Friday, 1 August 2014

The history of WFO. The early days 1951-1959. Part 2.

For the Wexford Festival of 1956, Nicola Monti and Cristiano Dalamangas returned to appear in La cenerentola by Rossini,  where they were joined by Italian baritone Paolo Pedani in the first of his five appearances at Wexford. British mezzo-soprano Barbara Howitt was playing the role of Angelina, with Patricia Kern and April Cantelo as her step-sisters.   
April Cantelo, Cristiano Dalamangas. Patricia Kern
















By now Monti and Dalamangas were regular visitors to Wexford, and in those early days it was not uncommon for the visiting artists to join in a "sing song" in the hotels or local bars as they unwound after their performances. It seems that Dalamangas was very fond of these get togethers, and he had also developed a liking for Guinness. It is rumoured that during one of the years he sang at Wexford, some members of the backstage crew had to go looking for him in various pubs, and just about managed to get him to the theatre, and into his costume in time  for curtain up.
  
Martha by Flotow was the other opera staged that season, and it was performed in its original German. Together with Der Wildschutz from 1955 and the The Rose of Castile, these were the only non-Italian works performed at Wexford during the first decade. German opera would not feature again at Wexford until the 1970's. For Martha, the singers included German tenor Josef Traxel, a member of the Stuttgart opera and regular at Bayreuth, Constance Shacklock an English contralto and leading performer at Covent Garden, and baritone Marko Rothmueller made a return appearance.


Constance Shacklock and Marko Rothmueller


Shortly after her appearance at Wexford, Constance Shacklock left the operatic stage and she took on the role of the  Mother Abbess in the London run of The Sound of Music. She sang the role for six years, and following that, she retired from performing to concentrate on teaching. 





Two comic operas were on the bill for the seventh festival in 1957. On stage that year were La figlia del reggimento and L'italiana in Algeri by Donizetti and Rossini respectively. Bryan Balkwill conducted, while Peter Ebert directed and Joseph Carl designed both operas. 

Cast of La figlia del reggimento

















In 1840 Donizetti wrote La Fille du Regiment for the Opera-comique in Paris. In keeping with the tradition of that theatre, the musical numbers were separated by spoken dialogue. When the opera was transferred to Italy, the french text was translated into Italian this dialogue was replaced with sung recitatives, and it was this Italian version that was presented here in Wexford. The cast assembled for the pieces featured the young Graziella Sciutti as the eponymous heroine Maria. The tenor Mario Spina was her lover Tonio, and he had to tackle all those high C's in his big aria. The welsh baritone Geraint Evans was Sergeant Sulpice. Before her engagement for Wexford she had appeared at Covent Garden, Aix-en-Provence and the major theatres in Italy, where she was known as "the Callas of the Piccola Scala".

Patricia Kern, Barbara Howitt, April Cantelo in L'Italiana in Algeri








The three female roles in L'Italiana in Algeri were taken by the same trio that had starred in the previous year's La Cenerentola; Barbara Howitt, Patrica Kern and April Cantelo. Also returning from the previous year was Paolo Pedani. Romanian tenor Petre Munteanu, and Italian bass Paolo Montarsolo were Lindoro and Mustafa respectively.

Paolo Pedani in I due Foscari
While comedy was the theme of the operas for 1957, drama and tragedy followed in 1958, when  Anna Bolena by Donizetti and   I due Foscari by Verdi were the selected works.  Verdi's early work, is a thrilling story of political intrigue, corruption and family tragedy set in 15th century Venice. The principal role is a demanding yet rewarding one for a baritone. Having excelled in comic roles in the two preceding festivals, Paolo Pedani proved to be well able to reach the vocal and dramatic heights required in the role of the octogenarian Doge, being especially moving in the opera's final scene, where, having heard the bells of St Marks ring to announce the election of his successor, he dies. Spanish tenor Carlo del Monte, and Italian soprano Mariella Angioletti starred in the other leading roles.      

