Ireland’s National Opera House is not, as one might expect, in Dublin, but rather about 150km further down the east coast, in Wexford town.
The state-of-the-art building which now bears the title stands on the site of Wexford’s venerable and much-loved Theatre Royal, which spent the better part of two centuries as a cultural hub, drawing acts from as far afield as London.
Even though the Theatre Royal had garnered an enviable reputation and had long been a centrepiece of Wexford Town, by the early part of the 21st century it became clear that the facilities, which had expanded gradually into surrounding properties, were no longer suitable for Wexford’s future plans. The old building was demolished in 2006, and the Wexford Opera House, more than 3 ½ times larger than its predecessor, was opened in 2008. In 2014 it was renamed the National Opera House, ending Ireland’s tenure as the only EU nation without an official national opera venue, and today it continues to go from strength to strength.
The building itself features two separate performance spaces; the O’Reilly Theatre seats 771, while the more intimate Jerome Hynes Theatre can accommodate an audience of 176. Its design, which is bold and modern but with subtle nods to the past, has netted a number of international architectural awards. As Ireland’s only purpose-built opera house, its acoustics formed a central part of the design, both aesthetically and functionally, and have already gained legendary status among musicians and singers who have performed there.
Among its noteworthy features are the subtle facade, designed to blend into the ancient streets of Wexford town, which belies the huge, ultra-modern building within. In the spectacularly beautiful O’Reilly Theatre, patrons are cocooned in rich, swirling walnut wood which gives the illusion that they’re sitting within a gigantic musical instrument. The auditorium’s lighting has also been co-opted to create the illusion, and brings to mind the bridges of violins, violas, cellos and basses. The seating arrangement is an homage to the Theatre Royal itself, sweeping down in a giant horseshoe and packing as many comfortable seats as possible into the space, while also maintaining first-rate sight-lines to the stage from every seat in the house.
Other facilities include the bright, airy Café Fusion, which is open all year ‘round and presents a menu that blends modern and classical cuisine, and the National Opera House’s VIP rooms, which can be hired for special functions or just for a touch of extra exclusivity and decadence during performances.
So, why Wexford? Why not Dublin? The answer lies in the reason that the Theatre Royal had to be first expanded and then replaced in the first place: Wexford Festival Opera. Usually dubbed simply ‘the festival’ by Ireland’s opera fans, this isn’t just a big deal locally or nationally: the Wexford Festival Opera is on par with some of the most famous operatic spectaculars in the world, comparable to similar events in Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Rome and London. In fact, the 2017 festival was voted the best opera festival in the world by the International Opera Awards!
Growing from the inaugural ‘Festival Of Music And The Arts’ in 1951, Wexford Festival Opera has become internationally renowned for concentrating on more obscure, eclectic works and often provides the only opportunity in the world to experience some lesser-known operatic gems…some of which have re-entered the opera world’s consciousness following breathtaking performances on the banks of the Slaney.
This enthusiasm for little-known spectaculars, combined with world-class technical prowess, phenomenal musicianship, minute attention to detail, Wexford town’s legendary welcome and local atmosphere and, of course, the amazing National Opera House itself have made Ireland’s Ancient East a mecca for opera lovers – as well as internationally famous singers, musicians, conductors, designers and directors – every autumn. From its inaugural performance of Michael Balfe’s charming The Rose Of Castille in 1951, through lesser-known works by operatic heavyweights like Donizetti, Verdi and Rossini and even Mozart – the first Mozart opera to be performed at the festival was La Finta Giardiniera, an immature work which was not rediscovered in its entirety until the 1970s…his unfinished Zaide has also featured.
Today, Wexford Festival Opera is a firm fixture for operaphiles the world over, and thousands visit Wexford every October and November from all over Europe, the US, Australia, Japan, Russia and other far-flung quarters of the globe for the opportunity to hear masterful performances of comparatively uncommon works.
The good news for summertime visitors to Wexford is that opera resounds within this beautiful building all year round. Not only that, but for those who aren’t necessarily opera buffs, the magnificent National Opera House isn’t reserved exclusively for the use of sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones and basses. The next few months will see operas like The Marriage of Figaro, plays such as Cash On Delivery and Minding Frankie, Irish and world folk music legends such as Heidi Talbot, Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, John McCusker and Paul Meehan, American Pie megastar Don McClean, oratorios such as Messiah by Handel, comedy, country music, explorations of the works of Beckett, musical biographies of Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond, classical music, ballet, spectacular displays of modern dance, chilled-out pop rockers Snow Patrol and much more.
For event bookings, festival bookings, updates and upcoming performances, see the National Opera House’s website: www.nationaloperahouse.ie.