Curtain rises on an expanded opera festival in Wexford


WEXFORD TOWN was en fete on Saturday night for the opening of the 59th Wexford Festival Opera. 

The quays were closed to traffic from 5pm and crowds thronged the streets of its hilly centre, making it a town of two halves: on one hand the thousands gathered on the quays for live music from the temporary stage followed by the traditional fireworks to an operatic soundtrack, and on the other the opera-goers in their finery and black tie, off to see the opening opera, Virginia, at the town’s jewel, the opera house.

There were two halves, too, among the festival revellers: swarms of families with a sea of red balloons held aloft by children at the quayside in the early evening, and the late-night crowds spilling out of the pubs playing music and queuing in droves for the clubs.

Rising above the town, from its deceptively modest entrance in a terrace on a backstreet, is the architectural-award-winning, glorious Wexford Opera House which opened in 2008.

After the music at the quays – including from upcoming productions at the opera house, The Lords of Love, Wizard of Oz, Beatlemania– Wexford’s camogie captain Una Lacey joined those on stage. WFO chairman Peter Scallan said she exemplified the spirit and drive of Wexford – “we will not be defeated, we have a great festival and a great town”.

Minister for Culture Mary Hanafin also referred to the beautiful town, “famous for camogie, and famous for opera, with three wonderful spires and a great people who have contributed so much to the county and the country”.

The festival has been expanded to 15 days (from 12 last year), opening on a Saturday rather than midweek, and chief executive David McLoughlin was delighted that the opening opera – the elaborately staged, 3½-hour production of an Italian lyric tragedy, Virginiaby Saverio Mercadante – was being broadcast live to 24 countries around the world (as well as RTÉ Lyric fm). So while 750 people saw the opera in Wexford, about one million people listened to it around the world on Saturday. The festival production of Hubickawill be broadcast live to 15 countries on October 30th.

Because of the live broadcast start times were critical, and just before curtain there was a short ceremony at the opera house to recognise the achievements of the Wexford Festival Foundation, which raised over €5.3 million in private donations towards the redevelopment cost.

Paul Hennessy, former festival chairman and now on the Wexford Festival Trust board, spoke about Wexford’s “beacon of hope and light through the gloom” and the spirit of leadership, collaboration and determination that the building and festival represented.

There was warm applause for foundation chairman Liam Healy – although he couldn’t be there, his wife Eithne Healy was at the opening – and Mr Hennessy praised his “respect, humanity and understanding”.

Ms Hanafin, who had left what she said was a crowd of 25,000 people watching the fireworks, talked about the partnership between private and government funding for the development, and specifically referred to WFO’s late chief executive Jerome Hynes, our “dear lost friend” who had been so closely involved in it.

The full score: Wexford Festival highlights

The 59th Wexford Festival Opera runs until Saturday, October 30th, and artistic director David Agler’s two other opera production choices, playing in repertory with Virginia, are the European premiere of The Golden Ticketby Peter Ash and the Czech folk opera Hubickaby Bedrich Smetana with this year’s winner of the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition, South-African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, in the lead role.

The festival’s full daytime programme returns, including the popular ShortWorks operas priced at €25: condensed performances of versions of Puccini’s La Boheme, Italian comic opera La Serva Padrona ( The Servant Mistress) by Giovanni Battista and Winnersby Richard Wargo, based on Brian Friel’s one-act play.

There are also short lunchtime recitals in St Iberius Church in the centre of Wexford. Tickets are still available for many events at the festival at, or from the Wexford Festival Opera box office 1850-4-OPERA, or 053-9122144. Fringe events at