Wexford Festival Opera began in the unlikeliest of places and times: a rural town in 1950s Ireland. To set itself apart, the festival looked to introduce audiences to neglected or forgotten operas and drawn by this curiosity, international critics soon began to recount the magic they found here.In the decades that followed, Wexford built its reputation as it consistently reintroduced lost treasures to the repertoire, and the delight of visiting opera fans.

In this week’s The Lyric Feature: Magic on a Winter’s Night, we go behind the scenes of the 71st Wexford Festival Opera (2022) as Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi and her team orchestrate their particular brand of alchemy. At the heart of the documentary is Frometal Halevy’s opera La Tempesta, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which was performed in Her Majesty’s Theatre, London in 1850 but has not been heard since. We follow as the cast, musicians and crew recreate this world which has not existed for 170 years. Using live performance excerpts to tell the story and interviews and actuality from the opera house this feature winds its way from stage rehearsals to opening night.With a company of excited singers, seasoned musicians, exacting conductors and diligent crew working for long days and nights, for weeks on end, here we discover the fundamental truth of sorcery: magic doesn’t just happen, It is made.

La Tempesta | Wexford festival Opera 2022

Documentary maker Mary Brophy writes about making this feature and bringing listeners inside a unique, creative world.

"The first time I went back stage at the National Opera House in Wexford it was quiet, a few months before rehearsals began. We were there to meet some of the team and plan our recording schedule and at the end of the meeting, producer Neal Boyle and I were brought on a quick tour of the building. We were brought up and down the stairs that run either side of the building, through the main stage, across and back stages, into wardrobe, the orchestra pit, back to make-up, the green room, empty rehearsal rooms, another theatre and then suddenly it was goodbyes and we were out the stage door and straight onto the street. As the door closed behind us, I laughed out loud. Not once during that tour could I get my bearings. Disorientating but in the thrilling way of a fairground hall of mirrors or a Willy Wonka world. And in my imagination, I could hear the music makers.

National Opera House in Wexford

Having produced RTÉ lyric fm's live broadcasts from the Festival Opera, Eoin O Kelly, series producer of The Lyric Feature, had long felt that the sheer creative energy of this company should be captured in documentary form. The history of Wexford Opera has been elegantly documented in other places, but what hadn't been captured was the festival in full flow, in all the glorious vitality of its creativity. So when he asked me to make a Lyric Feature about the run-up to the 71st Wexford Opera Festival last year, I was excited about the potential to immerse listeners directly into the rehearsals and this world; to bring them inside the building and those long days and nights as a group of artists count us down to opening weekend. With a generous welcome from Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi and company, and access all areas, Neal and I began recording eight weeks out from the first performance.

Walk back through the stage door of the National Opera House then on any given day during rehearsals for the Wexford Festival Opera and the soundtrack that greets you is a strange cacophony: a soprano warms-up in ascending and descending scale, violins tune in an orchestra pit, a noisy drill on set construction, a sewing machine burrs as costumes are altered. A vast amount of rehearsals, set designs, lighting run throughs, make-up and costume fittings are happening at any one time. It is noisy and melodic and dramatic and wonderful.

In this radio feature we follow the creative team and opera that opened the 71st festival - La Tempesta - after Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Prospero’s magical island makes a fitting backdrop for the festival’s theme of Magic and Music. Composed by Fromental Halévy with the libretto by Eugene Scribe, La Tempesta was first performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1850 and though apparently well received in its first outings, for some reason it was consigned to the archives. As Principal Conductor Francesco Cilluffo tells us, there were no recordings of this opera. A new score had to be written and this would be the first time the music had been heard in over one hundred and seventy years. Exciting and challenging in equal measure.

La Tempesta at Wexford Festival Opera

Three of the main stage operas are rehearsed in sequence, which means sets in the O'Reilly main theatre are turned around every three days during stage rehearsals. And during Stage and Orchestra week, when singers and orchestra come together for the first time, sets are turned around in one day. As energy wanes and pressure builds, professionalism, and a deep passion for this life and art form are unwavering. And as our feature winds its singular way from stage rehearsals to box office to pocket operas to pre-dress, we intercut the players with a series of Live performance excerpts from La Tempesta that tells the story and timeline of the opera. We arrive, in the end, at the beginning of the music and Opening Night.

Magic and Music may have been the theme of the 71st festival but every year in Wexford, a group of talented, dedicated singers, musicians and crew come to together to create their own particular brand of alchemy. A few days out from opening, I asked Rosetta Cucchi for her definition of magic and she responded:

"We are in a world that is not in a very good place at the moment. And the danger is that we close up, more and more [until we are] looking at a small room. And this is a Middle Age. For me, magic is something that has to shine, opening up a Middle Age to arrive at a new Renaissance. Magic is something you have to believe, you can believe in whatever you want but you have to believe in something and if that something is magic, it can help."

Rosetta Cucchi, Artistic Director of Wexford Festival Opera

This answer became the opening words of the documentary, because it defined for me the unique creative endeavour that is Wexford Festival Opera. In 2022 and in a new, faltering world, these consummate artists may have felt a particular imperative to meet this moment; to dispel the darkness with their art, their spectacular sets and costumes and the power of their voices and music. In a post-pandemic world, into which we have emerged a little fragile, a little less confident or grieving like Prospero, this opera festival was a reassuring, emphatic declaration that art and alchemy do help.


Magic on a Winter’s Night is narrated by Mary Brophy. Opera notes from the Live Opera excerpts are narrated by Paul Herriott. Live Opera Broadcast producer was Gail Henry. The documentary was produced by Eoin O’Kelly for RTÉ lyric fm’s The Lyric Feature and Neal Boyle for IWR Media. La Tempesta {Halévy, Scribe} was conducted by WFO Principal Conductor Francesco Cilluffo and directed by Italian Roberto Catalano in his Wexford debut. Sung in Italian, it was a co-production with Teatro Coccia in Novara Italy.

The Lyric Feature: Magic on a Winter’s Night RTÉ lyric fm, Sunday 22nd October at 6pm

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