My few days in Wexford last weekend were both a hugely enjoyable break and a sentimental journey. I have not noted it here before, but it is an ever present fact that it is 50 years since my first Wexford Festival as Artistic Director, and David Agler and the current board of trustees and management were tremendously kind in welcoming me back. We had some parties and spent three days celebrating this exceptional place. They had also very kindly asked me to write a piece for the festival programme book. For those of my blog readers who were not there, or didn't come across it in the luxurious volume, I thought that I would reproduce it here. So here you have it! Some local knowledge is probably required to understand fully my feelings - but you may imagine!
Fifty years on.........
I was, and remain, extremely proud to have been Tom Walsh’s successor as Artistic Director of the festival – and I can scarcely believe that it is 50 years since my first first night, October 21 1967. It was a remarkable opportunity for a 25 year old and exceptional good fortune to have been visited on this young man who had barely 5 years experience in the opera business behind him.
I had been working at Glyndebourne since 1962 as assistant to Jani Strasser having dropped out of my law studies at Trinity College, Dublin the previous November. My mother had seen the announcement of the Wexford Artistic Director job in the London Times and urged me to apply – I thought this a ludicrous idea but she was adamant. Nothing to lose – of course she was right. But so was I – I didn’t get the job! But I had an enjoyable interview with Alfred Beit, then Wexford’s president, and was soon afterwards told that Walter Legge, the much celebrated founder of the Philharmonia Orchestra, had agreed to take it on.
Walter had a heart attack soon after his appointment. To my astonishment, I was called to step in just nine months before the Festival was to open. The invitation was preceded by a call from Sir Alfred to George Christie, Glyndebourne’s then Chairman, to ask his permission to approach me. Things had somewhat moved on for me – the delayed Glyndebourne Touring Opera project, of which I was Administrator, had been approved by the Arts Council and was proceeding in February 1968, and I had also just been appointed to the new position of Glyndebourne’s Opera Manager. So I already had two jobs! Taking on a third a good idea? Well at the age of 25 one has no fear – it was agreed that I would do it.
And so in January 1967, starting with a blank sheet for a festival just 10 months away, I set to work. Alfred Beit was a huge support – but my new best friend was Dr Des Ffrench, the Chairman of the Board. Des was one of that group of friends of Tom’s, who included Compton McKenzie, who were instrumental in getting the Festival started in 1951. And I rather think that it was largely due to Des, whose legendary diplomatic skills were key, that the Festival continued after Tom’s retirement.
I had arrived in 1967 to find a town somewhat divided – between those who felt that the Festival should not continue without Tom, and those who believed that Tom’s legacy should live on. There is no doubt in my mind that Tom himself was of the latter persuasion. He was always immensely friendly and supportive, and invariably the first to congratulate us on our achievements. He was at each first night with his family, including their teenage daughter, Victoria, who later came to work at Glyndebourne and became a pillar of that organization - a huge pleasure and source of pride for Tom.
I chose a Shakespearian repertoire for this first season, Rossini’s Otello, a rare work then, and indeed alas still rarely performed; and Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette which likewise was a rarity although it is now mainstream repertoire. The next challenge was to find the casts for these two tricky pieces; so I launched out on an audition trip to Paris and Milan, and also to Prague to meet with Albert Rosen who had been a vital link between Wexford and RTE, and who had agreed to conduct the Otello. In Milan I also met up with Walter Legge and his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Walter had recovered from his illness but was I fancy somewhat relieved not to have the burden of dealing with an impecunious festival at that stage of his career. We spent a jolly evening together and of course they were both charming and supportive of this 25 year old!
Combining Wexford with my work at Glyndebourne successfully was entirely due to the presence of the wonderful Doreen Morehead, and later Ricky Shannon, in the Festival office at the Theatre Royal. It is remarkable to think now that in 1967 there was just one full time employee of the Festival. All the rest of the work was done by volunteers. Nicky and Mairead Furlong were prominent as were Jim Golden and Rita Doyle. Board members such as Paddy FitzPatrick of the Talbot and John Small, and his wife Ann, daughter of Eugene McCarthy of White’s Hotel, Jimmy O’Connor, nephew of the legendary Fintan, Des Ffrench himself, and most notably Sean Scallan, of the Celtic Laundry, who succeeded Des as Chairman after Des’ sad passing in 1970. There were so many other selfless energetic people, all deeply involved on a day to day basis.
And Uncle Arthur, as the Guinness company was known to us, was fantastically active in the Festival. They were then led by Guy Jackson, tragically lost in the BEA Staines disaster in June 1972. Alan Montgomery, Guinness’ Chief Information officer and a former editor of the Irish Times, an enormously popular and effective friend of and advocate for the Festival, and Alan Wood, a brilliant marketing man who ran Guinness Overseas from Park Royal, together made a huge difference to the profile of the Festival. This relationship with Guinness was critical to our prospects. Miranda and Benjamin Iveagh were always at the Festival, so the top management gave Wexford their support at that time. Guinness was then an Irish company and their deeply embedded presence at Wexford contributed hugely to the festival’s character.
In any event my first festival in 1967 came and went and was generally accounted a success. And it was a thrill that Monty McKenzie was there – his last visit to Wexford. My chosen repertoire was something of a pointer of what was to come – French opera of the 19th century, somewhat neglected outside France. I managed to produce four, adding La jolie fille de Perth, Lakmé and The Pearl Fishers. They were greatly appreciated, in part thanks to the presence of Roger Soyer and Christiane Eda Pierre – two marvelous artists who were blessings indeed.
Glinka, Prokofiev and Janacek were other “novelties”; and I was delighted with the success of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, as well as Il re pastore, complete with set partly painted at the last minute by the Opera Critic of the Financial Times, Andrew Porter!!
Tom had always put emphasis on quality singing – but he was no slouch either when it came to choice of conductors and directors. It would always be a challenge to get excellent people to work under the extraordinarily primitive conditions that prevailed at the time, not to mention the very tight budget constraints. But he did it, to international applause, as result of his tenacious “never take no for an answer” approach – and the magical charms of Wexford and its people were a help of course.
So I was anxious to keep up the standards in this department as well as in the vocal area. I think that over my seven years we didn’t do too badly. Young David Pountney and young Mark Elder joined the music staff and stage management in 1968-69!
I have returned to Wexford over the years since the heady days of the 1970s. The place is as magical as ever, and the remarkable National Opera House, which we could not possibly have even dreamt of 50 years ago, is a testament to the vision and passion of some extraordinary people who have made this miracle that is the Wexford Festival. With David Agler at the helm it is in the middle of a golden age. Long may it flourish!