To paraphrase a football term, the new executive director of Wexford Festival Opera, Randall Shannon thinks opera is not a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that.
"To those of who who work in opera, it's a life-changing experience. I would contend that opera is one of the most important experiences one can have as a thinking, living human being. It’s about the most important emotions. Even if the production is set in the 16th century and you don’t feel you connect with the characters, the emotions they feel are the emotions we feel today. The emotions don’t change , that is what opera is all about”.
Randall, the son of a church organist, who grew up in Hollywood, County Down, was a 19-year old music student when he experienced opera for the first time and was shown a film of La Boheme during a lecture at the University of Surrey in Guildford.
“ I was reading music at university and music was my life but I had never seen an opera. I came out of that lecture room and I thought I want to be there. I will sweep the floor but I want to be in opera because the whole experience was so magnificent, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it overwhelming. The experience of the music and the drama, opera is all the art forms coming together to create a dramatic whole.
"I’m really jealous of of people who are brought up being taken to see opera as teenagers. “
He spent the first 10 years of his career as an orchestral double bass player based in London and Glyndebourne was the first opera company he worked with.
Music has always been somewhere in his life but he didn’t start playing double bass until he was 16 years old, having played piano before that, but not seriously.
"My father Benjamin (Ben) was a church organist in Hollywood. He started playing the church organ when he was 13. He was really talented but it was never a career.
Anyone seeking Randall's advice on pursuing a career as a professional musician won't much encouragement. “I would everything I could to dissuade them. It's incredibly demanding. At its best, it can be incredibly rewarding but often it is not. To play an instrument to a professional standard requires an extraordinary level of dedication but to play music at an amateur level is entirely enjoyable. It's a much more sensible thing to to.”
“The difference between an amateur and a professional is that as an amateur you have to work hard enough to get it right and that’s not to be disparaging of amateurs but as a professional you have to work hard enough so that you can't get it wrong. You can’t afford to, because you are only as good as your last performance.”
“And however difficult playing is, singing is 100 times harder. People assume to be a singer it’s about having the God-given gift of a good voice. The quality of the voice is important but it’s only about 10% of what is involved.
"You need voice technique – you have to have complete control of the sound you make and complete flexibility and to be able to get your singing above a 50-60 piece orchestra without amplification. A lot of people assume opera singers are amplified but they’re not. That takes training not unlike the training of an athlete.
"As well as that, you have to be able to sing in a lot of languages, English, French, Italian, German but also Czech and Russian. If you want to work internationally you have to have good Italian and good German. And when you turn up on the first day of rehearsals, you have the know the opera off by heart. It is very intellectually demanding.”
He decided he didn’t want to grow old as a bass player because “I’m too opinionated I think, too critical. I was either going to have to become a manager or a trade unionist.”
While playing double bass, he began moving into a managerial position as a ‘fixer’ with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, selecting players, organising contracts and putting orchestras together, a job he did for about five years.
He tried to secure more management work in London but found it difficult because people knew him as a musician and then a friend called and told him the New Irish Chamber Orchestra (he later dropped the word New from the name) were looking for a manager. He applied and got the job.
"I came to Dublin with the intention of making all my mistakes here before going back to London.”
He was also involved in setting up Opera Theatre Company with Prionsias O' Duinn and Ben Barnes, which brought him closer to opera.
After three years, he was invited to Belfast to work as managing director of Opera Northern Ireland, settling back in his home town of Hollywood and spending 10 years with the organisation before deciding ‘that was long enough’ and he should do something different.
He decided he wanted to continue living in Ireland and spent a number of years as a project manager and consultant. One of the projects he worked on was an opera about Thomas a Beckett written by a conductor friend which was staged in the magnificent venue of Canterbury Cathedral, the scene of his death in 1170.
He was invited back to Opera Theatre Company as interim chief executive to assist during a difficult patch and spent five years from 2012 to 2017 as executive director of Buxton International Festival, an opera event not unlike Wexford. He also joined the Arts Council in Ireland as an opera advisor/consultant for 13 years, a contract which finished last December – he was involved in three reviews of opera in Ireland during that time including Wexford Festival which resulted in management structure and governance changes and another which led to the creation of Irish National Opera about three years ago.
"I loved that job. It was maximum influence and minimum responsibility. I was the advisor. I was responsible for my advice but not for making things happen.”
He first attended Wexford Festival Opera in 1984 when he was working in Dublin and continued coming every year while working with Opera Northern Ireland.
"I guess the best word to describe my first impression of it is ‘quirky’. This extraordinary event put on in this quite strange uncomfortable little theatre in this little town. I had known about it for decades. My teacher at school came every year.
"So I knew the party reputation. A group of people would come together for a great weekend - what we are now calling the ‘Wexford Experience’ – in the same way that people are coming nowadays.
"About 10 years ago, I was standing in a crowded foyer on closing night and I recognised a lady from when I was in London and was conductor of a choir and orchestra from Middlesex Hospital medical school and she was the secretary. I hadn’t seen her since then. She and her husband bring a group of friends over and in recent years, I’ve organised my visits to coincide with them. There are probably hundreds of groups of people who do the same thing.
"The opera is important but it’s the overall experience. It’s a group of friends, who go walking during the day, attend an afternoon or lunch-time production, meet for drinks before the show, eat in Greenacres and return for the final course after the opera."
That experience was missing last year but thanks to artistic director Rosetta Cucchi’s inspired decision to establish the Wexford Factory in 2020, it was possible to create an online festival.
"If we hadn’t had the Factory, that would have been really difficult. It was a great idea and the timing was so perfect.”
