Wednesday, 19 December 2018

So much more than a night at the opera

OPERA doesn’t get much better than this: Getty’s Wormsley Park estate, set in an Area

OPERA doesn’t get much better than this: Getty’s Wormsley Park estate, set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, replete with lake, immaculate cricket pitch (a Getty obsession) and a fully-functioning opera house. This is the stunning home of Garsington Opera, where any pre-conceptions of opera as stuffy, elitist and highbrow simply melt away.

Garsington is a byword for quality and accessibility — the wine and champagne labels, the excellent restaurant, a beautifully designed programme and the performances themselves.

It is not simply an operatic evening out but an all-round experience that starts in mid-afternoon — from tea overlooking the cricket pitch or trips by vintage bus to the 18th-century walled garden, to dining under canvas or eating al fresco by the lake. Evening dress is de rigueur, creating a spectacle of its own, while champagne and elderflower cordial beckon at every turn.

The 2015 opera season opens on Friday, June 5, with an eclectic blend of the classical, modern, tragic and light-hearted.

Intermezzo by Richard Strauss is an autobiographical work, punctuated by Strauss’s trademark lush orchestration, producing moments of high comedy mixed with genuine pathos.

Britten’s Death in Venice is a mesmeric, thoughtful production based on Thomas Mann’s novella. It depicts the tension between the staid respectability of north Germany and the licentious sensuality of Venice in the south, where the novelist Ashenbach, seeking creative inspiration, becomes obsessed with the young boy Tadzio while succumbing slowly to a cholera epidemic.

By contrast, Mozart’s bitter-sweet comedy Così fan tutte, featuring two couples caught up in a wager about fidelity, is light, fun and eminently digestible.

Finally comes a collaboration between Greg Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Douglas Boyd, artistic director at Garsington, in the form of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mendelssohn’s full incidental music score is interwoven with the play, as are the musicians, who join the actors on stage. Next stop after Wormsley is the Queen Elizabeth Hall from July 22 to 24.

The opera house itself was designed to allow views of the adjacent garden, recreating the original Garsington experience. Much attention to detail has gone into the planning. Just 600 seats ensure everyone is close to the action, while surprisingly good acoustics enhance the listening experience.

Even the height of the orchestra pit was the subject of experimentation to find the optimum position for sound. At the end of the evening, lanterns guide the audience to their waiting cars.

The Garsington effect does not stop at the artistic. It involves the community, employing 60 to 70 locals in front of house and parking management. Volunteer scouts raised £6,000 for projects last year.

The events also create welcome footfall for local businesses and income for taxis and caterers. The opera itself employs more than 250 singers, orchestral players and backstage crew. Audience numbers last season reached 14,500.

Garsington Opera has always run its education programme, Opera for All, which continues to expand under the guidance of Karen Gillingham, director of education. The aim is to help introduce opera to people with no prior experience, to show how amazing it is and that it is nothing to be scared of.

A community opera was put on in 2013. This year local primary and secondary schools and adults will be targeted in Oxford, Marlow and High Wycombe, and Henley may be on the cards in due course.

Films of the performances will be rolled out. Offenbach’s Vert-Vert will be screened at Marlow Festival on June 14 and Così fan tutte in Magdalen College fields on July 3 and Waddesdon Manor on September 3.

All are free of charge, including free entry to Waddesdon’s grounds.

Preparatory workshops for local children and adults, involving singing and movement, will help them get the most out of the screenings. And, for the first time, a week-long course takes place in High Wycombe from August 17 to 21, where teenagers will perform their own mini-opera, supported by Aylesbury Youth Orchestra. They will be invited on stage at Wormsley on the final day.

Finally, it is time to dispel the myth that Garsington prices are beyond the average pocket. A thriving under-35s programme makes tickets available for £30. Seats are still available for Intermezzo and Death in Venice, and it’s worth getting on the waiting list for cancellations for the other performances — just call 01865 361636 or see

Trevor Howell

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