Desmond O’Neill: Donizetti and the GP

Desmond O'Neill

It is almost certainly the most unique operatic experience in Europe. As you walk up a narrow street of terraced houses in a small coastal town in south-eastern Ireland, you enter a modest entrance and are suddenly in the middle of a sophisticated walnut-clad atrium. This in turn leads into a striking marriage of smart nordic design and a miniature traditional “horseshoe” opera house.

Given that it is late autumn, and that the performance tonight is one of Donizetti’s lesser-known operas (and the choice is large, given that he wrote over 70, and possibly considerably more) it can only be the Wexford Opera Festival, the only one of its kind founded and directed by a practicing GP.

In 1951 Dr Tom Walsh (1911-1988), a local GP and opera fan, was enthused by a gramophone lecture and recital in Wexford’s tiny Theatre Royal by the Scottish novelist and founder of Gramophone magazine, Compton Mackenzie. The subsequent development played out like an operatic version of his novel Whiskey Galore, with the whole community pitching in as volunteer stage-hands, extras, set-builders and front of house.

The festival rapidly built up a niche reputation for excellent performances of neglected operas in a very individual setting. Enthusiastic support rapidly developed from around the world, notably figures such as Bernard Levin who wrote many entertaining articles for the Times on Wexford and its mix of local idiosyncrasy and world class operatic entertainment.

It was my first visit to the festival since my student days nearly thirty years ago: the new theatre, opened in 2008 as one of the last flicks of the Celtic Tiger’s tail, maintained the intimacy of the Theatre Royal beautifully while considerably adding to its comfort and style. The occasion, the last night of the 2011 Festival, was also graced by the presence of the hugely popular Mary McAleese in her last official engagement as President of Ireland.

My misgivings about what sometimes seems like a distractingly elitist focus of opera in a country which no longer has a national opera company, nor an opera house in its capital city, were put on hold with the first chords of the orchestra and the effervescence of the opening music.

The opera, Donizetti’s Gianni de Parigi, was a delirious mix of misunderstandings expressed through a dizzying sequence of ensemble playing and singing. The setting, a modest belle-époque hotel, and expertly choreographed action, augmented the pleasure, as did the nicely judged and light touch of both conductor and director. As the elated and smartly dressed audience spilled out towards the pubs and hotels of Wexford for the après-opera, there was a buzz of camaraderie and a sense of a shared jeu d’esprit.

While the festival has during its 60 years hosted its share of dark and melodramatic operas, there is no doubt that the guiding spirit of its founder and artistic director for its first 15 years has been a predominant flavour, with a particular emphasis on Donizetti and opera that was not only neglected but also under-valued, particularly the comic and the mellifluous. Its connections to European opera derive more from the popular houses of the Volksoper and the Opéra-Comique than from the grandeur of the Staatsoper and the Palais Garnier.

It is hard not to think that Dr Walsh’s background as a GP somehow influenced his choices. While any medical career exposes us to pain and suffering, much of what we deal with is the smaller scale stuff of life, and in turn much of it relates to mistakes and misunderstandings – but all of which is important to somebody. In addition, we are often witnessing and brokering conflicting viewpoints among families and those our patients deals with, worthy of comic operatic ensembles.

Humour is the understated silver lining which can run through these interactions and transactions between us and our patients, and between them and those they interact with. The operas of Donizetti, Rossini and similar choices of Wexford’s early years – such as Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz, with its hilarious extended quintet set around a billiard table – allow a glorious escape which yet also reminds us of our irrationality and fixed ways.

As a doctor, he would surely have particularly enjoyed a wonderful duet in this years’s Donizetti contrasting principle and practice. In a sparkling crescendo of buffo patter, a priggish but hungry chief steward breaks his uncompromising position on the promise of a fine dinner: I was reminded of the documentary on Opren almost twenty years ago, with a specialist tucking into lobster on a pharmaceutical jaunt declaring that this would in no way affect his prescribing practices.

There is a lightly-worn human wisdom in these deceptively light-hearted works that can all too easily be dismissed as frothy or frivolous, but that would be to miss the point. Much of all of our communications are elliptical and indirect, yet humour and beauty provide us with a shared space which reassures, comforts, and entertains. Dr Tom Walsh, on the centenary of his birth, is owed a deep debt of gratitude for his foresight, persistence and sense of humour in developing this wonderful autumnal treat.

The 2012 programme looks equally promising, with operas by Chabrier, Delius and Mercadante. On reflection, it is perhaps Chabrier’s Le Roi Malgré Lui, premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1887, which will best reflect the spirit of Tom Walsh’s contribution to this remarkable enterprise.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine