long haul.

"The fact that it is where it is means we all stick together while working to create these operas," Agler theorises. "We're all put together in a small town so therefore a great camaraderie and co-operation begins to happen. From an artist's point of view, it's a place where lifelong friendships are made. The festival itself was started by members of the community, and for the first 34 years was volunteer-run. There's still a very strong element of that because Wexfordians consider it theirs. I don't think the average person in Ireland knows the place this festival has in the larger operatic world. It is a very important and respected institution."

To have a whole community feel so much ownership over the very event you are tasked with overseeing, surely this is a blessing as well as a curse, I offer. "Well, it's 99pc a blessing," Agler says carefully. "There is the odd person that you have to do battle with."

While we're on the subject of battles, it might be a good time to ask this most amiable character what his thoughts are on accusations that Irish talent has been conspicuous by its absence from Wexford Festival Opera programming.

"This is an argument that is made against every artistic director here," he says, "going back to the time of Dr Walsh. He founded this to be an international festival where the finest international artists could sing. Therefore, the Irish have to play in this large pool. Largely, we have done a very good job of bringing along the finest young Irish talent, not just in singing, but also design, stage technology, directing, etc. So I'm not defensive when I'm asked that question, I'm actually quite proud."

Very admirably, he follows this up by saying that this is not to say he hasn't missed something or made mistakes along the way, and that he inevitably has. He is also delighted with the formation of Irish National Opera to concentrate on aspiring home-grown operatic talent. At such moments, Agler shows hues of the young Indiana idealist who plonked himself in a Benedictine abbey in the US in search of something deeper, only to be shooed away by the monks after a whiff of unfinished business was detected from the callow youth.

While he laments the absence of public representatives on opera nights, he is otherwise calm and philosophical about matters beyond his control, such as vital Arts Council funding and the state of opera and classical music in Ireland.

"Every nation has its peculiarities and cultural approaches, so I don't get too worked up over it," he sighs.

Irish investment in the classical arts is shoddy by European standards, he says, but there are a range of historical or philosophical factors behind that. Sure, lots of Irish classical musicians have to seek work abroad, but they thrive "extraordinarily" once they do. To his successor, his advise is to "be courageous, brave, and do exactly what he or she wants to do".

"The great thing about being managing director here is that you're hired to do just that, and, all things being equal, the support is here to curate the programme you want."

When he departs, will he call into the Benedictines to fill them in on what he got up to?

"I'm too old to be taken back!" he laughs. "No, I'm going to go home and sit on the front porch and drink gin and train a couple of dogs and grow roses."

A night at the opera:  Three to watch out for at Wexford

Dinner at Eight

A European premiere for this production based on the 1932 play of the same name about a Depression-era family facing into an uncertain future. So much for opera being elitist. National Opera House, Oct 20/23/26, Nov 1/4

Piano Recital

Sae Yoon Chon left jaws on the floor on his way to winning the 11th Dublin International Piano Competition recently. Here’s a chance to catch the alarmingly talented 22-year-old in action.

O’Reilly Theatre, Oct 27

Holy Mary

Plays at Wexford? Well why not, and especially when they’re penned by local celebrity Eoin Colfer. This tale of two schoolgirls’ holy communions looks charming and hilarious. 

Jerome Hynes Theatre, Oct 26/27, Nov 2/3

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