Looking back: David Agler

If, as Andrew Clark wrote in The Financial Times in 2013, the Wexford Festival was ‘a cradle of surprises in an age bringing metropolitan operatic companies into an ever closer hug of generic co-productions’, how prescient of Wexford a decade earlier to have chosen for the first time an Artistic Director from the ranks of musicians and conductors to spearhead a new reign for a new opera house in a new millennium.

From Vancouver, David Agler was not an unknown quantity to the Festival Board when he was appointed its seventh Artistic Director. His predecessor, Luigi Ferrari, had invited David to conduct Zdeněk Fibich’s Šárka (whose répétiteur was Rosetta Cucchi) in the Theatre Royal in 1996, the same season as conductors Maurizio Benini and a very young Vladimir Jurowski. David was by then a formidable champion of 20th century opera – Leoš Janáček’s Jenufa, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélite – and had conducted the American premiere of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage.

The Wexford Festival which David joined as Artistic Director in 2005 was on the cusp of wholescale change: a gaping void left by the untimely death of its CEO, Jerome Hynes, on David’s first official day in the role; the departure after a decade of Luigi Ferrari and the demolition of the much loved but no longer fit for purpose Theatre Royal, the Festival’s home since 1951, whose stage was unerringly described by Joyce Kennedy as ‘the size of a pocket handkerchief.’ The new Artistic Director was faced with the daunting challenge of programming four seasons of opera from 2005 to 2008 in multiple venues – two of which did not yet exist – while embracing the widening artistic goals and aspirations of the Board: in the words of Chairman Paul Hennessy, ‘a time to redefine Wexford Festival Opera in terms of its artistic ambitions.’ And finding this different perspective, while adhering to the Festival’s raison d’être, searching for seams that struggle to produce gold, is what David sought. But change did not drag its heels. No sooner had the lights dimmed on the last opera at the Theatre Royal, Susannah, than the diggers and the wrecking ball arrived at the High Street site.

As the last Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal and the first at Wexford Opera House, David’s programming was instrumental in seguing the old and the new, the past and the future. He achieved this by choosing a relatively contemporary opera, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, to bring the curtain down on the Theatre Royal. Susannah was a quantum leap, being only the third opera by a living composer performed at Wexford (Albert Herring in 1970 and The Turn of the Shrew in 1976 by Benjamin Britten and Of Mice and Men, also by Floyd, in 1980). Susannah railed against bigotry, intolerance and religious fundamentalism, light years in theme from the Ottocento fare of the common Wexford repertoire. For a Festival without a roof over its head, the choice of a 20th century opera was an apobaterion: a valedictory tipping of the hat to an era past and a votive for a safe landing.

The long running Opera Scenes – condensed versions of masterworks with piano accompaniment – became ShortWorks and the repertoire was expanded. Opera derives its life force from disparate elements, but the ShortWorks, such as Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium in 2005, reminded us that opera essentially is a sung stage drama set to continuous music and not a play with the appendage of music or a concert with the appendage of a play. David’s sundering of the Festival from its comfort zone of predominantly nineteenth century European opera was unflagging in 2006 with his repertoire for the substitute venue of the Dun Mhuire, the old parish hall. Joe Vaněk, who designed a quartet of operas at Wexford from 1987 to 1989, was tasked with creating a pit and a stage to accommodate a nine piece orchestra and an eight strong cast for Conrad Susa’s chamber opera, Transformations. It was by far the youngest work ever shown at the Festival, having premiered at the Cedar Village Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1973, but regarded by Susa as more entertainment in two acts and less pure opera. Wexford had never seen anything quite like Transformations, a modern opera by a living composer not overly concerned with finding common ground with its audience. But itwas never less than scintillating, assisted brilliantly by Fiona McAndrew in the role of the poet Anne Sexton, and the playing of the new Orchestra of the Wexford Festival Opera, an innovation by David.

