Wexford Festival Opera’s new direction puts its reputation on the line
Michael Dervan: Festival’s 2019 programme seems to undermine its selling points
Wexford Festival Opera artistic director David Agler
The big surprise last month in Wexford Festival Opera’s announcement of its main repertoire for next October was the inclusion of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. Putting such a well-known opera on in Wexford raises questions about the festival’s long-standing identity as a world centre for rare, forgotten and neglected operas. Next October Andrew Synott's new La Cucina will see how a living Irish composer fares on the main stage.
The festival says on its website that it “has breathed new life into forgotten masterpieces” and made its name “by introducing audiences to unjustly neglected works”. In the words of a 2005 Arts Council report, Wexford is a “niche opera festival”. But Der Freischütz is not exactly a niche opera, and its inclusion is not the only departure from established practice promised for 2019.
To find out more about what’s going on I sent the festival a clutch of queries and received back a courteously detailed set of answers from artistic director David Agler, who has been in situ since 2005 and will leave the position after the 2019 programme.
Wexford, he says, “no longer has the ‘rare, forgotten, unjustly neglected’ category to itself”. This is true. Opera repertoire has been broadening across the world, and this has crowded the market in which Wexford was and is an acknowledged leader.
In 2007, says Agler, the festival decided “it was time to consider producing works which were still infrequently performed”, and “thoughtful commentators and supporters of the festival have argued to open up the definition of ‘unjustly neglected’”.
In truth, it all goes back much further than that. In the 1960s the festival even presented Verdi’s La traviata, Wexford’s “first attempt at a popular opera”, in the words of Opera magazine. But the focus on more neglected fare was quickly resumed.
Agler draws a comparison between Der Freischütz and Dvorak’s Rusalka, which was produced by the festival in 2007, the year it went offsite to a marquee on the grounds of Johnstown Castle while the new opera house on High Street was being built.
At a press conference at the time, Rusalka was presented as a bid to increase attendances by Irish opera lovers. The festival was held in June rather than October and it reached out in other ways too, with a production of Kurt Weill’s Silverlake (a play with music rather than an actual opera) and a dance-rich double bill of Busoni and Stravinsky.
Wexford had plans to run a new spring festival from 2009 and was sampling the market for this venture, blissfully unaware of the imminent world financial crisis that would send any such plans off the rails. The first spring season was to have included Belfast composer Brian Irvine’s DUMBWORLD (which the festival had jointly commissioned), but in the event no performance of that work ever took place in Wexford.
The 2019 inclusion of Massenet’s Don Quichotte also marks a break with tradition. Wexford aims not to repeat its repertoire choices – but it first presented Don Quichotte in 1965. However, as Agler explains: “There has never been a formal long-standing policy against repeating works”, and he lists the exceptions to prove it. Yet, policy or no, the choice of Don Quichotte is a very direct departure from long-standing practice.
”Revisiting the repertory,” says Agler, “has been encouraged on me by many of the distinguished critics who have covered Wexford. They would include Rodney Milnes, Michael Kennedy, John Allison, Ian Fox, and Brian Kellow.” That’s an interesting choice of critics. Three of them are deceased, and the average age of the group comes out at 71. Agler himself will turn a well-preserved 72 in April.
So the policy change on repertoire dates back more than a decade, and festival practice is only catching up now with the new freedoms. But why catch up only now?
It’s nearly 10 years since I pointed out that Agler’s openness to co-productions was diluting Wexford’s uniqueness.
Co-productions with the Opera Theatre of St Louis prompted the St Louis Post-Dispatch to write: “St Louis now has a great reputation among operagoers in Wexford, where [John Corigliano’s] The Ghosts of Versailles was a hit.”
Co-productions have indeed enabled a major rise in production values in the new opera house, and the acoustic and creature comforts are also a huge improvement on the old. Yet a string of works by Corigliano and other American composers has not managed to win Wexford many new ticket-buying friends.
The Agler years in the new National Opera House since 2008 have not been without acclaim – Wexford won the festival section of the International Opera Awards in 2017. Yet the festival has been smarting at the box office, and 2019 will see a return to 12 performances of the three main operas, down from the 15 performances that were undertaken last year.
The National Opera House in Wexford has 771 seats. Its predecessor, the Theatre Royal, had 550. The festival has struggled to rise above 12 opera nights – 9,252 tickets – in the National Opera House. The norm in the Theatre Royal from 1988 to 2005 was 18 nights, or 9,900 tickets, and the original plan was for 18 nights in the new venue.
A plethora of changes to originally announced repertoires and/or dates (in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018) won’t have made matters easier. For 2019, the festival says simply that: “The more compact structure is a return to what was in place for many years up to 2017 and is in response to customer feedback.” For “customer feedback” read disappointing ticket sales.
As Agler himself has said, every artistic decision is a financial decision and every financial decision is an artistic one. Britain is an important market for Wexford, and Brexit is a clear threat. So Der Freischütz in 2019 may be exactly what Rusalka was in 2007, a bid to broaden Wexford’s appeal and attract more Irish opera lovers to the southeast.
Der Freischütz would not normally be seen as Wexford material. It is way too successful for the festival’s criteria of rarity and neglect. But there is a real upside. As long as Wexford is happy to change direction, it can enrich Ireland’s operatic life by presenting better operas than it has allowed itself in the past.
If this works for the festival, and the Arts Council is unfazed by the new move, it seems possible that everyone can win.