Wexford Festival Opera at 70: ‘I thought, this would be a great job to have’

Artistic directors past and present recall the memorable moments from the festival

1967-73

BRIAN DICKIE
First festival visit 1962. Most recent 2019

Biggest attraction?
Being able to do my own thing. I'd had five years' experience at Glyndebourne. But to use all those relationships, with colleagues, agents, and deploy people in my own way – that was hugely attractive. I did three jobs: Wexford Festival, Glyndebourne touring opera, and all the artistic administration at Glyndebourne. I was 25.

Greatest surprise after taking up the post?
The divisions in the town between the supporters of Tom [Dr Tom Walsh, the festival's founding artistic director, who had resigned] and the rest. There was a huge cabal of Tom supporters who didn't want the festival to go ahead, although I don't think Tom himself felt that.

The one that got away – the opera you wanted to present but never did?
There isn't one. Had I stayed on longer I would most certainly have explored the baroque repertoire. It would have been wonderful to have done some Monteverdi there. In the old Theatre Royal you could only have 41 players in the pit.

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Your greatest disappointment or regret?
Verdi's Luisa Miller in 1969. I lost both the leading lady and the tenor three months before opening.

The biggest challenge of your time as AD?
When one is that age, with the innocence of youth, there's no such thing as a challenge. You expect everything to be done, and you just get on with it.

The opera and singer that you cherish most from your time in Wexford?
The singer – she died quite recently – was the absolutely glorious French soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre, who did three productions for me when she was already a star of the Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera. She was an absolute superstar and incredibly loyal and a really, really great friend. We paid her £100 a performance, or something. And the production of Kát'a Kabanová, which was David Pountney's very first Janácek. He went on to do all the Janáceks all over the world. That was a huge revelation for everybody.

1982-94 

ELAINE PADMORE
First visit 1973. Most recent 2019

Biggest attraction?
The sheer fascination of being able to delve into something that was my big area, which was the byroads of opera. I'd already been doing that in my job as head of opera at the BBC. And having the BBC Music Library at my disposal was fantastic.

Greatest surprise?
The biggest pleasure – if I could call it a surprise – was the fact that it really was all down to me. I was the casting director. I chose everything: repertoire, production teams, every singer, even the chorus. That was wonderful. It was the biggest area of total control of an artistic project that I've ever had, before or since.

The one that got away?
I got through 40 operas, so I had a pretty good innings. The German trend is something I would have gone a little bit further with, probably.

Disappointment or regret?
We were live on air with Massenet's Le jongleur de Notre-Dame. Patrick Power was singing the enormous, wonderful title role, and he lost his voice in Act I. He was just voiceless. In 1986 when Sealink went on strike, half the sets were left on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.

Biggest challenge?
It was always money things.

Opera and singer you cherish most?
It's difficult to single out. The Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus was initially the least-known but ultimately the most famous. I'd only heard him on record, and taking a chance on a Russian before Glasnost was very risky. I've been very lucky with amazing singers – Alessandra Marc, Inga Nielsen, Alison Browner. So many. Giordano's La cena delle beffe had a stunning cast, and a marvellous production by Patrick Mason and Joe Vanek. And Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki, which Francesca Zambello did a marvellous production of in my penultimate year.

1995-2004

LUIGI FERRARI
First visit 1994. Most recent 2009

Biggest attraction?
Definitely the idea of the rare repertoire. At that time I was also artistic director of the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. There I often worked with operas which hadn't been performed on stage in 150 or 180 years. I started to enjoy the thrill of having a new opera on stage. Which is exactly what happened two centuries ago to the great impresarios of opera.

Greatest surprise?
The audience. I found a very informed audience. They came to the festival just to listen to those operas. Also the volunteer side of the story, so many people working together.

The one that got away?
Lucerna, The Lantern, by Vítezslav Novák. I had done so many Eastern European operas, it might have been too much. But this one is a little masterpiece. It's a romantic story but with quite a bit of... horror, that dark atmosphere which is unusual in the Czech repertoire. Dostoevskian.

Biggest challenge?
The budget. We had a very strict budget, not in line with the current cost of opera.

