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Top 10 Opera Festivals to Attend in Britain This Summer

by Adrian Mourby

Top 10 Opera Festivals to Attend in Britain This Summer

The English Country House Opera is a unique British phenomenon (although it is now being copied in Europe). The idea is simple: opera performed not in a city venue, but in a country house, either in the residence itself or in the grounds, or even a purpose-built theatre within the grounds. The audience arrives with picnic hampers - that bibulous long interval is an integral element of country house opera - and they tend to dress up.

This novel idea can be traced back to Glyndebourne before World War II. When John Christie opened up his Sussex mansion to fellow opera-lovers he never intended to establish an art form, but that is what Country House Opera has become. It’s a subgenre of opera as street theatre is a subgenre of theatre.

These festivals are popular and proliferating - almost entirely in the south of England - there seems to be no diminution in the public’s appetite for them. Most of the festivals in this selection were reporting over 90 per cent take-up of tickets in May. But don’t worry, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to squeeze you in if you make contact soon. But don’t just go down for the evening. Stay overnight in one of these ten lovely hotels – or equally lovely pubs – nearby.


Showing below are all 10 records in "Top 10 Opera Festivals to Attend in Britain This Summer"

East Sussex

In the opera world 4G is nothing to do with mobile phone reception. It’s all about the four big opera festivals that dominate the English countryside in the summertime: Garsington, Grange Park and the Grange Festival, and then there’s Glyndebourne itself.

Glyndebourne is the big daddy. Based in a beautiful faux-Jacobean house in Sussex, Glyndebourne’s owner John Christie inadvertently invented country house opera in 1934 when he staged a small festival at his home. Christie was influenced by his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, who told him if he was going to stage opera at Glyndebourne he may as well build an opera house next door – which he did. (Their creative relationship was the basis for David Hare’s recent play, The Moderate Soprano.)

All those eccentric delights we associate with country house opera began at Glyndebourne: the long interval for dinner, the champagne and picnic baskets, the gentlemen wearing dinner jackets with panama hats and lines of beautifully-dressed women queuing for the lavatories . Glyndebourne also pioneered the rush to get back to London after curtain down. On one occasion when a generator problem delayed the final curtain John Christie’s butler telephoned the local station master and asked him to hold the London train.

The festival is now run by Gus Christie, grandson of John. The Christie family still live in the manor house, but much has changed. In 1994 Glyndebourne unveiled its new purpose-built opera house, one of the best in Britain and the administration of the three-month season is now a 12-month highly professional business. The standard of performance and direction is world-class too. Glyndebourne has inspired many other country house opera festivals but it still dominates this world.

This year Glyndebourne offers six operas – Barber of Seville, La damnation de Faust, Cendrillon, Rusalka, Magic Flute and Handel’s Rinaldo. It’s the longest of the country house seasons and it expects to come very close to selling out.

STAY: Dean’s Place Hotel is eight miles south of Glyndebourne.

Buckinghamshire

The Garsington festival is no longer at Garsington, much as the Grange Park Opera festival is no longer at Grange Park (but both have kept the name – more of this later). Garsington was founded by the financier Leonard Ingrams and his wife in 1989. The Ingrams had bought the manor house that had famously belonged to Lady Ottoline Morrell. The chatelaine of Garsington had hosted members of the Bloomsbury set - T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell – between the world wars.

The house’s new owners wanted to stage opera in their gardens, much as the Christie had, and this is what they did, building a 500 seat auditorium. It is fair to say that Garsington followed where Glyndebourne led in many respects. Leonard Ingrams even took over the old panelling from Glyndebourne’s auditorium when it was being rebuilt. But Garsington also made itself distinct, especially in its programming which from its very first season mixed well-known works with the less well-known. The company's first season comprised Mozart's Così fan tutte and the British premiere of Haydn's (perhaps deservedly) obscure Orlando paladino. In 1989 Ingrams asked the Guildhall Strings to play for his new company, and within a few years Garsington Opera had its own orchestra whose core remains drawn from the Guildhall Strings. Within four years, Garsington Opera started staging three productions per season a year and this format remains the same today.

By 2008 the Ingrams family decided that Garsington Opera needed more space, and they needed less festival. A new home was found for the Garsington 15 miles away at the fabulously arcadian Getty estate in Wormsley. A remarkable new 600-seater house was designed that could be assembled every year and taken down at the end of the six-week season.

This year the company will perform Don Giovanni, The Bartered Bride and The Turn of the Screw as well as Offenbach’s little-heard Fantasio and three concert performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

STAY: The Chequers Marlow is 13 miles south of Garsington at Wormsley.

Surrey

It might seem strange that two of Britain’s 4G opera festivals have such similar names: Grange Park Opera and The Grange Festival. This is no coincidence however. Grange Park Opera began in 1998 at a country house in Hampshire that had been rebuilt in the early 1800s in the style of Greek Temple. Sadly the house had been neglected for years. Then came Wasfi Kani, the former Chief Executive of Garsington, who set up Grange Park Opera with Michael Moody as her Chief Executive. Wasfi’s festival ran to great acclaim from 1998 to 2016 making the most of the Grange’s Miss Havisham-like interiors where guests could dine in the long interval.