Marina Cucchio, Plinio Clabassi, Fiorenza Cossotto in Anna Bolena

Anna Bolena was the fourth work of Donizetti to be performed at Wexford, and was the first of his serious operas to be staged. At that time, what we now refer to as the "bel canto revival" was only starting to take place. The comedies of Donizetti were occasionally staged in the British Isles, so this production of Anna Bolena was quite a bold decision. Casting for the piece was top notch as usual. In the title role was the Italian soprano Marina Cucchio, King Henry was sung by bass Plinio Clabassi, who had appeared in this role at La Scala the previous season with Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer as Anna. Tenor Gianni Jaia was Percy. However, the singer who created the biggest impression was the young Italian mezzo-soprano singing Jane Seymour, and that was Fiorenza Cossotto. The critic from The London Times was lavish in his praise of Ms Cossotto, saying she was mezzo-soprano at the beginning of great career.  And of course he was correct. Some years ago, when asked which singer did he think was his greatest discovery, without hesitation, Dr. Tom replied Fiorenza Cossotto. The background to her engagement for Wexford is quite amusing, and I think we should know the story.

Early in 1958 while in Milan casting for the festival, Dr.Tom attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at La Scala. He was very impressed by the Suzuki in that performance, and it was Cossotto. After the performance he went to dinner at Biffi's restaurant which was close by and usually frequented by Milan's opera people. There he met a London based agent, a man whom Dr. Tom neither liked not trusted. This agent claimed to represent Cossotto, and a lunch appointment, at Biffi's, for all three was set for the next day. Cossotto didn't turn up and some excuses were made. The appointment was re-scheduled for the next day; again no Cossotto. But on that day, Liduino Bonardi the head of the top international agent in Milan, ALCI, arrived for lunch. At the time, Liduino, as he was generally known, ruled the operatic world from La Scala in Milan, to The Metropolitan Opera in New York. In fact, Rudolf Bing the General Manager of the MET during these years, referred to Liduino as "an amiable old bandit". On seeing the London agent, a shouting match broke out, with Liduino accusing the other man of trying to poach his singers. Dr.Tom, and the rest of the diners looked on horrified as the two men clutched at each others jackets. After Liduino had left, Dr.Tom threatened the London agent with legal action for misrepresentation. He also insisted that he must clarify with Liduino, that he had no part in this matter. They left the restaurant and crossed to the ALCI offices which were nearby. The London agent asked Dr.Tom to wait while he spoke to Liduino. He emerged rather flustered after 15 minutes, and told Dr.Tom that Liduino would see him. Dr.Tom found Liduino seated behind his desk. Liduino motioned to Dr.Tom to take a seat. Just then, he removed a mauve plastic backed hair brush from his desk, and as he sat there combing back his long white hair, Fiorenza Cossotto was contracted to Wexford.

Mariella Angioletti and Nicola Nicolov
The first decade in the history of the Wexford Festival ended in 1959 with Verdi's Aroldo and La gazza ladra by Rossini. The performances of Aroldo were considered very important indeed as the opera had been virtually unperformed in the 20th century. First performed in Rimini in 1857, Aroldo is in fact a reworking of the 1850 work Stiffelio.  The original story line of Stiffelio, tells of a 19th century Protestant minister with an adulterous wife. In the final scene set in a church, he forgives her with words quoted from the bible. The opera was first performed in Trieste in 1850, but due to the strict censorship of the time, despite various amendments, Verdi withdrew it in 1856, revised it, changing the storyline and transferring the setting to 13th century Scotland. An additional act and some new music was added for this version which was to become Aroldo. Italian soprano Mariella Angioletti returned to sing the role of Mina, and the well known baritone Aldo Protti was her father Egberto. Bulgarian tenor Nicola Nicolov sang the title role. A young Charles Mackerras conducted the performances. There was almost a case of history repeating itself in relation to censorship this year. Every year there was (and still is) a Festival Mass held in Rowe St church. Nicola Nicolov had offered to sing, but as he was from a communist country, he was refused permission to enter the church.

Almost every lover of opera and classical music will be familiar with the name of Rossini's opera semiseria, La gazza ladra, due to the huge popularity of it's overture. The opera itself was very rarely performed, and when it was, it was usually heavily abridged, as indeed it was in Wexford. Nicola Monti and Paolo Pedani returned yet again to appear in it. Joining them were husband and wife, bass Giorgio Tadeo and soprano Mariella Adani, who were important singers in Italy, and both had featured on recordings. John Pritchard was the conductor. Also joining the cast in the trousers role of the young farm boy Pippo, was Janet Baker, who went on to become one of England's best known and best loved singers. The role of Pippo is quite small, but it is he who discovers that it is in fact a magpie who has stolen some silver spoons, and not Ninetta who has been condemned to death for the crime. Pippo raises the alarm just in the nick of time, Ninetta is cleared, and all ends happily.
A scene from La gazza ladra
La gazza ladra was the last performance given at Wexford in the 1950's, and when the curtain fell on November 1st 1959, it would be almost 2 years before it would rise again, on a new decade, and a new chapter in the history of Wexford Festival.

