And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
The Wexford Opera Festival
October is the time for the Wexford Opera Festival. Every year since the 1950s, this festival has taken place in this tiny town in the south-east corner of Ireland, showing three operas to the public for a period of three weeks.
The town of Wexford has a population of about 18,000 people. Situated in the sunniest corner of Ireland, it's only a few miles from many beaches so the area is a popular tourist resort. The town itself is a pleasant enough place, and has one long main street with many different shops and restaurants along it. Part of the main street has been pedestrianised, because it is really too narrow for traffic. Parallel to the main street are quays onto the estuary of the River Slaney. They've done up the quays to make a very pleasant place to walk, with a wide open plaza with a wooden path set into the ground to make the walk slightly easier on the feet.
The Opera Festival
In the 1950s, Ireland was a dull and depressing place, and Wexford was a miserable little town. It did have some tourism even then, but nothing much else going for it. One man, Dr Tom Walsh, had the idea of putting on an opera festival in this unlikely spot, and the festival was so well acclaimed that it became a regular feature. The festival was set to take place in October, and soon came on the winning formula of performing little-known works. Some of these were by unknown composers, others were lesser-known works of well-known composers. By the 1990s, the festival had settled into a regular run of three operas over three weeks; each opera has a completely separate cast, and is run every third night, only the orchestra being present every night. This means a visitor can go to the opera any three nights in a row and see three different operas.
Until 2005, all the performances took place in the Theatre Royal which was an old converted cinema. The theatre was tiny, with room for about 500 people in the audience, with virtually no leg room, tiny bar facilities for the interval, and a tiny stage. This led to severe constraints on what could be performed – the stage had trouble holding more than about 20 performers, and if the stage was made high enough to clear the orchestra, the audience in the front rows couldn't see the back of the stage. An innovative designer came up with the solution to this, to slope the entire stage, and to distort the scenery so that it looked straight, meaning that the singers were often standing on quite a slope as they sang. One year, an over-polished stage resulted in the chorus sliding forwards as they sang!
Nevertheless, there was something lovely about the Theatre Royal as a venue. It was on a side street off the Main Street, and surrounded by ordinary houses with ordinary people living in them. The organisers of the festival always greeted all the guests at the door, and often remembered them from year to year. And the whole town buzzed with the atmosphere.
Other events started to be staged at the same time in the town. Today, you will be treated to a 'singing pub competition', art exhibitions and classical music concerts. The singers themselves, eager to display their talents, put on lunchtime concerts of arias and showpieces.
The shops in the town decorate their windows in an opera theme, with Venetian masks, fragments of opera score and beautiful costumes. And everywhere you go, you will see groups of people discussing the previous night's show, deciding which of the three operas is the best and speculating on the future of up-and-coming stars.
The Opera House
At the end of the 2005 season, the Theatre Royal closed its doors for the last time. The company had finally managed to buy a few of the houses around the theatre, so they now had space to expand. The construction of a complete new Opera House would take a couple of years, so the 2006 and 2007 seasons were planned for temporary (and rather unsatisfactory) venues. Meanwhile, the old theatre was demolished, but the façades of the houses were kept so that the street still looks like an ordinary street of houses. The entrance is a modest doorway in one of the houses, leading into the brand new Opera House which was finally unveiled in the summer of 2008, so that it would be ready for the 2008 October season.
The new auditorium can seat about 900 people, but there is plenty of room. The whole thing is panelled with wood and the seats are pale blue leather. There are three floors with a bar on each, so no-one is stuck for a drink at the interval.
The stage in the new opera house is huge, as is the orchestra pit, so much grander operas can be staged if required.
Every year, we go to one of the three operas. This year, the opera that we went to see was 'The Mines of Sulphur' by Richard Rodney Bennett, a 20th Century composer. We knew nothing about this in advance, but it turned out to be a horror story along the lines of the Hammer Horror films of the mid 20th Century – an apparently innocent situation gradually turns into a nightmare.
The story was set in an isolated country mansion somewhere in the west of England in the 18th Century. A horrible old man is murdered by a group of three: a deserter from the army, his gypsy lover, and an old tramp. They kill the old man for his money, but decide not to leave immediately with the treasure, as the weather is very wild and they would rather wait till morning. Then a troupe of travelling players arrives, looking for shelter from the severe weather. They take the group of three murderers to be the owners of the house. They offer to put on a play for them, a comedy called 'The Mines of Sulphur', but as the play progresses, it turns into a nightmare, the events in the play mirroring the real murder of the old man. It's as if they players are not real people but the consciences of the murderers coming to haunt them. The ending of the opera was really creepy, and completely unexpected.
One nice thing about the Opera Festival is that many of the restaurants in the town stay open late and it is possible to sit down to a meal after the opera is over. We arrived at our restaurant just in time for dinner at 10.30 and had a delicious meal.
Now I'm looking forward to next year's festival.