For David’s next herculean task, concocting a theatre out of thin air for the 2007 Festival, time was in short supply. Two years earlier, Jerome Hynes and Vaněk had reconnoitered the pastoral elegance of Johnstown Castle in the ancient barony of Forth as a host for the 56th Festival, which was then brought forward from the written-in-stone autumnal berth to June. With an impossibly short lead in, promotion of the summer Festival was in full swing even before the 2006 event had started.

It was, as Paul Hennessy noted in the programme, a strange feeling to have the light of early summer pouring through his window for the start of the 2007 season. David planned his second festival outside normal facilities for the custom built (and temporary) Johnstown Theatre, on the front lawn of Johnstown Castle, transmogrified wondrously by Vaněk and Paraic Boran to accommodate a full seventeen day programme of opera. Once again, David was breaking new ground. Rusalka, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski, was no Wexford rarity, but a production of a mainstream opera at a scale unheard of in Ireland. If you build it, they will come, a voice tells the character Ray Kinsella in the film Field of Dreams, and 20,000 would come to Wexford from near and far.

The opening scene in Rusalka of water nymphs frolicking in the moonlight was in synch with the Arcadia of Johnstown Castle, offering its own reflecting pool and crenellated moonlight as Helena Kaupová confessed her guilty secret in the famous aria in the first act. The Festival was a feast of the imagination, comprising a ballet with song in one act (Pulcinella), a theatrical caprice in another (Arlecchino, often staged with the lesser known Turandot by Busoni, which was part of the Wexford repertoire in 1988) and a play with music in three acts (Der Silbersee).

The surprise critical tour de force that summer, however, and later nominated for Best Opera Production in the Irish Times Theatre Awards, was to be found in Wexford town: the not so short (an hour and a half) apogee of the three ShortWorks, Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen at the Dun Mhuire. Pared further by the 24-year-old directing wunderkind, Andrew Steggall, this was a Carmen of creative ingenuity. Incidentally, Wexford’s previous shot at Carmen was in the cavernous White’s Barn in 1998, with an unknown 20-year-old Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, as Don Jose, already capable of vocally beating an egg white into a cube of froth.

Simultaneously, a new opera house was rising upon the footprint of the old, and would dominate the skyline of Wexford in a way the Victorian theatre never did. And so, on October 16, 2008, when the curtain rose on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka, Ireland’s first acoustically purpose-built Opera House, delivered on budget and on time – €33m, modest in comparison with the new opera house in Copenhagen (€239m) – was the undoubted star of the 57th Wexford Festival. Its achievement of scale was rooted in an architectural contradiction: though three and a half times the capacity of the Theatre Royal (769 seats, increasing to 853 if the orchestra pit is not in use and 40 fly bars for scenery changes for six cycles of three operas) and topped externally by a fly tower clad in copper, the new opera house remained, ingeniously, a hidden gem on High Street. From that moment on, David would take full advantage of the new venue’s capacious stage to bring ambitious works – John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles, Roman Statkowski’s Maria, Frederick Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet and Koanga – to Wexford. Nor would he hold the 21st century at arm’s length: hot off the press came Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket, one of many co-productions: Dinner At Eight with Minnesota Opera; Le pré aux clercs with Opéra Comique and Palazzetto Bru Zane and Medea with Opera Omaha. Six years after it opened, Wexford Opera House was officially renamed Ireland’s National Opera House.

Though fluctuating economic realities would affect Wexford – with rigorous cost cutting and a shortened season in 2009 – David did his best to ensure, as the Festival turned sixty, that it would evolve through exciting and challenging repertoires. The discovery too of new voices, for which Wexford is celebrated (Juan Diego Flórez – a student of David’s at the Curtis Institute – in Giacomo Meyerbeer‘s L’étoile du nord and Joseph Calleja in I Cavalieri de Ekebu), continued unabated. Twenty years after Karen Notare in Zaza and ten years after Lada Biriucov and Ermonela Jaho in Orleanskaya deva, the dynamic Angela Meade made her European debut as the eponymous heroine in Saverio Mercadante’s Virginia, a production which won the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Opera. Meade exemplified what David believes to be the cornerstone of opera – the sound and purity of the voice.

