Saturday, 4 May 2019

The old ethos and a new professionalism: celebrating Garsington Opera at 30

Auditorium of Garsington Opera at Wormsley (Photo Dennis Gilbert)
Auditorium of Garsington Opera at Wormsley 2011 (Photo Dennis Gilbert)
Garsington Opera is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, with four new productions at its home at Wormsley. The company has developed considerably since it was first founded by Leonard Ingrams in the garden of his home at Garsington Manor, with the move from the company's original home to the custom designed theatre on the Wormsley Estate initiating a series of remarkable transformations. But along with this the company has tried to keep something of the ethos of the original theatre in a garden. Executive Director Nicola Creed has been with Garsington Opera for 19 years and seen many of these changes through. I met up with Nicola recently, just before the start of rehearsals for the 2019 season, to look forward to the delights to come and to look back a little as well.

Whilst the 2019 season is certainly intended as a celebration, putting together a season is such a complex operation that the resulting combination of operas is a weaving together of a number of strands. Mozart has always been a theme in Garsington programmes, so this year there is a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. The company has presented the opera many times and they are excited to have Michael Boyd (former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company), with his theatre background, tackling the opera for the first time. And evidently he took some convincing.

The season, as ever, has to be a mix of period, and of light and dark. So also present is Britten's The Turn of the Screw, and Britten has been a notable visitor to the festival too with productions of Albert Herring (in the old theatre in 1996), A Midsummer Night's Dream and Death in Venice (2015, see my review), whilst The Turn of the Screw was last done by the company in 1992. Surprisingly the company has never done Smetana's The Bartered Bride, so that is definitely something of a novelty in many ways. And Offenbach's Fantasio, receiving its UK stage premiere, continues Garsington's tradition of excavating rarely performed operas.

Haydn's La vera Costanza - Garsington Opera 1992 (Photo Sally Greene)
Haydn's La vera Costanza - Garsington Opera 1992 (Photo Sally Greene)
There is no revival of a classic production (something that companies often do for anniversaries), but Nicola points out that they only started reviving productions after the move to Wormsley, and now they try to have a revival each year. But she sees the four new productions as a big bold way to celebrate. There are also a number of other anniversaries in the coming years to be acknowledged, so that in 2020 their production of Beethoven's Fidelio makes a notable return, whilst in 2021 the company will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the move to Wormsley.

Over the years the company has developed a strong relationship with its audiences. Audience members have come to trust and believe in the company's work, that it will create something true to the music, enjoyable yet of an artistic quality. This means that nowadays, the company is able to programme more unusual operas and audiences will respond. It has not always been so, and Nicola points out that in the early days it was sometimes difficult to get audiences to the Richard Strauss rarities for which the company became known.

Richard Strauss: Intermezzo - Mary Dunleavy, Sam Furness - Garsington Opera 2015 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Richard Strauss: Intermezzo - Mary Dunleavy, Sam Furness - Garsington Opera 2015 (photo Mike Hoban)
Richard Strauss' Capriccio was given a new production last year [see my review] so there was no Strauss in this year's season. But Nicola is please to point out that both Capriccio and their 2015 production of Intermezzo went very well indeed.

For this season, the company has sold more tickets than ever before. Don Giovanni and The Bartered Bride have both sold out, but there are still tickets available for Fantasio and The Turn of the Screw. Nicola comments that it is always good to have some tickets available, after all they would like to attract new audiences as well as their regular members. An opera like Offenbach's romantic comedy Fantasio is accessible and charming, so has the potential to attract new opera goers.

For 2019 there will be 39 nights of performances, 36 of regular opera performance and three nights for the performances of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 with The English Concert. At the old Garsington the company did 21 nights of opera, but within five years of the move to Wormsley it significantly increased the number. This year's Monteverdi concert serves to introduce The English Concert, with whom the company is starting a regular relationship. And some seasons, when the opportunity arises, such events happen so that in the past there was Haydn's The Creation done in partnership with Rambert, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Mendelssohn's music, in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Richard Strauss: Intermezzo - Garsington Opera 2001
Richard Strauss: Intermezzo - Garsington Opera 2001
Casting has always involved a mix of young singers starting out alongside more established names. And Nicola comments that it has been a pleasure to watch young singers who come to Garsington and take the spotlight and go on to great things. Sophie Bevan, who sings the Governess in this year's The Turn of the Screw, first appeared at Garsington in 2008 as Alinda in Vivaldi's L'incoronazione di Dario, returning in 2010 to sing Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. This combination of experienced singers alongside younger ones is something of which Nicola is proud. Robert Murray sang Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress in 2008 alongside Christopher Purves, and Henry Waddington came to the company as a young man and still returns (he sang the title role in Verdi's Falstaff last year).

All this has helped to give the company a greater profile so that for the Countess in Richard Strauss' Capriccio in 2018 they were able to attract a singer of the calibre of Miah Persson, something Nicola feels they would not have been able to do 10 years ago. Nicola suggests that the intimacy of the new theatre also helped Persson's performance, giving her the ability to just be herself and the audience was able to see every nuance.

This sense of intimacy is one of the things that Nicola is proud that the company has brought from the old theatre. When planning the new theatre there was a moment of decision when it came to a question of size and style of theatre. Whilst the old theatre had its problems, everyone loved the intimacy and so the new one replicated the old one's steep rake (thus bringing the rear seats closer to the stage) and only expanded the new one by 100 seats. This means that people still feel part of a small unit. And those involved in the new theatre worked hard on the acoustics too.