Salome preparations.

With the 63rd Wexford Festival just under 3 months away, preparations are well under way. At a recent meeting in the scenery workshop in Italy where technicians and painters are busy constructing the scenery for Salome, our set designer was spotted by our Technical Director riding a rather racy motorbike !
 
Tiziano Santi with his motorbike.
 
Tiziano Santi is a native of Parma, and it is a scenery workshop in the town that is creating the lavish golden settings for this autumn's production of Salome. With a long tradition of classical painting construction and design it was natural to choose such a workshop for this exciting and classical looking set. Are Tiziano's designs as racy as his motorbike ? Come to Salome in October and you will find out. Here is preview of what it will look like.


Salome design by Tiziano Santi
 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The history of WFO. The early days 1951-1959. Part 1.

Following on from the recent post regarding the birth of Wexford Festival Opera, over the coming weeks, as we build up to this year's event, I am going to present a brief history of the festival through the decades. Wexford Festival archival material will be used to illustrate the various posts.
Dr T.J. Walsh, Eva Cousins, Compton Mackenzie, Erskine Childers

Above we see a photograph taken on the opening night of the festival back in 1951. In the earlier post, we heard why Dr. Tom chose The Rose Of Castille by Balfe to be the first opera. Casting for the piece was a mixture of amateur and professional. The chorus was made up entirely of local singers. The two leading roles were take by professionals, with Maureen Springer as Elvira, and Murray Dickie as Manuel. The remaining principal roles were all sung by local artists. In fact, the very first voice ever heard at a Wexford Festival was that of Nellie Walsh, who was Dr.Tom's sister. Nellie remained a stalwart of the chorus until the 1990s !

While the initial response to the festival of 1951 was positive, Dr. Tom believed the festival would only survive by presenting little known operas, so for 1952, L'Elisir d'Amore by Donizetti, which was then scarcely known in Ireland was the chosen work. It was to be performed in Italian. As production time approached, public reaction had polarised; it neither wanted unknown operas, nor did it want any opera in a foreign language. At a public talk he gave in April 1986, Dr.Tom recalled that shortly before the festival of 1952 began, only 701 tickets had been sold for the four scheduled performances. Something needed to be done, so good friends of the festival got in their cars and went out to sell seats as far away as Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford. For his part, Dr.Tom walked Wexford town accompanied by a local Franciscan friar, Fr. Enda, who was the festival's chorus master, calling on people and frankly asking them if they would save the festival the humiliation of having good Italian artists sing to almost empty houses. To their credit and Wexford's credit, they did. The theatre wasn't packed on the first night but was well filled. On the following day the press notices were universally good, but Dr.Tom always believed that the festival was saved by the tenor singing Nemorino, Nicola Monti. The second performance was not as well filled as the first, but the third on Saturday evening surprisingly had improved. In 1952 Saturday night was a very bad theatre night in Wexford. Obviously word of Monti's fabulous singing has got around. There was little doubt that consequently the final performance would be filled. Dr.Tom recalled being in Whites Hotel, then the festival headquarters, on that Sunday morning when the last ticket was sold. On Sunday night as he came to the theatre, Dr.Tom was amazed to find a queue stretching from the theatre into Rowe St. Nobody knows how it was done, but everybody in that queue got into the tiny theatre for the final performance.  



The festival chorus is a scene from L'Elisir d'Amore





















Joining Nicola Monti in the cast of L'Elisir d'Amore were his fellow Italians, the soprano Elvina Ramella and baritone Gino Vanelli, and the Greek bass Cristino Dalamangas. All of these singers were well established in the major Italian theatres, including La Scala. The engagement of these singers immediately set a precedent, that Wexford would present lesser known operas with top class artists.

Donizetti was again the featured composer for 1953, when his comic masterpiece Don Pasquale was performed. Monti, Ramella and Dalamangas returned that year,and they were joined by the very famous Italian baritone Afro Poli. Poli was a leading baritone at La Scala Milan, and a major recording artist. His role in Wexford was Dr. Malatesta, one he had sung many times in various theatres, and had recorded in 1932 with Tito Schipa. Unfortunately, Signor Poli was a little taken aback when he entered the tiny Theatre Royal for the first time. He walked onto the stage, looked into the auditorium, and exclaimed "surely the great Signor Poli has not come to this".  Such was his chagrin, he refused to wear his costume at the public dress rehearsal, appearing instead in an evening suit. 

