Wexford Opera House – taking centre stage

The world-renowned Wexford Opera Festival has a new home, Wexford Opera House, a state-of-the-art venue that can only increase the festival’s international stature. Since its founding in 1951, the festival’s main venue had been the Theatre Royal, an old Victorian theatre that was demolished in 2006 to make way for the Opera House that opens less two years later. 

The world-renowned Wexford Opera Festival has a new home, Wexford Opera House, a state-of-the-art venue that can only increase the festival’s international stature.

Since its founding in 1951, the festival’s main venue had been the Theatre Royal, an old Victorian theatre that was demolished in 2006 to make way for the Opera House that opens less two years later.

The new €33 million building, designed by the Office of Public Works Architects Department and Keith Williams Architects, was completed on budget and on schedule. It occupies the same location as the Theatre Royal, the site area of the old Theatre Royal was doubled, with the acquisition of the neighbouring People’s Newspaper premises and now accommodates a great deal more – the new Opera House boasts two auditoria, the O’Reilly Theatre and the Jerome Hynes Theatre.


The O’Reilly Theatre, the biggest of the two, has facilities and acoustics specifically designed to meet the needs of opera, but which can be adapted for the needs of other performing arts. In ‘opera mode’, the theatre has an orchestral pit to accommodate the musicians between the audience and the stage, as is a ‘must-have’ for any opera house. But because the floor of the pit sits on an hydraulic lift, this orchestral pit can disappear when not at use – in fact the area can be raised to a maximum height to become part of the fore stage or at mid-height this area can accommodate additional seating.

“For operas, when the orchestra pit is in use, we have an audience capacity of 769, but we can increase that capacity to 853 when the orchestra pit is not in use,” says festival chief executive David McLoughlin. “We have increased our audience capacity by 40%, while also increasing the seating space – the seats are 40% bigger – yet we have not had to increase the distance between the stage and the seat furthest away.  We were able to do this because we have gone for a horseshoe layout, a layout that is making a big comeback in opera house design.”

The greater scale front-of-house is matched by the fact that backstage the Opera House has 40 fly bars for scenery changes – this is more fly bars than in any other theatre venue in Ireland. “During the festival, we do six cycles of three operas,” says McLoughlin. “The greater flexibility backstage means we can be performing one opera on stage while the sets and scenery for the other two operas are stored overhead in the flys. This allows for much more efficient set changes.”

The Jerome Hynes Theatre has an audience capacity of 176 seats. “It’s basically a flexible black box that can be used for theatre, for concerts, for stand-up for whatever,” says McLoughlin. “The seating is removable, so the space can also be used as a rehearsal space or as an art gallery.”

Back-stage facilities at the Opera House include: dedicated facilities for directors, conductors, designers and singers; a greater number of dressing rooms; chorus rehearsal rooms and prop-making areas.

Not all of the past has been swept away; the façade of the Opera House is very similar to that of the old Theatre Royal and the opera house fits snugly into Wexford’s streetscape and its medieval character. It’s a building very much at home with its surroundings and with the people who will be using it. So far, the reaction of the Opera Festival’s 400 volunteers to their new home has been extremely positive.

Design Team

“Everybody is very pleased,” says lead designer Ciaran McGahon, a senior architect with the OPW for whom this project was a labour of love, as the 55-year-old has been attending the Wexford Opera Festival for 24 years now.

Together with acoustic consultant Jeremy Newton of Arup Acoustics and theatre consultant Peter Angier of Carr & Angier, McGahon, in consultation with Wexford Opera Festival produced an outline design and secured planning permission for the project. Following a European-wide tendering process, Keith Williams Architects were appointed to help develop and realise the initial sketch design, which included the decision to line the auditorium with some 3,500m2 of walnut flooring and panelling, enough to cover half a football pitch.

“There are many theatres with timber panelling, for example the Helix Theatre, and the timber aids the acoustics,” says McGahon. “But where as the Helix uses blonde wood, we choose walnut, from a managed forest in Canada, because of its darker colour. With opera, you want to focus completely on the stage and you want as good a black-out as possible and the darker wood helps us achieve that.

The OPW also acted as M&E consultants and their biggest challenge here was to provide air conditioning and ventilation that was extremely quiet. McGahon said: “We use huge motors to deliver vast quantities air quietly to large plenums located under the seating which deliver vast quantities of fresh air imperceptibly to the main auditorium.”

