When you think about it, it was an amazing achievement. Wexford Festival Opera began in a small rural town in the southeast corner of Ireland and became a world-renowned festival from early on. The festival attracted people from all over the world to experience high-quality opera. Incredibly, the festival board managed to convince the Irish government to fund an opera house in provincial Ireland. This has possibly been its greatest achievement to date.
exford’s new opera house was a perfect example of what was possible during the Celtic Tiger era — the ability to create something world class with the support of state funding, something of which the whole country could be proud.
As I look at the majestic National Opera House, nestled into the narrow street known as High Street in the middle of Wexford town, it is hard to process what a miracle it really is. The vision for this state-of-the-art facility was set years ahead of its opening in 2008. After years of hard graft by members of the festival board and the late Jerome Hynes, the festival’s managing director, the government announced in December 2005 that it would invest €26m in the building of a new opera house in Wexford.
The Wexford festival board had a target of €7m to raise locally, through sponsors and private donors. Wexford Festival Opera was entering into its most challenging period to date.
As the building began to take shape, it was clear early on that it was going to be a spectacular venue — the first purpose-built opera house in Ireland. The reinstated terraced building façade on the outside camouflaged the new building perfectly and succeeded in maintaining the element of surprise that was so characteristic of the old Theatre Royal, tucked away on the narrow side street.
It featured an auditorium for 780 people, a multi-purpose ‘black-box’ performing space for 175 people and several smaller rehearsal spaces. Traditional horseshoe shaped balconies brought the audience closer to the stage and covered the walls on three sides. The decision to clad the auditorium walls in walnut panelling was taken with the acoustics in mind, but the overall effect of the panelling was also visually appealing.
The exposed lighting bridges overhead completed the impression of a large cello, the wood portraying the body of the instrument and the lighting bridges portraying the strings.
The fly tower externally was clad in copper, hence the distinctive appearance on the Wexford skyline, traditionally bookended by the two church spires.
The backstage facilities included dedicated rooms for directors, conductors, designers and singers, an increased number of dressing rooms, chorus rehearsal rooms and prop-making areas — none of which had been available in the old Theatre Royal. The new layout also included 40 fly bars for scenery changes, ensuring that the opera house would be able to cater for dynamic changes quickly. This was so important at Wexford where the norm was to produce six cycles of three operas. With the improved set-up backstage, the sets and scenery for two operas could be stored overhead in the flys during the performance of the third opera.
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Remarkably, the building project was delivered on budget at €32m and on schedule. Considering the costs of other recent opera house projects — the new opera house in Copenhagen cost €239m and the new one in Oslo cost €500m — Wexford could feel particularly proud of its endeavour. The iconic building was handed over to Wexford Festival Opera on August 1, 2008. Some 20,000 people took part in organised tours of the building in the first four weeks alone.
Feeling of jubilation
Wexford managed to secure a great coup in getting the agreement of RTÉ to broadcast The Late Late Show from the Wexford Opera House. This was only the fourth time in 48 years that the show was broadcast outside of the RTÉ studio in Dublin. Among the guests to perform live was the mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, who was the first opera singer to perform in the new building.
The opera house was formally opened by the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, but as he cut the ribbon, he already knew that a financial crisis was looming and that Ireland faced an uncertain future. Just 10 days after The Late Late Show event, the international media reported that Lehman Brothers, the global financial services firm, had filed for bankruptcy. There was a chilling inevitability that economies around the world were about to be hit by recession. Within days, the Irish government, a Fianna Fáil coalition, officially conceded that Ireland was in the midst of a recession.
The Wexford festival board and its executive looked on in horror as the entire landscape changed dramatically around them. The impact of the economic crash on this new opera house would be significant, and it would take a mammoth effort to keep the doors open and survive this latest and most acute crisis.
As the journalist Michael Dervan pointed out: “The Wexford festival is one of those crazy things that should never have happened. The complexity of the current challenges will call on Wexford’s craziness to an extent never seen before.”
Luckily, the 2008 festival did not suffer as a result of the economic downturn. In fact, there was a feeling of jubilation. There were too many achievements to celebrate and the board and staff of Wexford Festival Opera had waited a long time for this moment. They felt that luck had been on their side in getting the new opera house completed on time, as any delays in the building of the state-of-the-art facility would have been detrimental to its completion.
But survive it did. And it flourished. It picked up a number of awards, including an Irish Times Theatre Award for special achievement, an Opus Architecture and Construction Award, a Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI) Best Cultural Building award, and a coveted award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for architectural excellence. Wexford was included in third place on the Top 10 Destinations for Opera Lovers, which was published by the prominent Frommer’s organisation. It became the National Opera House.
Amazing really, when you think about it…
The 70th Wexford Festival Opera will run from October 19 to 31. See wexfordopera.com
Karina Daly is the author of ‘The History of the Wexford Festival Opera, 1951-2021’, published by Four Courts Press, which is out now