The Sun Shines on Opera by Tom Sutcliffe

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Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2006 A Midsummer Nights Dream Iride Martinez as Tytania Dream Fairies

I will always remember my first visit to Glyndebourne. It was a Sunday and I was the countertenor in Westminster Cathedral choir, so I must have somehow managed to get off singing vespers and benediction that day – the second after Pentecost (only three copes, but no doubt a fair waft of incense and quite a lot of camping around). I see from my diary that I picked up Michael Reynolds, assistant editor of Music and Musicians magazine who was giving me his second ticket, at his basement flat near Olympia at 2pm. The deal was I’d drive him down. Not having done it before I’d no idea how long that would take.

It was June 16th 1968, a lively year for protest in some parts of Europe. The opera was Seraglio which I had never seen, and the prima donna was Margaret Price from Caerphilly – whom I’d never heard of – at 27 just two years older than me, and (though I did not appreciate it at the time) emerging through that role from her chrysalis. She had been a Cherubino, a mezzo. But Constanze’s “Martern aller arten” is one of Mozart’s toughest soprano challenges, and Price was soon recognised as one of the most extraordinary and distinctive sopranos of the century. She had a unique directness and colour at the top, a purity and a strange exact resonance that was slightly hollow but telling and adorable. A good way to start summer opera experience.

Alas, we were late. I remember the enticing view as I put my foot down and we dashed across a bit of Ashdown Forest, where nine years earlier I had attended a summer corps camp and slept in a ditch on night op. The weather typically was overcast. How much further was it? We stopped for nature. Going to an opera house somewhere vague is a bit like a treasure hunt. Finally, we got to Ringmer and were going along the stretch of Downs to the House. They kindly smuggled us into the performance: embarrassing, upsetting. But I soon grew to love the old Glyndebourne with its slightly ramshackle air; its oddly democratic feeling. Though dressed up absurdly, everybody was somehow on a level. Cakes and sandwiches were affordable, self-service style, in the Mildmay tent. A pint of Pimm’s from the bar was okay too, though unwise if one wanted consciously to enjoy the opera.

0115_photographer Sam Stephenson
Glyndebourne. Photo: Sam Stephenson
Glyndebourne 0589_photo credit Leigh Simpson
photo credit: Leigh Simpson

The first I’d heard of Glyndebourne was in 1955 or so when our priest-vicar at Chichester Cathedral where I was a boy chorister got taken to Idomeneo – then an unperformed Mozart which Glyndebourne had revived with Richard Lewis in the title role. Later, in 1964, the young Pavarotti was to make his British debut as Idamante, Idomeneo’s son – (the recording from it is a fabulous demo of why Pavarotti was to become one of the greatest tenors ever). My big sister was taken by Dad’s cousins who lived at Malling Deanery (virtually neighbours of John Christie, who created the opera festival) to Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers – not very popular with audiences. But a visit never came my way.

In 1969, I wrote my first summer opera review for Music & Musicians of Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne. The following year I became the editor and from then on, for many years, I got to see almost every opera done at Glyndebourne and in London. In 1975, I started writing about opera and theatre in Vogue and later, from 1977 to 1985, I was at The Guardian as deputy arts editor, when a lot was happening in the world of opera staging. Being a critic is all about appetite. Only by seeing a lot does a critic have the perspective that justifies comment. But in those days it was easy to feed that appetite as the illusion that readers of the classy broadsheets ought to be well informed about opera, and even foreign opera, faded only gradually. Before I got a Guardian staff job in 1973, I had been to Bayreuth for the paper to write about the Tannhäuser which Colin Davis was conducting, directed by Götz Friedrich. I’d already been taken there twice, ten years earlier, by another cousin who was a judge on the Supreme Restitution Court in Herford and a friend of Wolfgang Wagner’s. We sat in the family box for some performances and I met Frau Winifred, devotee of the Führer.

Of course, Germany has plenty of all-year-round opera – almost 100 companies with contracted ensembles if one includes Austria and German-speaking Switzerland as well as the Federal Republic. But Bayreuth has always been the summer event, setting the style of afternoon performances that wipe out the whole day, which is the rural opera norm at both Glyndebourne and also at its more recent imitators, such as Longborough, Garsington and The Grange. At Bayreuth, it’s sausages and beer during the Wagnerian intervals, though there is more sophisticated food available too. Picnics are rather an English thing but, then, foreigners have always rightly considered English summer opera to be a form of English eccentricity.

On September 4th 1987, I went to review Handel’s Atalanta which was being staged in the back garden of 90 Grange Road, Ealing, home of the Australian couple David and Lorelle Skewes (he being a consultant anaesthetist as well as a tenor, and she being a rather good soprano). With David Roblou in charge of the music and Alan Privett (an ex-countertenor like me) doing the production, it was a memorably well-judged and musically rewarding performance. The idea of putting on opera where you happen to be worked out extremely well, though I remember various colleagues thinking it was going a bit far to actually review something like that. This was well before Richard Ingrams’s kid brother and merchant banker Leonard had decided to use the beautiful former home of Lady Ottoline Morell, Garsington Manor, which he had bought in 1982, as a venue for opera. But in fact, the Skewes company, Midsummer Opera, did not just do Handel and Mozart, but staged a new operatic double bill the following year written by the composer Alison Bauld.

