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Wexford Festival facing an uncertain future

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Wexford Opera Festival

Wexford Opera Festival

Wexford Opera Festival

Wexford Festival Opera was to have been celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Instead, the decision was taken to move the planned Shakespeare-themed ambitious programme to 2021. But there is a sad reality: Wexford stands on shaky ground - and the Covid-induced crisis could not have come at a worse time.

The festival has always had its detractors from the school of culture which denigrated opera as "not part of what we are" and, of course, as "elitist". Yet Wexford has managed to survive triumphantly from 1951 - and in 2017 under David Agler's artistic directorship, it received the Best Festival Award at the International Opera Awards. But that accolade embodies much of the tension that has created what has effectively been the breakdown of relations with the festival's chief funder, the Arts Council.

In 2018, Wexford received €1.45m in funding. In 2019, its funding was withheld, while the newly-established Irish National Opera (deservedly, in my opinion) received €2.98m.Ultimately, a capped advance on 2019 funding was provided, subject to weekly reporting to the Council. That draconian requirement came on grounds of a Council-commissioned report into Wexford, carried out by Mazars financial agency, which was highly critical of the festival's infrastructure.

It found faulty box-office reconciliations, an out-of-date bank mandate, lack of a formal risk-management framework, and problems with cost allocations with the festival subsidiary company, the Opera House itself. The report was commissioned because in 2018 Wexford showed a loss of €731,324, despite beginning the year with a surplus of €138,324. (In context, the 2018 funding of €1.45m is extremely low - opera is expensive.)

In January 2019 a new chair took over. Mary Kelly (former chair of An Bord Pleanala) set about putting things right, and it has been announced that the 2019 accounts will show a surplus, largely due to a fairly drastic restructuring of the 2019 festival programme.

But there has always been tension between the artistic directorship and the board (with a single exception). Successive ADs (in particular Agler, who spent 15 years at Wexford) have had high ambition, while board membership, with a strongly local bias, pushed for conservative, even populist choices, while still being happy to accept the plaudits for Wexford's rising international artistic reputation.

In conjunction there has always been a not-so-subtle push from the Arts Council and at political level for what amounts to interpreting national as 'nationalist'. This has ranged from a perhaps legitimate push for the employment of more Irish artists to a suggestion at Council level on one occasion for the commissioning of an Irish folk opera to ensure funding.

Agler, an American based in Canada, made daring (by Wexford standards) programming decisions, while maintaining the core value of producing little-known or even lost operas. And there remained a determination to maintain and increase the international audience cohort without whose support Wexford would be unable to survive. But the Covid fall-out is likely to have a savage effect on this.

The issues raised by the Mazars report, which highlighted the somewhat loose relationship between the board and artistic structure (not helped by the lack of international operatic knowledge at board level, noted by the report), pose a conundrum: observance of managerial best practice may be low, but artistic achievement has thrived. So can artistic achievement thrive under a more structured managerial approach?

The 2020 festival was to have been artistic director Rosetta Cucchi's first; she has had a long association with the festival, directing many of the smaller works over the years, and most recently acted as assistant director to Agler. But she has been little in evidence during the lockdown, whereas Irish National Opera under Fergus Shiel has been maintaining contact with his company's audiences through a series of on-line performances.

If Wexford's virtual silence through the pandemic is a sign of things to come - with the 70th anniversary programme moved to next year (only just announced) and replaced by a week of online individual performances in early October - and signals a move towards localism that approaches parochialism, and sees the Festival solely in terms of its Irishness, the magic that is Wexford may not survive.

Indeed, it's possible to ask if the Festival that has been such an ornament to Irish cultural life can survive.

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