The irrepressible Australian soprano Helena Dix was the star turn when Wexford struck gold in 2013 with a polished gem from outside the mainstream, Cristina, regina de Svezia, by Jacopo Foroni. 2013 was a stellar Festival, featuring as it did an imaginatively fertile Massenet double bill, Thérèse and La Navarraise, with the made to measure Nora Sourouzian, playing the part of the heroine in both. Wexford was nominated in several categories at that year’s International Opera Awards, including Best Festival, Best Chorus and Best Young Singer (Dix). It won Best Re-discovered Work for Cristina, regina de Svezi.

In the twilight of David’s years as Artistic Director, Wexford Festival Opera won in the 2017 Best Festival category at the International Opera awards on the back of a season which included a sumptuous Vanessa. A Samuel Barber-Menotti masterpiece, it had drifted into the musical wilderness and was rescued by Wexford. David’s continual forays into the Irish literary canon in the ShortWorks has brought us memorable productions: Winners and Losers, adapted by composer Richard Wargo from Brian Friel’s Lovers; The Sleeping Queen, composed by Wexford’s Michael William Balfe and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea, inspired by the J.M. Synge play. In 2017, the Festival presented the world premiere of Dubliners by Andrew Synnott, two short operas based on the stories Counterparts and The Boarding House from Dubliners by James Joyce – a season in which the recitals also featured the Thomas Moore Songbook with Una Hunt.

There is too a distinctly Irish flavour to this year’s programme on the stage of the National Opera House with the premiere of Andrew’s La cucina, and a concert version of The Veiled Prophet by the Irish composer Charles Villers Stanford, based on a popular romance by the aforementioned Moore, whose mother was born in Wexford. David has stayed loyal to the central tenet of each Artistic Director’s brief: to bring rare operatic gems back to life. He has continued Wexford’s love affair with bel canto and with Donizetti – five operas in as many years – along with Massenet and Mercadante. He has, however, cast his net wide since he opened his account in 2005 with Donizetti’s Maria de Rohan: works by over thirty composers have graced the stage of the National Opera House in twelve seasons. Never afraid to speak his mind or lay an opinion on the line, David’s acuity for what is or isn’t a right fit for Wexford is fortified by a razor sharp acumen. A key to his longevity – he has conducted over a hundred operas – is that he enjoys working within a creative community and, through a combination of unity of purpose and visionary leadership, getting the best from his artists. Aside from his intuitive detection of raw talent – he gave Lise Davidsen the principal role in Medea after hearing her at the Belvedere Singing Competition in Amsterdam in 2015 – he could foresee the zeitgeist before we, his audience, knew it was upon us.

As a national and international cultural institution, David felt the Festival had a role to play in the centenary commemorations of the Great War, a conflict which claimed the lives of close to a thousand Wexford men, including the forty or so who died in a single day on October 19, 1914. A century later, on October 24, 2014, Wexford staged the European premiere of Silent Night, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, the first opera in the history of the festival in which one could have heard a pin drop at the ebbing of the final scene. But as the poppies snowed sepulchral upon an elderly veteran standing before a war memorial, this most poignant of tableaux gave way to sustained applause. The Irish collective memory had discarded the war, and David knew this. Taking the road less travelled and earmarking Silent Night for the 2014 repertoire was a singular act of bravery by the Wexford Festival, and it would chime perfectly with the spirit of commemorations in Ireland and further afield, then and in the years to follow.  The production of Silent Night epitomised the universality of Wexford: an opera in English translated by Americans from a French screenplay, directed by an Israeli and including a strong Irish contingent in the cast. Finally, the Wexford Festival, which by a photosynthesis of its locus, its history and performing talent, always coinciding with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, is one of international opera’s great cultural powerhouses: David has played no small part in helping to make it so. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

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