Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Wexford Basks in all the Fun of the Fringe

There's always been a Fringe at Wexford. Part of the genius of Tom Walsh's original concept for classical opera in the town was to create a range of artistic and cultural events to accompany the opera programme, and they run from competitive window displays in the shops on Main Street, to the bewildering number of art exhibitions spread, not only through the town, but way beyond it.

Briefly, as a student at Trinity College, I was part of it, bocketing down the Wexford Road in my Renault Dauphine in 1957 and 1958 to bring the Dublin University Players' Late Night Review to the town. I was a foot soldier in charge of the far from lavish expenses to pay for digs; my memory, if it serves me correctly, was of too many people to a room very late at night after the performances were over. The stars on the tiny stage included David Nowlan, Terry Brady, Juliet Tatlow. What they delivered were witty, funny sketches that attracted audiences already highly amused by such operas as The Daughter of the Regiment, An Italian in Algiers, Anna Bolena and The Two Foscari.

We never got to the opera but we had great fun in the town. After Trinity there was a break, with too much work making one's way in that golden era of the the 1960s. Opera-going was renewed in the year of Katya Kabanova, 1972, and on and off for a number of years that followed, the magic of Wexford became an autumn imperative.

It has remained so ever since, the best way of experiencing Wexford being as one of a weekend party over the full three-day programme. This begins with a hard core of half a dozen, determined to see each opera, the numbers swelling to a dozen or more for Saturday night.

For the last 10 years, this has been centred on Churchtown House and the unique hospitality of Austin and Patricia Cody, whose house outside the village of Tagoat is a hen's race from the beach at Rosslare and close to Kelly's Hotel, for lunch and Guinness after walking the strand.

The character of it all has changed greatly in all those years, just as the arts and the way we entertain ourselves have changed. But in crisp autumn weather the concentration of energy and talent makes the town a joy to visit and makes infinitely memorable the countryside around. I know best the flat meadowland on the Rosslare side of it that makes glorious the light and formations of colour in the skies.

But visits to the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, to Johnstown Castle -- itself the home of the opera during the building of the new opera house -- and for a time now long past when trips up the river in the barge that used to offer lunch and drink and chat and a scenic tour, all made up the Wexford experience.

For 18 days, beginning next Thursday, there will be fringe fun and culture, with more than 250 events. It has been described as "a total happening" in which it is difficult to separate all the peripheral pleasures from the actual operatic offerings themselves. It's the "total experience that really makes this festival something out-of-the-ordinary".

This moderately expressive language undersells it a bit. It is more than out of the ordinary; it is the heart and soul of the town, itself one of the most compact and appealing of all towns of its size in Ireland. The old centre of the town had to be welcoming as a port -- hence the fine front onto the estuary -- and easily defended in time of attack, which accounts for the narrow streets and the concentration of the early main buildings in a small area.

The Fringe is based around Wexford Festival Opera, which consists of operas, recitals and opera scenes. The two have been effectively balanced over the years with the Fringe boasting dramas, one-act plays, the long-lived Guinness "Singing & Swinging Pubs", tours of historic Wexford town and county, some classical music recitals, jazz programmes, light opera, horse-racing, musicals, poetry readings and an enormous number of art exhibitions -- some good, some bad, some awful.

For over 50 years the Guinness pub competition has been part of the festival. It involves most of Wexford's pubs and bars and provides a stage for singing talent as well as comedians. Some visiting opera singers take part from time to time. Each pub is rated on its performance over a 30-minute period.

Within the main festival opera experience, there have been afternoon productions which have generally been of a high standard, particularly so last year.

This year artistic director David Agler has brought in what are called 'postcard performances', the first of which, Postcard from America, takes place on Friday October 23 and Thursday October 29. This 'musical snapshot' features American and Canadian artists of the festival and includes works that characterise 'American music'. Predictable musicians feature, including Bernstein, Copeland, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern.

The Prague music includes The Diary of One who Vanished by Leos Janácek. This is an intimate 'chamber drama' written for tenor, mezzo-soprano, trio of female voices and piano. The Wexford Fringe Festival opens on Thursday, and the main Wexford Festival Opera opens the following Wednesday, October 21.