Wasfi Kani received an OBE for her entrepreneurship. She it was who brought in stars of the opera world like Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenleyside, Sara Fulgoni and Joseph Calleja to her festival in the Hampshire countryside. She was also responsible for unleashing Bryn Terfel as Tevye in the musical, Fiddler on the Roof at Grange Park in 2015. When the lease was up in 2016 a new management took over at The Grange, but Wasfi Kani wasn’t done yet. She took her high-profile festival – and its seating - to a new venue, sixteenth-century West Horsley Place in Surrey. This country house is owned by the writer and University Challenge broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne. He -somewhat to his surprise - had inherited it all from his great aunt the Duchess of Roxburghe in 2015. If this doesn’t already sound far too eccentrically English a story then it won’t come as a surprise to learn that when Gascoigne began selling some of the late Duchess's possessions - in order to fund a restoration of the house- he found on the back of a bedroom door a longlost, and priceless, pencil and chalk study for the PreRaphaelite painting, Flaming June by the Sir Frederic Leighton.

In 2016 Bamber Gascoigne leased land to Wasfi to build herself a brand new “Theatre in the Woods” on his 350-acre estate. With four tiers of seating in a horseshoe shape (modelled on La Scala, Milan), the Theatre in the Woods can accommodate 700 people. It opened its first season with Puccini's Tosca starring Joseph Calleja and in 2018 followed up with Un ballo in maschera, Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and the Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma! This summer the festival is performing Verdi's Don Carlo, Gershwin's Porgy & Bess and Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel.

STAY: Barnet Hill is nine miles south of Grange Park Opera.

Hampshire

Probably forever fated to be twinned in the popular imagination with Grange Park Opera in Surrey, The Grange in Hampshire is a magical venue that since 2017 has been run by the opera singer Michael Chance.

The building has had a long and glamorous history. In 1795 it was leased to George, later Prince Regent as a hunting lodge offering more than 400 deer in its park. In the nineteenth century the building was reworked in the Greek Revival style and in 1823 a substantial hot house was added in iron and glass. (This would one day have its floor dug out to become an somewhat unconventional opera house where Brun Terfel sang “If I Were A Richman”).

In 1934 the house was rescued from decay by a wealthy American, Charles Wallach who had made his fortune from the medicinal use of paraffin. During the Second World War Wallach made his house over to the American Army and in March 1944 Winston Churchill and U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower met at The Grange to plan D-Day.

After Wallach’s death the house was bought by the seventh Lord Ashburton whose ancestors had developed the estate in the first place. Lord Ashburton kept the land but made moves to dynamite the main building. The upkeep of English country houses has never been cheap. Public protests saved it from demolition however and the Department of the Environment took over maintenance of The Grange. In 1998 Martha Fiennes used it as a location in her film Onegin, starring brother Ralph. That same year Grange Park Opera staged its first summer festival at The Grange under Wasfi Kani.

When Wasfi left, a new festival was created by the celebrated English singer Michael Chance. Its first season was given in June 2017, opening with operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, Bizet, and Britten. This summer the festival will perform Barber of Seville, Falstaff and Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar. Michael Chance believes the Grange happens to have one of the best acoustics in Britain for the celebration of the human voice. He is bringing in the best talent he knows to exploit its qualities to the full.

STAY The Woolpack is two miles north of The Grange Festival.

Gloucestershire

While opera’s 4G venues all began in old country houses, Longborough in Gloucestershire began in a cowshed. In 1998 Martin Graham, a successful local businessman converted an agricultural building on his land into an opera house with the intention of mounting a production of Wagner’s Ring. Famously told he was ”bonkers” by the Wagnerian conductor Georg Solti, Graham persisted with his dream, staging a reduced “pocket” Ring initially. Finally in 2013 the complete Ring Cycle was given three times, as is the tradition at Bayreuth. The Graham family were proud that theirs was the only British opera company staging a complete Ring Cycle in the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. The project was a huge success. “To call it a triumph would be an understatement,” wrote The Times arts critic.

Six years on, and now under the artistic direction of Martin’s daughter Polly, Longborough embarks on a second Ring Cycle that will be given in its entirety in 2022. Das Rhinegold in a completely new staging will be on offer this June, alongside Anna Bolena, Don Giovanni, and Cavalli’s La Calisto.

Visiting Longborough is a very similar experience to attending the big 4G although here, unusually many people erect their own gazebos. As elsewhere there is the same long interval every evening for dinner which can be a picnic or be booked in a small restaurant that the Grahams have built. During Wagner performances diners are summoned back to the venue with a blast of Wagner played on a trumpet or horn.

The opera house itself is highly individual. Martin bought the old seating and a chandelier from Covent Garden when it was going through a recent refurbishment, but no attempt has been made to disguise the fact that this theatre was once an agricultural building.

“Yes, it looks like an opera house,” Martin admits happily. “But the moment we start to pretend it is an opera house, it will look like a barn.”

