Inside Wexford's giant cello

 

Ahead of the theatre's official opening tonight, the decision to rebuild Wexford Opera House on its original Theatre Royal site looks to have been the right one, aesthetically, acoustically and financially, reports Frank McDonald, Environment Editor. 

THE UNIQUE ATTRIBUTES of Wexford's old Theatre Royal as an opera house were its intimacy and eccentricity. Nowhere else in the world could you hear and see an obscure opera being performed in a theatre shoehorned in behind terraced houses on an utterly domestic little street.

It was this sense of secrecy that charmed so many visiting opera buffs (such as the late Bernard Levin) when they came to Wexford. It was so far removed from the grandeur of the Palais Garnier in Paris, La Scala in Milan or the Royal Opera House in London, and even more intimate than Glyndebourne.

The annual Wexford Festival was a great social event, with the town seemingly taken over by foppish young men in black tie and lovely ladies in ball gowns. And then something awful happened: it was discovered by the corporate sector and, inevitably, this has changed its essential character.

The festival, billed by the Reader's Digestas "Europe's most enjoyable festival", has been staged at the Theatre Royal since 1951, apart from the two-year interruption by demolition and construction works when it went to Johnstown Castle. The original theatre was much older, dating from 1832.

Although the old theatre had been modestly extended and refurbished in the late 1980s by Murray O'Laoire Architects, its capacity fell short of demand year after year. Front-of-house and backstage facilities were seriously inadequate and the building was run-down, so the festival looked to the State for help.

The new opera house being opened this evening by the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, is the dramatic result of that cap-in-hand gesture by Wexford Opera chief executive, the late Jerome Hynes. Soon after Hynes's appeal, the Office of Public Works (OPW) had a look at the decrepit old building and decided to recommend demolition rather than refurbishment.

The festival board made a unanimous decision in 2003 to rebuild behind the houses on High Street, rather than move to a greenfield site on the outskirts. It was fortunate in acquiring the old Wexford Peopleoffices next door, doubling the size of the original site, so there was plenty of room to expand.

As an alternative, it could have opted, for example, to move to the sandy promontory of Ferrybank, on the opposite side of the harbour, which would be the ideal location for a contemporary building like the Sydney Opera House. But that would have ripped the festival out of the heart of Wexford and ended its unique appeal.

Once the fundamental decision had been taken to rebuild on the old site, the OPW - with Ciarán McGahon as project architect, overseen by Klaus Unger - assembled a design team that included Arup Acoustics, theatre consultants Carr Angier and award-winning Keith Williams as associate architect. Williams, whose best-known building in Ireland is the Athlone Civic Centre, attended the last opera to be performed in the old theatre in 2005.

"I thought it was exceptionally limited in terms of stage space," he says. "How they put opera on was baffling. But there was a great spirit about it and sense of intimacy."

The new opera house, with 7,235sq m of floor space, is three times larger than the old theatre, but although its flytower rises to the equivalent of eight storeys, it is barely visible above the ridge-line of High Street. Thus, the "surprise and delight of discovery", as McGahon puts it, is still there.

The smart-looking foyer leads up to a much larger atrium that links the three levels of the auditorium. Box-balustered staircases in dark Canadian walnut are offset against white walls, creating a great space for people-watching - a stage set for the flâneur before and after performances.

Through the large area of glazing, the spire of Rowe Street church and the Italianate tower of the Franciscan friary are visible. These, along with Rowe Street's twin church in Bride Street - both celebrating their 150th anniversaries this year - were the great landmarks of Wexford town. Now the skyline is punctuated by the secular blocks of White's Hotel and the opera house's tilted, slate-clad flytower. But the payback is that there's a cafe-bar attached, with spectacular views over Wexford, the Slaney estuary and the sea beyond (it also has a vertigo-inducing balcony for smokers).