In addition to the building itself, McGahon is enormously satisfied that the project was delivered within on budget and within deadline. In comparison to other recent opera house projects, the budget here was modest – the new opera house in Copenhagen cost €239m and the new one in Oslo cost €500m, whereas WOH cost €33m

“We advised the opera festival that it would take two years and that the festival would be without a permanent home for that period,” said McGahon. “We’ve achieved that – two years after the old Theatre Royal was demolished, they are now in then new Opera House building sets for the next festival.”

Ned Sullivan, director with contractors Cleary Doyle, says good project management was vital for delivering the Opera House on schedule. “ The narrow streets of Wexford allowed the use of only relatively short trucks to remove spoil and deliver materials.

“Because we were building on the entire footprint of the site, we needed a huge crane and built from the inside out. Because all the boundaries were shared with either businesses or residences, we had to put scaffolding on the surrounding buildings and we organised monthly meetings with the local community to quickly identify and tackle any problems or issues.”

The auditorium

The walnut panelling supplied and fitted by Westmeath company Woodfit, and the swooping form of the auditorium are reminiscent of a stringed musical instrument, with the openly visible lighting bridges beneath the ceiling being reminiscent of fretwork or of strings. Keith Williams says this is deliberate as the auditorium acts like a musical instrument in the way that its volume and its acoustic properties add depth to the sound of the orchestra and the orchestra’s singers.

“The room is carefully shaped to ensure the right sound reflections to the audience and performers,” said Arup Acoustics’ senior auditorium designer Jeremy Newton. “Where there is need for sound scattering surfaces, these are integrated into the architectural room design. The design of the floor slabs and supporting beams needed to take on board the acoustic requirements and, as a result, the thickness of the slabs was increased in areas that were more sensitive to acoustics.

“The leather seating has a perforated underside to introduce high frequency sound absorption that offsets the absorption provided by the audience making the acoustic for rehearsals as similar as possible to that for performance.”

The acoustic also take account of health and safety considerations.

“One of the problems in orchestra pits is that excessive sound build up can contribute to hearing damage to the players,” says Newton. “To help reduce this, we incorporated flexible sound absorbing surfaces around the pit.

“The Jerome Hynes Theatre is a multifunctional room, and a variable acoustic has been achieved via a mixture of sliding acoustic panels and sound absorbing curtains at high level.”

The finish

Leading specialist drywall contractors Sidney McElhinney Ltd constructed the internal dry lining partition fittings, as well as all the suspended and acoustic treatments. “We also fitted Lafarge acoustic products on ceilings and walls in the auditorium,” said McElhinney. “While externally, we installed a high performance Sto insulation system, which provides a seamless finish, and external plastering to the street façade to recreate the streetscape that was there – it’s very unusual to use traditional sand, cement and lime plaster on such a large job today.”

Other recent projects completed by Sidney McElhinney Ltd include the Ferrybank Shopping Centre in Wateford and Cork International Hotel. Last year, the company opened its first UK office in Hull and it is currently negotiating a joint venture in Britain to bid for London Olympics contracts.

The quantity surveyor was Nolan Ryan Surveying & Project Management, one of the country’s largest construction management and cost consultancy firms.

“We are delighted to have provided quantity surveying services for such a prestigious project, one which plays a major role in the Ireland’s cultural life and in opera internationally,” said Robert Nolan, Deputy MD.

Nolan Ryan’s extensive experience includes large civil engineering and pharmaceutical industry projects. Other recent cultural and recreational public projects where the company has been involved include the Cliffs of Moher Interpretive Centre, the Kilkenny Castle refurbishment, the Theatre Royal in Waterford and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow.

Nolan Ryan provides a range of integrated management and cost solutions based on distinct project lifecycles, including business needs, project strategy and development, project management, and project control and delivery. Nolan said: “The firm’s approach is flexible, adapting as required to each stage of the brief, delivering a service that is underpinned by an emphasis on experience, knowledge, research and professionalism.”

Nolan Ryan is part of the WYG Group and has offices in With offices in Cork, Dublin, Kilkenny, Limerick and Waterford.

The Opera House has excellent television recording and broadcasting facilities – An Taoiseach Brian Cowen officially opened the building on Friday September 5th and appeared immediately afterwards on The Late Late Show, which was broadcast from the building. It was a very prestigious launch for a very prestigious building.