STAY: The Sheep on Sheep Street and The Porch in Stow-on-the-Wold are less than three miles south of Longborough.

Leicestershire

Beginning in 2013 with a staging of The Magic Flute, Nevill Holt is a newcomer on the country house opera scene. This festival takes place in Leicestershire at Nevill Holt Hall, a building that dates back centuries but was renowned as the home of the Cunard family from 1876 to 1912. Since 2000 Nevill Holt has been the home of David Ross, co-founder of Carphone Warehouse. Last year Ross built a beautiful new theatre for his festival, seating 400 people inside the hall’s seventeeth-century stable courtyard.

From 2016 the festival has offered two productions annually. This year it will be presenting Cosi fan tutte and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With a commitment to new talent, Nevill Holt Opera aims to cast young singers whenever possible. It also mounts an open-air exhibition of contemporary British sculpture to coincide with the opera festival.

STAY: Hambleton Hall is 14 miles to the north of Nevill Holt.

Wiltshire

Iford Festival Opera began in the cloisters of Iford Manor, the tiniest opera venue you’ll ever see. Visitors sat on four sides of the bijou cloister and performances took place around a rather dominant well-head that had been brought over from Aquilegia in Italy. So close were singers and audience that one singer described it as “not so much In Yer Face opera as Up Your Nostrils”.

Back in the 1980s artistic director, Judy Eglington started a music festival at Iford. The first opera performance was given in 1993, and the first fully staged opera in 1995. Touring opera companies invited to perform included Opera della Luna, Opera Project and the Early Opera Company. Traditionally there have always been jazz proms to accompany the operas. As the years have gone by, the need to cater for bigger and bigger audiences has moved the festival to other venues. This summer the festival will take place three miles away in Belcombe Court near Bradford on Avon. Here a purpose-built geodesic dome seats an audience of 240.

This year the festival began on 18 May with Die Fledermaus given in the Banqueting Hall of Bath’s Guildhall. It will resume on 30 August with a Picnic Prom in the eighteenth-century gardens of Belcombe Court. On 31 August, 3 September, 6 September and 7 September there will be a performance of L’elisir d’amore given within the geodesic dome.

STAY: Bailbrook House is seven miles north of Belcombe Court and two and half miles east of the Guildhall in Bath.

Dorset

Founded in 1974 in Sherborne, Dorset Opera moved to Bryanston School near Blandford Forum and became a fully-fledged festival in 2011.Its current remit is to present at least two major opera productions each summer. Much of the festival’s work is highly ambitious with the world stage-première of Donizetti’s Gabriella di Vergy; possibly the first UK stage performance of Puccini’s Edgar and certainly the British stage première of Turandot with Luciano Berio’s completion of the last act.

The festival has also given the first UK stage production of Donizetti’s Maria Padilla and the European première of Brazilian composer Gomes’ Salvator Rosa. Other UK premieres have included Hunyadi László by Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel and Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement which was completed by Lord Berners almost 100 years ago.

This year’s season is more conventional: three performances of Nabucco, three of Lucia di Lammermoor and an Opera Gala Concert.

STAY: The Museum Pub is just seven miles from the centre of Blandford Forum.

Oxfordshire

Bampton is a one-opera festival performed in the garden of the Deanery at Bampton, a mostly seventeenth-century rural Oxfordshire structure. A curved yew hedge encloses the opera stage, creating a delightfully informal and much-loved al fresco venue with excellent natural acoustics. Thereafter performances transfer to The Orangery in Westonbirt. This august house -now a girl’s school - was built by Robert Stayner Holford in the mid-1800s. (Stayner and his descendants also developed the nearby world-famous arboretum.) This year the opera in question is Storace’s Gli sposi malcontenti presented as Bride and Gloom. Stephen John Seymour Storace (1762 – 1796) was a British composer and the brother of famous operatic soprano Nancy Storace, who created the role of Susanna for Mozart in his Le nozze di Figaro. Later in the year the production will be given again at St John's, Smith Square on 17 September.

STAY: The Trout Inn at Tadpole Bridge is only two miles from Blandford Forum.

Hampshire

The creative partnership of director Richard Studer and conductor Jonathan Lyness, who did so much excellent work at Longborough Festival Opera in the early 2000s, is responsible for Die Fledermaus at West Green House Opera Festival this July.

The house was built in the early eighteenth century by General Henry Hawley, a slightly controversial figure who led the cavalry charge that massacred Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.

In the twentieth century West Green House was bought by Sir Victor Sassoon, builder of the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Sassoon left the property to the National Trust on his death in 1957. In 1993 Marylyn Abbott, former marketing and tourism manager of Sydney Opera House, bought the lease from the National Trust. She instituted an opera season at West Green House which is now held annually in July and August on what is known as “The Theatre Lawn”. Other productions this summer include a one act curiosity that certainly deserves to be heard again. This is a West Green tradition and this year’s offering is Rossini’s L’Inganno Felice (The Fortunate Deception), a romantic melodrama with buffo elements.

STAY: Tylney Hall is three miles from West Green House in Hook.

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