It also helped that the Arts Council still provided its agreed funding for arts events like the festival as box office and other funding sources completely collapsed.
Wexford Festival Opera, with an annual turnover of about €4.5 million, has three roughly equal sources of finance – the annual Art Council grant, ticket sales, and commercial sponsorship/individual giving.
Philanthropic support is still strong with the festival enjoying a high level of donations. “I meet so many people who have been coming to Wexford for decades. The festival is an important part of their lives. It inspires a high degree of devotion. They have been cut off and are desperate to get back and they want to help which is invaluable.
"The Arts Council support is vital but it’s a fraction of what a company in Europe would get – a French or German company would get 75/80% of its income in Government support but we are a small country. In America, there is massive philanthropic support.
“We have to work hard to source funding from other areas and that strengthens us in a way because if we lose one source we have another but the challenge we have to build commercial and individual support is massive in order to develop as a company in the way we would like to. In the arts, fundraising is called development. We have a development team of four and they're very busy.
"Next year, we have to raise €1 million. This year, we are raising about three quarters of a million”
Early preparations for this year’s festival were based on the then optimistic view of selling 200 seats per performance.
"Back in March and April, that was what was expected to happen but at the time, the permitted audience number was 50. Come August, 50 was still the maximum and I was getting worried. If it stayed at 50, we would have had to pay back a lot of money. But on August 31, it was announced that we could expand to 60% of our capacity.
"That was perfect for us. I didn’t want to go from 25% to 100% in September but with 60% we would still have an increase.
"There are two types of people - those who are desperate to get out and those who want to get out but are still very concerned. We are reassuring people that there will be social distancing in the auditorium. We can get 60% and still have a metre between people.”
The festival’s audience is also largely drawn from older age groups – “opera as an entertainment appeals to a small number of the younger age groups. There is no point in targeting your marketing at young people”, he said.
At the same time, “there is a never-ending supply of grey-haired people. Life changes. When you are in your 20s, you want to go and listen to loud music and jump up and down but 20 years later, you start to look sideways and see what else there is to experience. Our job is to introduce these people to the Wexford Experience. To me, the new young audience is 40-plus.
“Opera is difficult to sell because of the media which is is always describing it as being elitist. It always annoys me that elitism is okay when it’s used about athletes but when its opera its used derogatively about the audience, whereas it applies in the same way in that is what is happening on stage is highly elitist in terms of quality.
"I can't get away from the fact that our tickets are expensive but if you go to a rock concert or an international rugby match, it can be just as expensive. You could spend €500 going to a Rolling Stones concert but that would never be termed elitist. I would like to ban that word.
"The most important thing to realise about opera is that it’s entertainment. People are frightened that if they go to an opera, they won’t understand it. Yes, you can go to an opera and if you understand the background and the story and know what the singers are about, you might get more out of it but equally if you stroll in off the street, you can read the English surtitles and follow the story and you’ll have an enjoyable experience.
He said opera is like drinking a glass of wine, you can know a lot about wine but if you don’t you will still have a good drink. "Wine is a drink, opera is an entertainment”.
He believes the Opera Festival performing company has a major role to play in working with local schools. “I would contend that everyone is born a creative animal. Every child plays creatively. By the time we go through the formal education system, any notion of creativity is knocked out of us, to the point where adults regard creativity as something special and out of the ordinary that is God-given to a few people, but we all have a creative potential.”
Next January, a Wexford project will see students in a number of primary schools creating an opera with a professional composer, with the aim of inspiring creativity. He would also like to see Factory productions touring Ireland.
Randall who took up his new position in February, has been delighted to see cast members and backstage teams returning to the National Opera House and said there is a real sense of excitement in the air. For the singers, the festival will be their first time to perform in front of a live audience in a year and a half.
"One of the major joys of this job is being here in this magnificent building, having a cup of coffee and looking at that”, he said, gesturing over the Wexford skyline from the recently- reopened Sky View Cafe on the first day of rehearsals. “It’s a privilege.”
Looking to the post-pandemic future of Wexford Festival Opera, he said the biggest challenge is the primary one facing every arts organisation, that of survival, and the challenge of securing continued support to maintain the quality and standard of the productions as high as possible, adding that “you can never take the future for granted”.
"So you need to get more and more support to keep the quality of what we put on stage as high as possible because ticket prices here are high. A lot of people come a long way , from America, Europe and the UK. For two people coming here for three days, attending all the operas, staying in a hotel, eating and drinking, that is a big financial commitment so we have to justify that by the quality of what we put on stage. So, the ambition is to sustain and maintain that.’
"The core activity of presenting operas that are rarely presented elsewhere will continue because that is what attracts the travelling audience. So we will continue doing what we are doing at the high level we are achieving.
"We want to embed the company more and more in the community but also in the artistic life of the country.
"I want to start talking more about the Wexford Experience. Yes, the opera is important and it’s central to it but it’s not just the opera. It’s about coming to Wexford and having a great time in an amazing place. You don't have to be – I hate the term - an opera buff”.
"One of the most extraordinary things about the Festival is the number of volunteers. There are about 400 volunteers. It’s unlike any other company I have ever seen. I would contend that this is one of the greatest achievements of Jerome Hynes. Lots of festivals started off as community-led and become professionalised and then dislocated from the community. Wexford Festival was community-organised and managed and what Jerome did, was he managed to convert all of those people into volunteers.”
His own music career is now confined to “trying to play Bach cello suites on the bass guitar” which he took up about five years ago. “But that is a very private activity”, he said.