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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Whatever the weather

For years after it was founded, Glyndebourne Opera House was sui generis, an opera house based at an English Country House. Though the opera originally took place in a small, but full functional theatre, the other logistics of opera-going ( getting from your car, bars, restaurant, picnics) place some reliance on the uncertainty of the English weather.

I have strong memories of both the old and new opera houses at Glyndebourne where the coldness of the weather on the Downs meant the bar areas were cold and picnicking was a bit of a challenge. And one memorable occasion when the weather was so bad that picnickers had to be fitted into every available dry nook and cranny. But, all in all, Glyndebourne has been relatively immune to the weather.

However the rise of English country house opera in the last 20 years or so seems to have taken place in spite of the vagaries of the English climate. Few places are lucky enough to possess a fully functional indoor theatre and planning restrictions mean that you just can't go out and build one. Smaller companies rely entirely on being out-doors and hoping for the best. Larger ones with permanent bases have developed a variety of coping mechanisms, trying to compromise between the ideal and the reality.

Grange Park Opera takes place in a custom built theatre within the old Orangery of Northington Grange House (a semi-ruinous neo-classical mansion in Hampshire). Though in the early days the facilities were quite challenging for the performers with the backstage and wings being effectively out of doors (just the stage and audience were in the warm and dry). This has been transformed with the building of the new theatre. But like most country house opera, the total experience is reliant on the weather with picnics, semi-out door bar facilities and car parking in neighbouring fields.

Longborough Opera also has indoor facilities, based on what was a barn. Here they have ambitions to stage a full Ring Cycle, so it would certainly be tempting fate to attempt to do so in the open air. Opera Holland Park use a custom built pavilion which keeps off the rain but cannot do much in the face of strong winds. Having started out as open air, Garsington Opera are now in their new home which is also a custom built pavilion. But this is a temporary structure, a pavilion rather than an opera house. And judging by Rupert Christiansen's recent review in The Telegraph, the venue is still rather dependent on good weather.

But here we come up against planning. When Grange Park Opera were starting to perform at Nevill Holt in Leicestershire, it was not possible to get permission to create a permanent theatre within the historic stables. Similarly, it even if they wished to, you suspect that neither Opera Holland Park nor Garsington Opera would find it easy to get permission to built a permanent theatre from scratch in their present locations. Longborough were luck enough to possess a building which had the capability of being transformed, no matter how unlikely it might have seemed at first.

There is a dichotomy here, one which is touched on tangentially in Rupert Christiansen's review. Whilst country house opera is a bit of fun in a temporary theatre where the weather is simply one of the extra bits of entertainment then generally we are OK (after all English audiences still seem to get a bit of a kick from cheating the weather). But as performances increase in quality, and rare repertoire is performed, then critical notice is expected to be taken. And just how do you review a performance which is suffering from the weather. I have read reviews in the past where, reading between the lines, you can tell that critic and audience had a rather poor time of it and that you felt sorry for the poor struggling singers.

A couple of years ago we went to a country opera festival in Bavaria (Gut Immling), situated in a custom built barn on a farm. Yes, it was to a certain extent predicated on the weather; you could tell that if the weather was kind the experience would be glorious. But the night we went, the heavens opened. The result was nothing like an English country house opera. We were ferried to the opera house by bus from the local town, the theatre was large, weather tight and capacious, and there was a huge circus tent in which the entire audience could sit down for a meal in something like comfort. We barely noticed the rain.

You see, country house opera in England from Glyndebourne down is founded on optimism. It relies on the expectation that the weather will be lovely and that the experience glorious, opera in a country setting with a picnic by the lake/herbaceous border and a view of the countryside preferably with cows. When it works, it is magical, especially when the opera performance is something special as well.

But pity the poor performers and the audience when the wind blows, rain comes down, temperatures plummet and everything is cold or damp.




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