Colm Tóibín's closing address

Perhaps because so much has changed and the place is not as prosperous as it once was, it often takes time now to notice or savour the beauty of Wexford town. To see the buildings on the Crescent, for example - the two old stately and solid quayside commercial building with their beautiful cut stone and, as you face north, the two wonderful residential houses overlooking the water which are clad from top to bottom in grey slate. Or to notice the medieval shape of the streets and lanes, or the many modest eighteenth houses still in use as dwellings, or the fragments of the medieval wall, or the eighteenth century church of St Iberius and the eighteenth century Market Building, now the Arts Centre. Or the churches built in the nineteenth century, including the church at St Peter’s College, which overlooks the town, designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, the greatest English church architect of the age. Or the sense that the harbour was once one of the busiest in Ireland, from where ships travelled as far as Buenos Aires. Or indeed the often violent history of the town, the Cromwelliam massacre, for example, or the Rebellion of 1798 which is commemorated in statues and plaques.

The name of the town is Viking, although there is evidence of a settlement before then. And the evidence in the actual name of people, or the names over shops – names like my own which is Norman in origin, as are the name of the other novelists who come from Wexford such as John Banville and Eoin Colfer, or the playwright Billy Roche – or even in faces, this is of a palimpsest of settlement after the Gaelic –a palimpsest of Viking, Norman, English, Huguenot and, in recent years, Polish, Nigerian, Roma, Chinese. County Wexford, with the sea on two sides, has been unusually open to the outside world; its ports and its good fertile land have made it attractive to invaders or migrants who quickly became natives; the town of Wexford is made of many layers.  

The town is at its most beautiful in late October and early November. The dwindling light adds a rare wash of melancholy over Wexford which can become exquisite on an afternoon when the sky is blue but beginning to darken, and you walk from the Main Street down one of the side street to the quays. A line from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ haunted the poet T.S. Eliot; he quoted it in ‘The Waste Land’ almost for its sound as much as its sense, for its mystery as much for as its dramatic force. The line, spoken by Ferdinand in the play, goes: ‘This music crept by me upon the waters.’ This season in Wexford - autumn light over wide estuary water - by some miracle and because of serious human endeavour, has over sixty years been a season of music. ‘This music crept by me upon the waters.’

Wexford and the towns and villages around it were places where even people without much money had books in their houses, or went to the library. The written word held power here, as it still does. And with this came an interest in music, which had very deep roots in Victorian society in Wexford. To be a member of a choir, or to sing in public, was a normal aspect of citizenship. To love music and want to listen to the best of it was a normal aspect of life.

So my aunt, who was a clerk in the County Council, attended the first meeting more than sixty years ago to decide that Wexford should host an Opera Festival. It was simple for her and people like her. They loved music, and they knew there would be an audience for good opera in the town. They trusted the place they lived it. It was not about social advancement or upward mobility, and had nothing whatever to do with state cultural policy. The idea to have the festival and make it succeed came from the people who actually worked and lived in the town of Wexford. Before anything else, they wanted to have the festival for themselves, for their own community, before they thought about visitors or tourists. The impulse to create the Wexford Festival Opera arose from idealism, and from pure and exalted motives, and that has been to key to its survival.

Slowly, then, the Festival grew. It would be fascinating to study closely the prudent and gradual way in which decisions were taken by management at the Festival - the decision, for example, to create a special identity for the Festival by performing three rarely-performed operas; the decision to expand the old Theatre Royal building first put up in 1832; the decision to stick to the mandate and not become an arts festival or a general music festival; the decision to have lunchtime concerts and modest performances of well-known operas and charge cheaper rates for these; the decision to nourish the idea of volunteers, to allow idealistic and practical people in Wexford to play a central role in the running of the Festival; the choice of artistic directors from outside, many of these choices, including the current one, inspired; the decision then to create a new building and keep it in the centre of the town. All done without creating a deficit, or becoming too ambitious, or losing the connection to the town, or losing a loyal audience, or losing a sense of intimacy, or watering down the mission, which was the original one, to create wonderful opera in Wexford, as good as anywhere in the world.