Disappointment or regret?
The RTÉ NSO was too expensive for our budget. So I was forced to go elsewhere.

Opera and singer you cherish most?
Rimsky-Korsakov's Mayskaya noch in my first season, and the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski – a great friend of mine – was the "discovery" of that year. Weinberger's Svanda dudák also had a director, Damiano Michieletto, who is now one of the most famous directors in Europe. Massenet's Sapho with Ermonela Jaho, who is now a superstar, also had Luca Salsi, now one of the greatest Verdian baritones in the world. Daniela Barcellona in Respighi's La fiamma and Juan Diego Flórez in Meyerbeer's L'Étoile du Nord.

2005-19

DAVID AGLER
First visit 1996. Most recent 2019

Biggest attraction?
I remember standing in the pit of the old Theatre Royal, either in 1996 or 2000, thinking, boy, Luigi Ferrari has the best job in the world. By then I'd worked in big theatres, small theatres, I was of a certain age, and I thought, this would be a great job to have. Just the ability, within the means the festival can give an artistic director, you can do what you want.

Greatest surprise?
That there was never within the Irish cultural establishment, or in the government, a real appreciation for where Wexford stands in the scheme of opera in the world.

The one that got away?
Two. I very much wanted in my last year to do Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, which I think is a masterpiece. The other was Paradise Lost of Penderecki. I met with Penderecki a couple of times. Even I had to admit it would be too expensive and too big for Wexford.

Disappointment or regret?
When I arrived in town my job changed very quickly. It was not the job I was hired to do, because Jerome Hynes [then the festival's CEO] died suddenly. I was looking forward to working closely with him. In those few, short months we had established a really good relationship. We had lots of plans. I know that, with him as a colleague, they would probably have happened.

Biggest challenge?
When we tore the old theatre down, the institution, the festival never came to terms with the cost of producing opera in that new building. That stage is a heck of a lot bigger.

Opera and singer you cherish most?
I just thought our production of Richard Rodney Bennett's The Mines of Sulphur was magnificent, produced by Joe Vanek and Michael Barker-Caven. And then Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet was worthy in every way. Angela Meade, Ekaterina Bakanova, Paula Murrihy – there were so many singers we were able to help give a start to. To hear singers like Lise Davidsen in our theatre was pretty remarkable. I have a special affection for Igor Golovatenko, who came and sang in Cristina, regina di Svezia, and came back for Mariotte's Salomé. I just love that man. He's done so well. He's going to the Met for Onegin. He sings everywhere. When he came to Wexford, it was his first time out of Russia.

2020-

ROSETTA CUCCHI
First visit 1995. All festivals since.

Biggest attraction?
It was a sentimental attraction. I was associate artistic director in Wexford, and I was already an artistic director in other places. When they opened the tender, I said to myself, this is where I would love to stay. Because I love the place. I'm very sentimental, unfortunately. Luigi [Ferrari] always says to me that I need to let go of things in order to go faster in my life. It's true. But one of the things I want to carry with me is Wexford.

Greatest surprise?
Covid. There weren't a lot of surprises. But the pandemic was a real challenge for an artistic director.

The one that got away?
I don't have an answer. It's too early for me. What I would love to do – as a director – is Janácek's Kát'a Kabanová. But I could never do it in Wexford. What's important for me is having a theme running through every festival, something for everything else to orbit around.

Disappointment or regret?
That I worked so hard in 2019 on my first festival – and then the 2020 festival never happened. But the challenge of doing a different, online festival, the Festival in the Air, was a step forward. I will keep elements of it in the future.

The biggest challenge?
Covid.

Opera and singer you cherish most?
Without any doubt, the singer is Ermonela Jaho. She came here three times. We immediately became friends. She had a kind of inner light. She was an artist when she was 23. You could feel this immediately she started singing. As a stage director, I loved mostly the productions I did myself. The production I would single out is Braunfels's Prinzessin Brambilla. That was the first time I got to know Braunfels. Brambilla was amazing, a world that I didn't know, with lots of possibilities, not just in staging, but in terms of musicality, a richness in the music that I didn't expect.

The 70th Wexford Festival Opera takes place from October 19th-31st