Afro Poli, Elvina Ramella, Nicola Monti, Cristiano Dalamangas in Don Pasquale

Nicola Monti returned to Wexford once again in 1954 to sing the principal tenor role of Elvino in La Sonnambula by Bellini. By now Monti was a firm favourite in Wexford, and even today, his name is frequently mentioned as one of the great Wexford stars of the past. Elvino was a role he was familiar with having sung it at La Scala with Maria Callas. He also made two complete recordings of this opera, the first with Callas, the second with Joan Sutherland. The lead role of Amina was taken by the American soprano, Marilyn Cotlow, who had already sung leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and created the role of Lucy in The Telephone by Menotti. Italian bass Franco Calabrese took the role of Count Rodolfo. Calabrese was another regular at La Scala, and featured on many of the HMV classic recordings from the 1950's including Tosca with Callas. The remaining roles were taken by Thetis Blacker. Halinka de Tarczynska and Gwyn Griffiths.

 Esther Rethy and Salvatore Puma
In 1955 it was decided that two operas should be presented. This was a major milestone in the continuing development of the festival, and was also confirmation, if it were needed,  that the core values of top class opera with top class singers would prove a success. With regard to singers, Dr.Tom resolved very early on, that only the use of the leading vocal agents would guarantee the quality of voices he wanted for Wexford, and I think that you will agree, that the singers whom we have mentioned so far, all met with Dr. Tom's exacting standards. Manon Lescaut by Puccini and Der Wildschutz by Lortzing were given in 1955. Vocal standards were  as good as ever in this year. British singers Heather Harpur and Thomas Helmsley lead the cast of Der Wildschutz.

For Manon Lescaut Esther Rethy, a star and Kammersangerin from the Vienna State Opera, sang the title role. The role of Lescaut, her brother, was taken by Marko Rothmueller, a Croatian baritone who was a regular at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne at that time. Italian tenor Salvatore Puma was Des Grieux, and there is very interesting story about his engagement for Wexford.  
   
As mentioned earlier, Dr. Tom was very meticulous is selecting singers. Besides using only the best agents, he would never engage a singer without having heard them himself. Prior to the festival in 1955, the tenor who had been contracted for the role of Des Grieux cancelled. Unfortunately, Dr. Tom was unable to travel to Milan to find a replacement. In his place he sent Mr Seamus O'Dwyer, a local postman, and festival volunteer. Seamus and Dr Tom were firm friends and avid collectors of 78's, and were understood to have had two of the finest collections of vocal recordings in Ireland at that time. Seamus was the only other person Dr. Tom would ask for an opinion of a singer. Every night Seamus attended La Scala, and every morning at 11am, the postman from Wexford auditioned singers at the Piccolo Scala, until he found the exact voice that he wanted, and that is how Salvatore Puma was engaged for Wexford.   

Following his death in 1977, Dr Tom wrote the following appreciation of Seamus;


Seamus O'Dwyer
 IT WAS typical of our 27 years old friendship that two days before he died (the last time I saw him) we should still be exchanging information about singers who had made gramophone records. (Could it be possible that a Mlle Ellen who sang in Monte Carlo in 1901 was in fact the famous American soprano, Ellen Beach Yaw, making her debut in opera?). But our friendship went far deeper than that. For 27 years he was my right arm. During our time in the Wexford Festival he endured me in our disappointments, suffered with me in our anxieties and rejoiced with me in our successes.
It is no great compliment to him to say that he was unrivalled in his knowledge of old gramophones and old records in Ireland, since the field is so limited. More significant was his knowledge of singing and of opera. Those who did not know him will find it difficult to understand how extensive this was. How unerring his judgement in distinguishing the great from the merely very good singer.
I believe it was Scott Fitzgerald who wrote - 'ln a small way, I was an original.' In a small way Seamus O'Dwyer was a phenomenon.