The creation of this building took time and money and care and cunning. I remember the Finance Minister of the time telling me that he had seen a delegation from the Festival coming towards him in Government Buildings in Dublin one day and he decided, since he knew how much money they were looking for, simply to turn and run and hide in a room. But they were not looking for him, or indeed for his colleague the Minister for the Arts. They were there to see the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister himself. They knew that one day, having talked at some length to one of his most trusted advisers about his own love of soccer and sport in general, the Taoiseach asked his adviser what he loved, and the adviser said ‘opera’, and the Taoiseach asked him what, for him, was the Manchester United of Opera, and the adviser answered ‘Wexford’. And, since it was a time of plenty, the Taoiseach asked him: ‘Does Wexford need anything?’ and the adviser replied: ‘A new opera house.’

This was how public money made its way to Wexford, or it is how the story goes. But the Festival also needed private money, and a great deal of this came from, or was raised by, Tony O’Reilly, one of Ireland’s most successful businessmen, who ran the Heinz Corporation and owned a large media empire. O’Reilly, who gives his name to this hall, knew how little continuity there is in Ireland, how oddly fragmented business life is and public life; he admired Wexford’s pursuit of a dream, that dream involving prudence, excellence, continuity, idealism, flair, skill and imagination. He knew that Wexford was a phenomenon which was valuable in its own right, but it also had a great deal to teach both business and government in Ireland who are not renowned for their possession of the qualities which have made Wexford matter. He grew to love this Festival and has become one of its great supporters.

I think the question that Wexford has to ask now and that all of us who work in opera have to ask is: Why are we doing this? What is our mission? Is it enough for us that some posh people are kept entertained, or that a very expensive art-form is maintained and handed down to the next generation of the self-made or those with inherited wealth for their pleasure or as way of maintaining their status, or so they can meet one another at the interval?

Is it enough for us that we are at the high-end of cultural tourism? That people can spend the day shopping, and then have an expensive dinner and then come to an opera in the evening before going back to their hotel rooms, with some golf, perhaps, at the weekend, or a visit to an art gallery? Is it enough for us to go out and look for sponsors and match their money with public money and stand at the back, as the lights go down and the music begins, feeling that Beauty and Mammon have deep connections and even deeper pockets?

It seems to me that the purpose of opera is to change the world. The change we make may be slow and subtle, but it is also spiritual, and spiritual change is always slow and subtle, as it is powerful. In 1971, when I was sixteen, the only live music I had heard was in a church. At home, the record player was old, and all the old 78s that my parents had owned had been thrown out and not replaced. I listened to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell. I was reading poetry and I was raw, uneasy in the world. I was a boarder in St Peter’s College in Wexford.

It was agreed in that autumn that anyone who came to the music room four afternoons in a row and listened to recordings of opera could attend the dress rehearsal of ‘The Pearl Fishers’ which was being performed at the Wexford Festival Opera. The tickets were very cheap. I went there, just so I could get out of the confines of the school for a night, but slowly in that week, the music took me over, the idea of aria, duet, motif and pattern began to fascinate me. It was something I had never thought about before.

The performance itself came as an enormous and liberating shock, it introduced me to the idea of soaring beauty. The intimacy of the space, the fact that the Theatre Royal was filled with opera lovers from Wexford town itself who had bought cheap seats for the dress rehearsals, or friends of the volunteers who got tickets for this each year as a special gift in the same way as sports lovers might get tickets for a final, all this made a difference. I have a vivid memory of the awed silence in the audience, and then of the women’s chorus, of the yellow lighting, and then of astonishing voices of the soloists, and then the story itself in all its drama, hitting the enclosed places within the nervous system of us all with its exquisite patterns of sound.

