Novelist Colm Tóibín has had a long association with Wexford Festival Opera and has written extensively over the years about his first opera, and how captivated he was by the experience.
Therefore, it was with great excitement that the Festival announced earlier this year that it would premiere a new opera by Colm, based on his 2004 Man Booker Prize short-listed novel ‘The Master’, with music by the Italian composer Alberto Caruso.
While the thought of exposing young pupils to culture in an immersive and interactive way is considered a modern concept, Colm’s written accounts prove that, in practice, this educational aid was being used by schools in Wexford town more than 50 years ago.
The year in question was 1971, the opera was Georges Bizet’s ‘La Pecheurs de perles’ (The Pearl Fishers) and in a very authentic and engaging way, Colin has recorded a young teenager’s perspective about how the Theatre Royal was ‘invaded’ by secondary school pupils, there to see for themselves what they had been taught at school.
He has described how students who were boarders at his own school – St Peter’s College – went to the music room each afternoon to listen to one of the programmed operas on a gramophone, an old record player in which the vinyl on a turntable had grooves that were amplified by a needle attached to a weighted arm.
The pupils were encouraged to listen for the relevant duets and musical motifs, a mandatory lesson if you wished to attend the opera in the Theatre Royal. They had to show real intent to engage with the subject matter.
Study was naturally forsaken on the night of the opera. Shoes were polished spic and span and the boys walked, in their smart uniforms, down Summer Hill towards the Theatre Royal.
Colm has recounted that, before departing the school, the boys received a lecture on proper conduct during the opera: crisps, sweets and chocolates were forbidden during the performance. They marched from St. Peter’s with military precision and returned in unison when the opera was over.
He also gave an honest account of the actual draw towards attending the opera – there was always the possibility of acquiring chips on the way home and moreover, the girls from the convent school – the ‘fleshpots’ as he referred to them – would also be in attendance. The boys were warned not to be gawking at the girls – the reputation of the school was on the line.
But the fledgling writer, by his own admission, did not expect to be so moved by the performance. He was completely taken in by the high drama of it all, the overture, the musical duets and the chorus all coming to life in a spectacular way.
He described being completely and utterly mesmerised by his first night: with the writing of his new opera decades later, it is clear that the experience has stayed with him throughout his life.
The importance of immersive and interactive cultural experiences for young people are as essential today as they were in 1971. One can only hope that even one young person who attends Colm’s opera in the National Opera House this autumn will be lucky enough to feel the magic of it all, the experience resonating with them long after the final note is sung.
The Master, will be performed during this year’s Festival between 21 October and 6 November. At Wexford Arts Centre on October 20, Colm and Alberto will discuss their collaboration ahead of the premiere of The Master.
Karina Daly is the author of The History of Wexford Festival Opera 1051-2021.