From Handel’s hallelujah to the World’s Best Festival, Ireland has a glorious musical past and an exciting operatic future.
Ireland has a rich musical history. While today visitors may come to follow in the footsteps of Bono, or to tap their feet at a traditional gig, others are treading a path established at the Merrion Hotel two hundred and fifty ago. While that’s a slight exaggeration (the world premiere of Handel’s Messiah had been performed in Dublin in 1742, twenty five years before the foundations were laid for the building that would become the Merrion), Mornington House, which today forms the heart of the hotel, was an epicentre of music in Ireland.
No 24 Upper Merrion Street was the finest of the four townhouses that today comprise the Merrion Hotel, and it was named for Garret Wesley, the Earl of Mornington. A musical prodigy, he had taught himself harpsichord, violin and the organ before he was out of his teens. He composed music, played at his own concerts, and invited musicians from around the world to entertain guests at his salons. He also founded the very first academy of music in Ireland.
Music became so much the rage that, writing in 1786, Joseph Cooper was to note how “Italian singers were invited over and fair dames of Ireland learned to expire at an opera.” Unfortunately, Mornington’s devotion to music and philanthropy impoverished him, leading one wit to remark that his fortune had, in fact, been “fiddled away”.
Nonetheless, the tradition continued, and today opera is experiencing a renaissance in Ireland. The Mikhailovsky Opera of St Petersburg’s performances of Puccini’s Tosca recently ran at the Bord Gáis Theatre and the newly established Irish National Opera is creating and touring work around Ireland. Their next production is The Marriage of Figaro, runs from April 13th.
Festivals add the social atmosphere that once would have thrived in Lord Mornington’s music salons. The Wexford Opera Festival last year won the coveted “Best Festival” category at last year’s International Opera Awards. That festival kicks off in October, but opera fans don’t need to wait, as what is, perhaps, Ireland’s most beautiful music festival takes place at Lismore Castle, the Irish seat of the Dukes of Devonshire in Co Waterford, this summer. The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival brings Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri to the castle gardens from May 29th.
Visitors to the Merrion can also enjoy opera in the hotel gardens in June. So you don’t need to learn to expire, but you can certainly find plenty to bravo and adore, with a choice of operatic treats in Ireland. Hallelujah.