At this point I think it appropriate to take a short detour away from the operas and singers and look at some of the other areas involved with staging an opera. Since 1951, the RELO (Radio Eireann Light Orchestra) had been the festival's orchestra, and they would go on to play at every festival up to 1959. In those early days, there was no orchestra pit in the Theatre Royal, so the orchestra was placed between the front of the stage and the stalls seating. This meant that maintaining a suitable balance between singers and orchestra was always going to be a challenge for conductors. Of the 14 operas performed in Wexford between 1951 and 1959, Bryan Balkwill conducted nine of them. This close association with the orchestra and theatre meant that he was well able to keep everything under control. Dermot O'Hara, Hans Gierster, John Pritchard and Charles Mackerras were the other conductors to appear. An impressive list indeed !

The stage in the Theatre Royal was tiny as can be seen in the photo of L'Elisir d'Amore above. Stage facilities in these early years were almost non-existent, but nonetheless, Dr. Tom applied the same high standard to the visual side as he did to the vocal. To that end, top rank directors and designers were always employed. During this time, Peter Ebert, son of the famous German director Carl Ebert, directed the majority of the operas, with Anthony Besch and Peter Potter also taking charge of some productions. All three were well respected and established directors. Design duty for the most part fell to Joseph Carl who had much experience in opera design, especially with Glyndebourne. Osbert Lancaster, Reginal Woolley and Michael Mac Liammoir also contributed designs during that first decade.

Naturally we cannot forget the volunteers; that mini-army of locals who sang in the chorus, worked backstage making and moving scenery,sewing costumes, applying make-up, selling programs, ushering, transporting singers, in fact, working in every possible discipline needed to make the festival a success. Those early volunteers set very high standards which are still being maintained today.

To be continued........             





  









Thursday, 24 July 2014

Pumeza at the Commonwealth Games

It was absolutely great to see soprano Pumeza Matshikiza wowing the audience with her beautifully sung "Freedom come all ye",  at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. With an audience of  over a billion, I am sure it is a night she will always remember.  
 
Pumeza in Hubicka
As many of you will recall, Pumeza made a stunning debut at Wexford in 2010 singing Vendulka in Hubicka by Smetana. When she sang the lullaby towards  the end of Act 1, there was rarely a dry eye in the house. Earlier in 2010, she won First Prize in the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in Dublin.  Since then, Pumeza has become a regular performer with Stuttgart Opera, and has also given many concerts and recitals.

On Monday 28th July her debut album, Voice of Hope will be released. It will feature arias from works by Puccini and Mozart and traditional African songs. "Freedom come all ye" is also included.



I am looking foward to hearing the album, and listening to Pumeza's beautiful voice again. And of course it is always a great feeling to see one of  "our singers" do well !
 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Here comes the bride !
















A hearty Wexford congratulations goes out to Helena Dix who recently got married. Unfortunately we do not have any pictures of Helena's big day to show you, so we have to improvise. Above we see Helena with Lucia Cirillo, (who is in the wedding dress), during the wedding scene from the Opera Award winning 2013 festival production of Cristina, regina di Svezia by Foroni. We would like to extend our best wishes to Helena and her husband !
 
I am sure most of you know that  "Here comes the bride", is the bridal chorus from Wagner's Lohengrin.  Helena, who won the Wagner Society’s 2012 Bursary Competition, may have been tempted to sing along with it on her big day, in preparation for her upcoming appearance in August at the final of the International Wagner Competition in Seattle. A very busy few weeks indeed for Helena, and we wish her every success in the competition.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A great weekend in the Garden !



 
The title of this post may have some of you a little confused.  But not to worry,  I have not gone "horticultural", as the garden I refer to is Covent Garden,  and The Royal Opera.  Over the weekend I spent three nights at three hugely different operas and productions at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden,  and thought I would give you the details.


Thursday night was Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. The Royal Opera has been very active in celebrating the Strauss Centenary, having already presented Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten earlier in their season.  The production was first seen at Covent Garden in 2001 directed by Christof Loy with designs by Herbert Murauer. The conductor was Royal Opera music director, Antonio Pappano. Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila was making her role debut as The Prima Donna / Ariadne. And what a debut ! She was sensational. As the Prima Donna in the Prologue she was hilarious. As Ariadne in the opera, she was again fantastic, and gave one of the most intense performances I have ever seen in an opera house.

Canadian soprano Jane Archibald in her house debut as Zerbinetta, was another revelation. With laser like coloratura in her big aria, she was amply rewarded with applause at the curtain calls. Thomas Allen, Ruxandra Dunose and Roberto Sacca as the Music Master, the Composer and Bacchus respectively were all ideal for their roles. Smaller roles were all  very well sung, especially Markus Werba as Harlequin, who you may recall sang in Wexford in The Jacobin back in 2001.

On Friday I must admit that I approached the opera house with a little trepidation, as I was about to see what had been described as the ugliest show ever to appear on the illustrious opera house stage. Jonathan Kent's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut had been getting mixed reviews. Generally speaking I do not pay much attention to reviews; after all they are just one person's opinion, and each of us has different tastes.


Curtain call at Manon Lescaut
As soon as the curtain rose I could see what the critics complained about, but, within minutes the scenery truly became unimportant as soon as Jonas Kaufman started to sing. Kristine Opalais in the title role was also outstanding. The passion between her Manon and Kaufmann's Des Grieux sizzled in Act 2, and their final death scene was gut-wrenching to the point that you did not notice that it was set atop a twisted section of motorway !  Yet another Wexford alumnus, Christopher Maltman was excellent as Manon's scheming brother. Antonio Pappano was conducting again tonight, and he drew impassioned playing from the orchestra, who gave a superb account of the well known intermezzo.

Saturday night saw the premiere of a new production of Maria Stuarda by Donizetti starring Joyce DiDonato  and Carmen Giannatasio as the rival queens. In Donizetti's opera which is based on Schiller's play, the action centres on a completely fictitious meeting between Maria and Elizabeth, during which Maria questions Elizabeth's parentage, which results in Elizabeth signing Maria's death warrant. Traditionally this is where the soprano fireworks fly, and DiDonato and Giannatasio did not disappoint. As Maria hurled the insult "Vil bastarda" , the two queens entered into what can only be described as a white hot royal slanging match. Of course we know that Maria comes out on the wrong side, and as she prepared to go to her death, DiDonata so enthralled the audience you could hear a pin drop. The roar that erupted at the final curtain was truly deafening. Only once before have I heard such a reaction at the end of an opera. That  was after L'Assedio di Calais, also by Donizetti, at the 1991 Wexford Festival.

All the others singers were also excellent. The unusual production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with designs by Christian Fenouillat and Agostino Cavalca, drew much disapproval from certain sections of the opening night audience.

Cast and conductor of Maria Stuarda




Overall it was very enjoyable weekend, and with a Wexford connection each night, what more could you ask for? Well, three more very different operas and productions would be nice. But I won't have to wait too long, as Wexford Festival which is just over 3 months away will deliver exactly that !
 



 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Wexford Festival : How it began


Dr. T. J. Walsh  (Centenary Record, 1958)
Wednesday 22nd October 2014 will see the opening of the 63rd Wexford Festival, and three new productions of three unfamiliar works will be unveiled. Wexford has been presenting these unfamiliar works now for 63 years, and has become part of our lives, and yearly routine. But do we ever stop to look back and think about how, and indeed why it all started ?
There are many different stories of how the Wexford Festival started. Therefore I think the best way to dispel myths and fables, is to refer to the article penned by the festival founder Dr Tom Walsh himself, for the 1958 Centenary Record, a book published for the centenary of Wexford town's twin churches.


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If the idea of the Wexford Festival can be said to have suggested itself at any precise time, it occurred on a spring afternoon on Foyle'e Bookshop, on Charing Cross Road, London in 1951. There I came across an old programme of the Aldeburgh Festival. I was vaguely aware that Aldeburgh was a small town on the Suffolk coast, that Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lived there, and that it was close to Ipswich where Gainsborough has spent part of his early life. What attracted my interest however was not the geography or artistic associations of Aldeburgh, but a halftone photograph on the cover of the programme depicting the launching of a lifeboat.

Earlier in 1951, a group called, rather ponderously, the Wexford Opera Study Circle, which had been formed the previous November with Compton Mackenzie giving the inaugural address, had decided to produce an opera in Wexford. Here was a photograph, as typical of Rosslare Harbour, or Kilmore, or of Wexford as it was of Aldeburgh. Festivals evidently did not require the wealth and magnificence of large cities as essential backgrounds to their success. If Aldeburgh could have its festival, could not Wexford transform its opera production into one too ?

Later that evening I travelled down to Denchworth in Berkshire where I was spending the night with Compton Mackenzie, and after dinner, drinking cherry brandy before a log fire in his library, I asked him for his opinion. He was most enthusiastic, promised to give any practical help he could towards its success ; a promise he has since made good a hundred fold, and so the Wexford Festival was born.

