My first opera: a lot of fuss over a straw hat

It’s opening night at Wexford Festival Opera, and there is much for a novice to learn: don’t touch the intermission drinks, tiny binoculars are not the done thing, and don’t mess with an Italian’s headwear

Eoin Butler at opening night of Wexford Festival Opera. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Eoin Butler at opening night of Wexford Festival Opera. Photograph: Patrick Browne


At the mouth of the river Slaney, about a third of a tonne of fireworks has just exploded in the night sky, marking the official opening of the 62nd Wexford Festival Opera. As the spectacle fades, tired children begin to slope homeward, clinging to their parents’ arms, while grey-haired couples in their finery wander merrily through the streets.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of White’s Hotel, the driver of Lyric FM’s van and I are locked in a frenzied death match to see who can secure the final free space in a packed basement car park.

An opera virgin, I have been listening to Mozart, Verdi and Rossini the whole way down the N11 to get myself in the mood for tonight’s performance, which starts in about 15 minutes.

The gambit pays off. So immersed am I in the operatic oeuvre that, when the Lyric FM van driver (quite reasonably) reverses into a parking spot I had coveted from afar, my gut instinct is to leap from the driver’s seat, puff out my chest and demand we settle the matter with a duel.

Fortunately, another space opens up nearby. So I end up just parking there instead.

At Wexford Opera House, volunteers of all ages from around the town are on hand to sell programmes, staff the ticket office and escort patrons to their seats. A friendly official shakes my hand as I collect my ticket. He introduces himself as David McLoughlin, chief executive of the Wexford Festival Opera.

I’m delighted to make his acquaintance.

“My name is Eoin,” I tell him. “I’m doing a sort of moron-goes-to-the-opera piece for The Irish Times.”

“Oh, very nice,” he says. Then I have to rush inside to find my seat.

The sets are stylish, the crowd sophisticated and well-heeled. The venue is packed. If my opera expectations are dashed in just one tiny respect, it is that none of the grande dames in the boxes are using miniature binocular sets to view the stage.

A minor quibble, no more.

Almost famous
Irish Times social diarist Maedhbh McHugh and I are seated together. I ask how many big names she’s spotted so far. The President of Ireland, a patron of the festival, is in Mexico. So far, she says, the biggest names present are Gerald Kean and Lisa Murphy. She points them out in the distance.

Oh well, the night is young.

A whimsical farce, Nino Rota’s Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat) is one of three major productions being staged at the festival this year.

Rota’s opera is based on a 19th-century French play, The Italian Straw Hat, by Eugene Labiche, a highly regarded author of popular “romps”. (Romp, incidentally, is the first of several terms I encounter tonight that I had hitherto associated solely with tabloid kiss-and-tell stories. In act one, there will be lots of heated debate over the location of a couple’s “love nest”.)

The play was a runaway success when it was first produced in 1851. It was later adapted into a libretto, an avant-garde silent movie and a Russian musical before coming to the attention of Nino Rota, a 20th-century Italian composer best known for writing the scores for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the first two Godfather movies.

Quite what gives this story such enduring appeal is not immediately apparent, on paper at any rate. Assuming in advance that I won’t understand a word of the Italian being sung, I study a long synopsis of the opera’s plot before coming here, in order that I can properly follow the action.

It turns out, however, that this effort was unnecessary. Digital screens flash live translations of what is being performed onstage to the audience, and a plot that seems laboured on paper sparkles with slapstick humour when brought to life.

The story centres on Fadinard, the hero, and what my aunt would call “a grand, apologetic sort of a fellow”. On the day of Fadinard’s wedding to his beloved Elena, he goes for an early-morning carriage ride through the park, where his horse eats a young lady’s straw hat, setting in motion the ludicrous plots and subplots to follow.

The young lady, Anaide, is greatly distressed, because she is convinced that if she returns home without said hat, her ogre of a husband will realise she has taken a lover, Emilio. (How the cuckolded husband is supposed to make this deduction on the basis of a hat being missing is one of several plot holes.)

Emilio, a hot-tempered soldier, demands Fadinard replace the hat. Flustered, Fadinard attempts to comply with Emilio’s wishes. But when inquiries are made, it transpires a similar hat is not available for purchase anywhere in the city.

At which point, the lovers Anaide and Emilio come to their senses and say “Arrah, listen Fadinard, these things happen. Sure, you have enough to be worrying about with your wedding on. We’re only getting in your way.”

Actually, no. The pair don’t say anything like that. Instead, Anaide informs our hero that she would rather kill herself than appear in public without her hat, while Emilio vows that, unless Fadinard produces a replacement, he will have no choice but to challenge him to (you guessed it) a duel.

It is quite fortunate when you think about it, that opera is an Italian (rather than an Irish) art form. Because if this story happened in Ireland, the whole thing would be over in two minutes.

Intermission impossible
The intermission, Maedhbh tells me, is when the real action takes place. And if by action, you mean a bunch of mild- mannered people conversing politely with one another then, yes, the intermission that follows is worthy of a Die Hard movie.

An assortment of drinks are waiting in the foyer when we emerge from the auditorium. I briefly consider helping myself to one, but err on the side of caution and wait to see what everyone else does first. This turns out to be a wise move, because it transpires the drinks have been pre-purchased by patrons who didn’t fancy queuing.

I don’t fancy queuing either, so instead I kill some time looking up the Champions League scores on my phone. I’m not intimidated by the great and good, per se. I’m just afraid they might start talking to me.

Eventually, I do talk to one woman, who tells me she is a festival veteran of many years. She expresses disappointment when I tell her this is my first opera. Real opera, she tells me, is about sex and death. And The Florentine Straw Hat (spoiler alert!) doesn’t have either.

Nonetheless, I enjoy the second half of the performance as much as I enjoyed the first. I’m probably not qualified to comment on individual performances. But the Turkish mezzo-soprano Asude Karayavuz’s hilarious performance as the libidinous Baronessa di Champigny is my personal highlight.

At the curtain call, I find myself clapping long past the point at which my hands have begun to ache. My first opera experience is over. Would I come back here again? Absolutely. And in the meantime, will I occasionally try to pass myself off as a bit more of an opera aficionado than I actually am? You’d better believe it.

Because, as we always say in opera circles, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. (No? Well, I’m sure we say something like that.)

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