Thursday, 20 September 2018

National treasure likes the ‘common’ operas

TERRY WOGAN is just about everywhere these days. Not just where he’s supposed to be — presenting his Weekend Wogan

TERRY WOGAN is just about everywhere these days. Not just where he’s supposed to be — presenting his Weekend Wogan show on Radio 2, or fronting the annual Children In Need phone-in — but on news flashes walking out of Lady Thatcher’s funeral, and on random TV snatches talking to one of the thousands of celebs he interviewed during the decade-long run of his chat show.

It seems that no matter which button you twiddle, you will find yourself on the receiving end of that ruddy, smiling face and those mellifulous Irish tones. And we thought he’d retired.

It seemed hardly surprising, then, a few years ago as I jostled my way through several thousand opera-goers to claim a stony seat in the back row of the Arena in Verona, that my friend spotted Sir Terry strolling a few paces ahead of us with his wife.

He looked (admittedly from behind) as he always does — calm, relaxed, at peace with the world. Like him or loathe him — which people do apparently in equal degree — you can’t help admire this 74-year-old for his “common touch”, the fact that he always seems comfortable in his skin, and is able to communicate with anyone on any level.

This particular spotting was not a fluke. Sir Terry is, it turns out, a big opera fan and as a local resident (he lives down the road in Taplow) he serves on the board of our local opera company, Garsington.

“I’ve been involved with Garsington since God was a boy,” he says. “Well, the best part of 20 years at least.

“I started going to the opera when I was a young lad of 18. The only way I could get in for nothing was as an extra, or what the Italians call a ‘super’. That was in Dublin, at the Gaiety Theatre. I have been an Assyrian slave, a Doge in Venice, and a waiter in La Traviata. I never had to sing, and that’s probably just as well, for all concerned.

“I was into opera from the age of about 17, though I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession with me, but I do go to Garsington every season.”

This year he has chosen to see Mozart’s Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail — perhaps the least challenging of the three operas on offer at the Wormsley Estate’s outdoor event. The other two are Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel Und Gretel and Rossini’s Maometto II. But then Sir Terry readily admits that he favours the more easy and accessible operas, such as Carmen and La Traviata.

“I tend to be a bit common in my tastes,” he says, in that cheeky voice that you can never really be sure is serious.

“I’ve been to all the common ones, like La Bohème and Madame Butterfly — anything with a lady playing a sexy temptress, though often the supposedly beautiful lady is being played by a big overweight Italian lady.

“But last year at Wormsley I did notice that the leading ladies are getting younger and more beautiful. There were a couple of very striking girls.”

As well as taking part in the annual picnic-and-culture event as an audience member, this year — for the second year running — Sir Terry will be hosting a rather unusual event. During a performance of Hänsel Und Gretel he will introduce a live satellite link to a giant screen erected on Skegness beach.

“I think it’s a terrific idea,” he says. “Last year there were lots of people on the beach and it was a great success. The people of Skegness really enjoyed it, and we’re doing it again this year. It will be introducing opera to people who would possibly never have seen an opera.”

Sir Terry was first persuaded to join the board of Garsington through personal contacts — he knew the Ingrams family who set up the original outdoor opera in Garsington itself, near Oxford. The operation moved to the Wormsley Estate, near Stokenchurch, three years ago.

And even though he loved the original setting, he has nothing but praise for the new one.

“It’s an extraordinary place, and an amazing setting in wonderful grounds,” he says. “The new pavilion is a steel structure, and is completely different from the old Garsington arrangement, which was really just a cover over the back garden to the house itself. It’s an amazing piece of artificial work as it doesn’t look temporary. I don’t know how they do it.”

* This year’s season at Garsington runs from Friday, June 7 to Saturday, July 20. Grounds open at 4pm for picnics. For performance details and to book tickets visit www.garsingtonopera.org or call 01865 361636.

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