I returned to Wexford full of optimism, and found - reality, for, if Comptom Mackenzie and myself were confident of success we were almost the only ones. However a committee was formed and a circular was issued setting forth our plans, and stating that if five hundred subscriptions of one guinea each were received by May first, we would hold a Festival early in the forthcoming November.  By May, we had received about two hundred guineas and a meeting was called. About twenty people attended. I cannot remember if I was in the chair, though I think I probably was. I do remember proposing that although our advance subscriptions were much below our original target we should still hold our Festival. This was seconded by Mr. Seamus O'Dwyer, who was honorary secretary to the committee, and put to the meeting. To a man everybody voted against it, on the perfectly sensible grounds that there was obviously insufficient interest in the project to make it a success. Whereupon, I decided we should hold the Festival anyhow !

Our venture being launched I called upon His Lordship, Most Reverend Dr. Staunton* and asked him to become  our Patron, to which he graciously consented. Compton Mackenzie was naturally invited to be President, and he too accepted.

For our programme, we decided upon one opera. I ascertained that the Radio Eireann Light Orchestra would be available to us and so an orchestral concert was added. There would be two recitals, some puppet performances by the Dublin Marionette Group, exhibitions of paintings, and of historical manuscripts, prints and maps of the county, an operatic exhibition of old prints and opera bills, and personal belongings of M.W. Balfe, and three lectures.

The principal feature of the Festival then as now, was opera. I had chosen Balfe's Rose of Castille for the following reasons, it was melodious and so would attract an Irish operatic audience, the composer had spent part of his early life in Wexford, it was seldom if ever performed. From this latter principle, as with many others in connection with the Festival such as the time of year in which it is held, our policy has never varied. Concerning the presentation of opera I held some very decided views. I believed that the principal singers should not only be able to sing but should bear a reasonable resemblance to the characters that they were portraying. I believed that an opera should be designed and produced with just as much care  as an ordinary straight play, and I believed that the chorus should know its work so well, that it could go through a performance without once having to watch the conductor.

I do not mean to suggest that these views were original, they just did not seem to be universal. Nor were all these aims achieved in the first year. The chorus however, entirely amateur, entirely local set a standard which was unprecedented in Ireland, a standard that has risen with each succeeding Festival.

Time passed quickly in that summer of 1951, helped on by periods of elation when things seemed to be going well, retarded by bouts of depression whenever we stopped to think how little interest the Festival was creating. In fact, thinking back on it the reaction of most of the townspeople was to look upon the whole business as a joke, and outside Wexford, nobody had even heard of us. But on October eleventh all this was changed.

That day I was handed a copy of the London Times. Turning to the entertainments column I discovered at the bottom of a rather caustic criticism of Orson Well's Othello, which had opened in London the previous evening, right at the top in large print I read  "The Wexford Festival. Operas by Balfe and Ravel"**. Underneath in a seven inch column London was told all about the forthcoming Festival.

I had scarcely finished reading when the telephone commenced to ring. It appeared that the London offices of our National dailies had telephoned Dublin to ask what was all this about a Festival at Wexford, of which The Times  had been informed but of which they had not. This was Dublin calling and would we please give them something. They will never know how pleased we were to do so.

From that moment journalists began to arrive in Wexford by every train, where, to quote one paper they found us "surprised but unabashed at the amount of interest aroused throughout the country"

Perhaps we felt proudest of all of an editorial in the Evening Herald which said: "The remarkable feature of the event is the silence, almost secrecy, with which the plans were conceived and brought to fruition. Too often have we trumpeted about our inherent love of music and culture, but the only suitable notes to comfort our efforts in most cases would be The Last Post ".

So the first Festival was a success. Today after seven Festivals we can look back with quiet satisfaction to ten operas, performed with singers such as Afro Poli, Josef Traxel, Nicola Monti, Franco Calabrese, Esther Rethy, Marco Rothmueller, Elizabeth Lindermeier, Paolo Pedani and Graziella Sciutti, to recitalists, such as Leon Goosens, Campoli, Gina Bachauer, Segovia and Cor de Groot, to over fifty films, to important exhibitions, to orchestral concerts, to plays, and - to an atmosphere of Irish friendliness that is unique among festivals the world over.

Erskine Childers, Compton Mackenzie and Dr. Tom Walsh, at The Wexford Festival 1951



















* Dr James Staunton,  Bishop of Ferns, 1938 - 1963.
** Reference to L'Enfant et les Sortileges, presented by the Dublin Marionette Group.