THE NEW THREE-TIERED auditorium is a revelation. With its walls, ceiling, floors and bow-shaped balconies entirely clad in dark walnut (from sustainably managed forests), it almost seems to be hewn out of a huge block of timber. It has a cave-like quality, which is slightly off-putting until you get used to it.

Keith Williams likens this extraordinary interior to a stringed instrument.

"We echoed the sensuous curves of a cello to make this room," he says. "Even the curved steel lighting bridges are analogous to the technical bits of the cello. And if you hold that analogy, which parts of it would you like to replace with felt?"

So is this the "Stradivarius on High Street", as the festival board member Matt O'Connor quipped? Certainly, a lot of work went into making the acoustics as perfect as possible. The timber panelling is fretted to "scatter" sound while the seats are perforated underneath to absorb high frequencies. Nothing is there by chance, according to Arup's Jeremy Newton.

"The angles and curvatures were all designed to create the right sort of reflections ," he says. The acoustics, in other words, are not "bolted on to" an architectural concept; instead, the architects and acoustic engineers all worked together.

The sense of being inside a finely tuned instrument is reinforced by its horseshoe shape, defined by the sweeping bow-fronted balconies. As Williams says, it is a "very contemporary take" on the traditional opera house, unlike so many of the theatres that departed from this form in the 1960s, such as the Abbey.

"The geometry of the auditorium can be used to create its acoustic properties", Ciarán McGahon explains. "The edges you see are true structural edges, and the side walls are also populated . Even people in the upper tiers can feel more connected with the stage."

He insists that no seat in the new auditorium is further away from the stage than in the old Theatre Royal, even though the capacity has been increased by nearly 40 per cent. The reason is that it's a lot wider than the old auditorium, which everyone who attended an opera in Wexford will remember as quite narrow.

The amount of space per seat is also up by 40 per cent, and each seat has a chilled air vent beneath it, to eliminate the "sweat box" effect one feels in older theatres. All the seats are upholstered in pale purple soft leather, and carpeting in the concourse areas is a deeper purple, one of the Wexford GAA colours.

The proscenium arch is 1.6m higher and 3m wider than the original one, while the stage projects into the auditorium, connecting the performers with the audience - though the forward section can be dropped to create a commodious orchestra pit for up to 60 musicians.

The stage itself, directly beneath the soaring flytower, is 10m deep. With side and backstage areas, and numerous pulleys and gantries, it can accommodate sets for three different operas being performed in repertory at any given time. It can be serviced through an opening big enough for a juggernaut truck.

THE OPERA HOUSE also has a secondary "black box" space, called the Jerome Hynes Theatre, with a capacity of 170. With retractable seating, which means it can be used very flexibly, it was designed for rehearsals, but can also be used for drama, concerts and chamber music. It will be available throughout the year as a receiving venue.

Facilities for performers are also much better than those in the cramped old Theatre Royal. There's a Green Room for relaxation, modern toilets and showers, and a props room from which anything required on stage can be supplied, "whether it's lighted candles or boiling kettles", according to Ciarán McGahon.

Although 3,500sq m of walnut went into the auditorium and all stair-rails are wrapped in black leather - "like the steering wheel of an old Jag", in the words of Matt O'Connor - the project was delivered by contractors Cleary Doyle for €27 million. Including demolition, archaeology and fees, the total cost was €33 million.

By comparison, the new opera house in Oslo cost €500 million. With 1,360 seats in the main auditorium, the Oslo building is obviously much larger, but the cost per seat there works out at €367,647 compared to only €42,307 in Wexford.

"Put it this way, we built it for the contingency sum of Oslo," O'Connor says proudly. "Most of the money was spent on the interiors. We didn't need big fancy façades because it was parachuted into the town's fabric."

In a further flourish, the flytower is to be floodlit under the Per Cent for Art scheme, with changing colours designed by Andrew Kearney, an Irish artist based in Britain.

Ultimately, the verdict on Wexford's new Opera House will be delivered by music lovers on the first night of the festival at the end of next month.