I remember back in school that night being excited and unsettled by the idea that there was a world beyond my world, a world where people would travel distances to have a close brush with beauty. I found an excuse to get permission to go downtown just to look at the people who had come to the Festival. I found myself in White’s old coffee shop listening closely as two Englishmen discussed some of Schubert’s songs.

‘Do you think,’ one asked the other, ‘that we can ever crop a verse for length?’

‘No,’ the other said emphatically, ‘the words are so beautiful, so touching, that we must never do anything to them.’

‘Do you really think that?’ the first man asked.

‘Yes, I do,’ the second man said.

I did not know that you could talk like that, I don’t mean the accents, but I mean the earnestness, the seriousness. I thought adults talked about dull things such as money and each other. This conversation, which might seem comic now, or almost ludicrous, stayed with me as I went back to my boarding school. That two grown men could care about such things was a sign of what the world might be, or might become.

Thus began my adventures in opera. This did not help me to improve my social situation, nor did it enrich my experiences as a tourist. It was more serious than that. It simply entered my spirit and it lingered there and it became powerful. It offered me a relationship to soaring beauty, to the idea that there was a world beyond the visible world, or the material world, or the everyday world, which was filled with mystery. It offered a drama of human striving at its most developed and serious, it suggested mystery, as human relations are filled with mystery, as light is filled with mystery, as sound is filled with mystery. It paved the way for a life lived more sonorously, a life open to possibility and otherness and strangeness.

What I am saying is that it taught me how to live.

Maybe that is why we work in the way we do, why we raise money and put opera programmes together, why we go out and find sponsors, why we train singers and musicians and front-of-house staff so that we can, in ways which are hard to pin  down but all the more powerful for that, teach others and indeed ourselves, how to live, how to pay attention to the world in all its fleeting beauty.

Maybe the importance of opera is that has this implication which is almost moral in its contours but that it is also includes the idea of pure pleasure, simple pleasure for the senses. It is a serious art form, but not a solemn one. Even at its most exalted in tone, opera remains playful, and that idea teaches us something too about how we must live.

In those years after my first experience of opera, something new came into all our lives in Europe, the idea of Europe as a economy rather than a culture. The idea of European identity was placed in the dull cauldron of politics. Suddenly, the word ‘Europe’ was being used as though it merely were the result of a recent trade agreement, or were a project begun or resisted by politicians in recent decades.

In this context, it seems to me that opera has not merely a spiritual function, but a political one too. Europe is now a gathering of cities, or indeed towns, each city or town with its own rich and gnarled heritage. From St Petersburg to Lisbon, we can see the spires of our churches, but we have become uneasy about church power and the divisions it has created. But when you think of Naples and Rome, and Venice and Milan, and Moscow and Berlin, and London and Barcelona, and Paris and Glynebourne and Wexford, one thing that unites us is our musical heritage, is the way in which the opera houses have been preserved and this high art has been passed from singer to singer, from conductor to conductor, from manager to manager, from one generation to another who come to love it and travel to see it. It is something which we have exported to the Americas and to Australia, this precarious and expensive form of useless beauty which has enriched the lives of anyone lucky enough to come within its power. It is a bewitching form. It is a sign of our great and shared heritage as Europeans. It is Europe, in the same way as Chartres Cathedral is Europe. Opera is Europe’s hidden nervous system, its sensibility at its most exquisite and valuable and playful. It exalts the idea of the sensuous life, a life which mixes a striving to be excellent as we in Wexford have done, with wanting more from life than the merely material, wanting a life in which pleasure and beauty remain central, and mystery, and those late autumn nights in Wexford in this small theatre down a side-street and the first hush as the audience waits for the music to begin. O brave new world, we can say, as ‘This music crept by me upon the waters’, and singers and designers and musicians and, indeed, managers and directors, show us what is possible, they lift the human spirit with their endeavours, they offer us a glimpse of the best of ourselves.