Other elements of the 'Old Garsington' which the company brought with it include the garden at the side of the theatre which was designed to reflect the garden at the side of the old theatre. Nicola is also proud that the current company has kept the ethos of its older self, the family atmosphere which arose originally because the operas took place in Leonard Ingrams' home, and he would stand and welcome the audience. His daughter Catherine is still on the Garsington board.

For all its charm the old theatre, being set in a garden, placed enormous constraints on productions and the new one has enabled the company to create a far more professional theatre. Though Nicola suggests that have some restrictions helps to concentrate the mind, and that in the new theatre directors and designers have to take account of the 'inside out' nature of the theatre with the auditorium being light for the first half of the evening, and designs which embrace this give an extra something to the production. This means that the quality of the productions, in terms of sets, lighting and design, has changed dramatically and thanks to a lot of generous supporters the company is able to concentrate resources on the quality what is happening on stage.

Vivaldi: L'incoronazione di Dario - Sophie Bevan, Russell Smythe - Garsington Opera 2008 (Photo Johan Persson)
Vivaldi: L'incoronazione di Dario
Sophie Bevan, Russell Smythe
Garsington Opera 2008 (Photo Johan Persson)
The company now has the Alvarez Young Artists programme, which it could never have afforded before. The young singers on the programme understudy roles, have a showcase performance in London and take part in a complete performance of the opera with all the understudies in front of an audience experiencing opera for the first time. This first time audience links to the company's impressive learning and education programme. The company has always had such a programme but originally it was rather low key, and the spark for change was the appointment of creative director Karen Gillingham.

There was an idea to do a community opera in the old theatre, but the move to the new theatre meant that timescales slipped. The company had to first of all develop relationships with local schools, which took a couple of years. Their first commissioned opera was Road Rage by Orlando Gough and Richard Stilgoe which was performed by a cast of 180 [see the review on The Artsdesk]. Then two years ago they commissioned Silver Birch from Roxanna Panufnik and Jessica Duchen, which Nicola feels was in a different league because of the significance of the story. It was based on the real life memories of an old soldier whom Jessica Duchen had met, and at one of the early rehearsals he came along and gave his 'dog tag' to tenor Sam Furness to wear during the production.

The piece had an enormous impact, both on the audience and on the participants. These latter included both children, youths and retired former military personnel, and one of the benefits of the production was the remarkable interaction between these groups.

This season sees the beginning of Garsington's relationship with The English Concert, where the orchestra will be performing Monteverdi's Vespers. Garsington has had a relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra since 2017, and from next year this will also be developing so that each season the Philharmonia will play for two or three operas and The English Concert for one or two, depending on repertoire. These relationships are opening doors for the company, and Nicola sees that its profile has completely changed over the last 20 years from a relatively small national asset to an internationally known opera company.

The Auditorium from the Opera Garden - Garsington Opera at Wormsely (Photo Colin Willoughboy)
The Auditorium from the Opera Garden - Garsington Opera at Wormsely (Photo Colin Willoughboy)
The new theatre is enclosed and warm, but with a window onto the out-doors which means that on performance evenings Nicola can find herself involve in strange conversations about the angle of the sun and the sun blinds, but also needing to ensure everyone gets some of the warm air too. There are new lifts going in, and Nicola sees the advantage of a festival being that at the end of each season you can look back and think how to make improvements. The Getty family, which owns the Wormsley estate, has been enormously supportive of the project and the company has just signed a new 50 year lease.

Garsington Opera's 2019 season opens on 29 May 2019, full details from their website.

Garsington on disc:
  • Rossini:Maometto Secondo conductor David Parry, 2014, available from Amazon 
  • Richard Strauss: Der Liebe der Danae conductor Elgar Howarth, 1999, available from Amazon
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Youthful Verdi revealed: a lithe and impulsive I Lombardi from Heidenheim (★★½)  - CD review
  • Revivifying Olimpie: Spontini's opera in a terrific new recording from Palazzetto Bru Zane  (★★★★)  - CD review
  • A window onto 18th century taste: the multi-composer Naples version of Handel's Rinaldo (★★½) - CD review
  • Rare delights: Handel's third English oratorio Athalia revealed at the London Handel Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • Freshness & energy: Victoria Stevens on her new Le nozze di Figaro at the New Generation Festival in Florence - interview
  • What we're missing: I chat to festival director Joseph Middleton about this year's Leeds Lieder  - feature article
  • A sort of magic: John Nelson conducts Berlioz' La damnation de Faust in Strasbourg with Michael Spyres & Joyce DiDonato  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Schumann's Myrthen at Wigmore Hall with Sarah Connolly, Robin Tritschler, Anna Huntley and Malcolm Martineau (★★★) - concert review
  • Tony Cooper reports on this year’s BBC Proms, the world’s biggest classical-music festival - article
  • Remarkable revival: the Academy of Ancient Music presents Handel's Brockes Passion in a new critical edition (★★★★) - concert review
  • Education is key: I chat to conductor Nicholas Chalmers about Nevill Holt Opera & its new theatre - interview 
  • Commemoration & celebration: Sir James MacMillan conducts the BBC Singers at the St John's Smith Square Holy Week Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • The topsyturvydom effervesced: HMS Pinafore from Charles Court Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • A very human St John Passion: Solomon's Knot in Bach without conductor and from memory (★★★★) - concert review
  • Piano day: two venues, three pianists, two pianos - Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Home
 

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