Roblou is still running Midsummer Opera, which he took over when the Skeweses returned to Melbourne and handed it to him, though now the company’s performances take place at the neo-classical St John’s, Waterloo, just across from the station. Alan Privett, meanwhile, has become the artistic director of the Longborough Festival Opera alongside Anthony Negus as music director.  Moreton-in-Marsh’s opera company was founded by Martin Graham and his wife Lizzie to use the proceeds of his successful business as a builder in London to indulge a Wagnerian enthusiasm. “We’ve got income, we’ve got assets, we’ve got a family and children,” he told Alan Rusbridger. “Some people in this business collect Rolls-Royces. I feel this project is a bit like my Ferrari.” It took more than fifty years for anybody to imitate Glyndebourne seriously. But we live in an age where there is a lot of money around that can be tapped for the consumption of culture as entertainment – particularly when it’s associated with an appealing place and good food.

GARSINGTON OPERA PAVILION AT NIGHT Photo: Clive Barda
GARSINGTON OPERA PAVILION AT NIGHT credit Clive Barda
Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;
PICNICKING AT GARSINGTON OPERA credit Clive Barda

Leonard Ingrams had played violin in the National Youth Orchestra but it was a career in banking that enabled him to create a festival of opera at Garsington Manor. He started out as an academic, teaching classics at Queen Mary College, London University, but then joined Barings in 1967, aged 26. Five years later he was put in charge of the team at the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency eventually working independently in Riyadh for a good number of years. He bought the manor in 1982. Having the means to do opera, which started as just one work but quickly became a season, he also soon found that others would support him with their wealth in his operatic project. He did not have a suitable barn for performances, and nor did he commit to building an opera house near the manor in one of his fields. There was quite a lot of local opposition to Garsington Opera, including regular visits from a very noisy helicopter attempting to spoil everybody’s experience in the early years. The weather was often unfriendly, and Garsington did not originally have any cover over the performers apart from a very small awning above the entrance to the courtyard. I remember being reduced to helpless laughter as the performers struggled on during an immense deluge. The awning was weighed down lower and lower by water until finally an imaginative extra came along with a broom and swept it off from underneath. Talk about the Dunkirk spirit. But that was part of the fun in the early days. Leonard would always deliver a welcome speech requesting the audience (who had had to drive to get there) to leave at the end turning right and head away from the village rather than driving through it.

It was only after Leonard died in 2005, aged 63, as he was driving back from seeing Otello at Glyndebourne, that it became apparent just how successfully he had managed to garner support. Even though his family did not want to go on with the thing, many others did. But, as the deadline for the final festival opera season at Garsington approached, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who succeeded him as artistic director, had great difficulty finding a new home for the project. Re-homing opera festivals has become an important part of the summer opera story. Garsington Opera lives on only in the name. Its new home, thanks to the Getty family, is Wormsley, where its theatre, designed to be dismantled at the end of each season but now welcome as a permanence, jostles up against a vast cricket pitch – that sport being a relic of a previous Getty’s enthusiasm. Garsington has Douglas Boyd, a conductor who used to be a top oboist, as artistic director – interesting in itself. Boyd worked as a player with the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and warmed to the whole Harnoncourt notion of music-making. This is not a search for correctness or so-called authenticity but a questioning examination of the many different ways of releasing the sound and the notes. Next year, there will be four operas at Wormsley. Boyd is modest and reserved but excited at what is proving possible. “We are expanding,” he says, “we must be doing something right.” There are collaborations ahead with Santa Fe and the Paris Opera Comique. The Garsington Opera board is very active, with a growing membership and successful associated fund-raising.

Grange Park Opera - Last Night of 2013 Season
Grange Park Opera – Last Night of 2013 Season
Dialogues des Carmelites – Francis Poulenc – Grange Park Opera – 9 June 2013

Wasfi Kani, who later became the creator, along with Michael Moody, of Grange Park Opera at Lord Ashburton’s Northington Grange, had been invited to conduct at Garsington by Leonard Ingrams. She read music at Oxford and then worked in the City before discovering her previously buried ambition to be a maestro, which prompted her to launch Pimlico Opera, a company that did musicals and opera in prisons with the inmates as performers. At some point, she hearkened to sensible advice that instead of conducting, she should concentrate on making the opera venture of which she had dreamed (no doubt fed by working at Garsington) into the success it should be. And eventually she and Michael Moody (who was working at Garsington from 1995 to 1997) decided to branch out on their own. They spent many weeks looking round Hampshire and Sussex for a venue, planning to start outside (like Garsington) but then build a theatre. Suddenly everything fell into place when they came upon Northington Grange and met Lord Ashburton. David Davies from Dublin (compatriot of Moody’s) was also in the frame, as was Jocelyn Stephens as chair of English Heritage.

The Grange was historic, and a Baring house, but also in a semi-ruined state thanks to the decision to deroof it when it came back into the Ashburton family in 1964 – a time when old country houses were just a drag on the market. Wasfi turned the former Orangery (a library in the 1930s) into a theatre. The seasons went well. Ingrams was not pleased about the competition, though it did no harm to Garsington Opera. And now history is repeating itself. Wasfi seems to be a Queen bumblebee – and is now heading off for another nest. Hard to say whether this is an inevitable process. Mundy is staying at The Grange Festival as managing director to the new artistic director, former countertenor Michael Chance. Wasfi’s attention has turned to West Horsley Place in Surrey, inherited by Bamber Gascoigne from his great-aunt the Duchess of Roxburghe. Grange Park Opera will keep the name, which Wasfi has control of, but the renewal of her lease of the theatre that she and Mundy created has been abandoned. Summer opera is indeed thriving. It’s good luck all round, and “Enjoy!”

by Tom Sutcliffe


The summer opera season gets under way in on May 21st at Glyndebourne and continues until the end of August with a rich program of productions across the following five festivals:

Glyndebourne
Garsington Opera
Grange Park Opera
Longborough Festival Opera
Opera Holland park