It takes a foreign visitor’s eye to spot the quaintness of it all. As we were waiting for the train, in full evening dress in the middle of the day, the French pianist I was taking on his first visit to Glyndebourne shook his head. “We are going to sit on the grass and have a picnic dressed in le smoking?” he asked incredulously. “Is that the English sense of humour?”
The very idea of a summer opera festival, held at a private house and far from London, must have seemed improbable when Glyndebourne first opened its doors in 1934. There was nothing else like it in the UK, or anywhere else. John Christie, Glyndebourne’s founder, had not only vision, but also (with a nudge from his wife) exceptional ambition. “If you are going to spend all that money, John,” she said, “for God’s sake do the thing properly!”
Doing it properly is what Glyndebourne has done ever since. A handsome new theatre, four times the size of the 1930s original, opened in 1994. Casts feature international singers and the repertoire has expanded in reach and scale. Among this year’s offerings is the world premiere of Hamlet by Australian composer Brett Dean.
It is a heart-warming story. But surely nothing would amaze John Christie more than to see how many other, similar opera festivals have sprung up in the UK in the past 20 years or so. They come in all shapes and sizes, from Wagner specialists Longborough Festival Opera to niche Iford Arts and West Green House Opera, and all without any call on taxpayers’ money.
This year marks a turning point. What seems to have been a spat at Grange Park Opera has been the catalyst for two effectively brand-new festivals. At the original site, a handsome, Greek Revival-style mansion called The Grange in Hampshire, a new artistic management is starting up The Grange Festival under the leadership of Michael Chance, Britain’s top countertenor in his heyday. Meanwhile, Wasfi Kani, formerly co-founder there, has packed her bags and gone off to found a new festival at West Horsley Place in Surrey. She has taken the name with her, so this festival will be called Grange Park Opera. Confused? That is all part of the madcap world of summer opera.
After only a year, Chance has his first festival up and running and is already talking of expansion and improvements. Patrons will see the first change as they drive in the gate. The grounds of the Grade 1-listed mansion are being restored by landscape architect Kim Wilkie to reveal views of the lake hidden for 40 years amid the full Arcadian beauty of the surroundings.
This is important, as The Grange Festival knows its audiences expect high quality all round. “There is a little bit of the old Glyndebourne about the place,” explains Chance. “It’s a quixotic, incredibly beautiful experience. We have been building a new subscriber base from scratch and it is humbling how many people want to see us succeed. Musical values are paramount and we are already planning three to four years in advance to secure the best people.”
This year’s programme is certainly going in at the top: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria will have the Academy of Ancient Music in the pit and the production team for Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is headed by conductor Steuart Bedford, who worked closely with Britten, and director John Copley.
For Kani, over at West Horsley Place, the new Grange Park Opera is aiming to be bigger and better than before. From a standing start, she will have overseen planning permission and construction of her new Theatre in the Woods in little more than a year. The design, with its four tiers of seats in a horseshoe shape, is modelled on La Scala, Milan, no less. After that, actually putting on the operas should be a doddle.
People kept telling Kani it could not be done. “My reply to them was: ‘Let’s get on with it and stop faffing about’,” she says. “The possibilities at the new Grange Park are endless. We have a house that is 15th century in origin, where Henry VIII visited, together with an 18th-century walled garden. And the demographic of the area is brilliant.”
As for the artistic programme, it is onward and upward. The new theatre will open its doors with Tosca, starring international tenor Joseph Calleja, and fully staged Wagner follows with a new production of Die Walküre.
It seems all the summer opera festivals are in a race to the top. At Garsington Opera, now resident at the Getty estate at Wormsley Park, there is the most ambitious programme to date: four new productions for the first time, from Handel to Debussy, and one of them featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra at the start of a new, five-year partnership. What a journey the festival has travelled since that single performance of Le nozze di Figaro 27 years ago. Douglas Boyd, artistic director, says nothing else matters unless audiences know that the festival is committed to excellence.
“This is a site of extraordinary beauty for a day out. We try to make every individual feel welcome, not just give them a corporate experience, from the helpers in the car park to the restaurant. Running an opera festival is about striving for continual improvement. As Alan Titchmarsh said, ‘You never come in from gardening and say to the wife, ‘Doris, that’s the garden done!’”
At Opera Holland Park, the only one of these venues based in London, the big news is the successful transition to being a privately funded institution. After long years of nurture by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the festival has made the big leap forwards, encouraging its supporters to “step up to the plate” and achieving 98 per cent attendance in its nascent season of independence last year. General director Michael Volpe says that, as a charity with its own board, Opera Holland Park can now start investing in facilities for the future. “Our great advantage is that we are in central London. We have over 2,000 tickets as low as £18 and another 1,300 free each year for the young and over-60s. Our rare Italian opera repertory has been an especially big draw, as audiences have learnt these can be terrific evenings in the theatre. Leoncavallo’s Zazà is already our strongest advance seller for 2017.”
Do not expect any of these festivals to take their foot off the accelerator any time soon. There are exciting plans ahead for commissioning new operas, extending their seasons and engaging with other international festivals.
The action starts in the autumn, when The Grange Festival will give the premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park in a newly orchestrated version and will hold its own singing competition. At Grange Park Opera it is planned that the picturesque Theatre in the Woods will host visiting companies during the rest of the year. Opera Holland Park has started operatic evenings at the nearby Royal Albert Hall and has put a toe in the water with co-productions with the Danish National Opera. In 2018, Garsington Opera will present the premiere of its first full-length commission, David Sawer’s The Skating Rink, and has its first co-production in the diary with Santa Fe Opera. In the summer opera business, it seems, the sky is the limit.
Photographs: Clive Barda; James Bellorini
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