Saturday 21 July 2018

Accessibity, intimacy & engagement: festival co-director Guy Withers on Waterperry Opera Festival

Waterperry Gardens
Waterperry Gardens
Waterperry Opera Festival is a new venture,  presenting opera and more in and around Waterperry Gardens from 17 to 19 August 2018 with Rebecca Meltzer and Guy Withers as festival directors and Bertie Baigent as musical director. The season includes stagings of Mozart's Don Giovanni in the garden's amphitheatre and Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park in the house's ballroom. I recently met up with Guy Withers to find out more.

Waterperry house
Waterperry House
Waterperry includes the historic gardens created by Beatrix Havergal, a house which goes back to the Tudor period and a medieval chapel. A women's horticultural college, founded by Beatrix Havergal, flourished on the site from the 1930s to the 1970s, and since then it has been run as a retreat centre by the School of Economic Science. From 1976 to 2016 the Art in Action festival was run at the gardens, a huge annual event with 26,000 visitors over three days with food, visual arts and performing arts.

After 2016 it was decided to close the festival and re-focus. Guy Withers, Rebecca Meltzer and Bertie Baigent toured a production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte to the amphitheatre in Waterperry Gardens, and the success of this led to the team being asked to curate an opera festival for Waterperry which takes place alongside planned ceramics, family storytelling and other festivals throughout the year.

In fact, some of the team from the current Waterperry Opera Festival were also involved in Art in Action and are keen to keep something of the earlier festival's ethos, aiming at accessibility, participation and encouraging engagement with art and how it is made.

Mozart's Don Giovanni at Waterperry Opera Festival
Waterperry Opera Festival will be a festival of music theatre, combining opera with other events. The intention is to use all the different spaces available (the gardens, the house, the chapel) and curate work for different spaces. The opera festival is not a one-off, 2019 and 2020 are already being planned.

This year Mozart's Don Giovanni will be presented outside in the amphitheatre. It will be performed by young cast (Jerome Knox as Don Giovanni, Oskar McCarthy as Leporello, Eleanor Penfold as Donna Anna, Alison Manifold as Donna Elvira, Benjamin Durrant as Don Ottavio, Anna Cavaliero as Zerlina,  Christopher Webb as Il Commendatore and Nicholas Morton as Masetto), with a 13-piece orchestra, the London Young Sinfonia, conducted by Bertie Baigent. Performed in the open air, using the facade as a pack drop, they are aiming for honest and intimate storytelling (the amphitheatre seats around 350).

Don Giovanni will be directed by Laura Attridge, who recently directed Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Trinity Laban. Attridge also wrote the libretto for Belongings, Lewis Murphy's 2017 youth opera for Glyndebourne Opera. The designer of Don Giovanni will be Lizzie Leech who also worked with Attridge on The Rape of Lucretia. Guy points out that both shows, The Rape of Lucretia and Don Giovanni are about a man taking something from women, and that it is interesting to do them with a women-led team. Don Giovanni will be given in Jeremy Sams' English translation (used by English National Opera and by English Touring Opera) and the piece will be discreetly cut.

In the house, they are using the ballroom (seating 80) for an immersive, intimate production of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park (in the original version accompanied by piano duet). Mansfield Park was made originally for performance in country houses, though it has taken on a remarkable life outside. The cast, in character, will lead the audience from the box office through the spaces of the house to create what Guy terms an immersive Jane Austen experience.

Mansfield Park is being given as a matinee on Saturday (18/8) and Sunday (19/9) so that people can come for the day and see both shows (Don Giovanni starts at 5.30pm with a dinner interval), picnic and visit the gardens.

Waterperry Gardens
Waterperry Gardens
In fact, there will be more than this. In the mornings there is a family show, Peter Rabbit, an immersive experience in the gardens which combines Beatrix Potter's story of Peter Rabbit with music from the Czigany Quartet (playing Haydn's String Quartet Op. 77, No. 2). There are also free events. Samuel Barber's 10-minute opera A Hand of Bridge is being performed as an installation in the dining room and both cast and director are taken from the festival's young artists programme. The festival's young artist programme is aimed at artists at the beginning of their career and they receive mentorship and coaching, take part in masterclasses and sing in the chorus of Don Giovanni.

There are also masterclasses, talks and workshops to that people can come simply as an audience member or become a participant too.

With open-air performance, the weather is always a consideration. For Peter Rabbit there are contingency plans for bad weather. For Don Giovanni, the orchestra is covered and the idea is the audience is part of the event, sharing the weather with the cast (something Guy finds really exciting) in the way that the Globe Theatre and the Regent's Park Theatre are. The audience members are all warned when they buy their tickets.

Guy Withers
Guy Withers
The intention is for the festival to become an annual event, a staple part of Summer music and be led by a community of artists and audience. The team leading the project are all young, in their mid-20s, so you feel that their ideas will develop and change with the project. They hope to be ambitious about commissioning work, and Guy is realistic about what will and will not work in the amphitheatre. He feels that Verdi's La traviata does not lend itself to the space. He is also keen to explore adapting operas which make sense of being performed in a garden (Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream springs to mind). They are very reliant on the audience but hope to be as brave as possible with the programming.

Guy trained as a singer, studying at Cardiff University and at the Royal Academy of Music, and the day before we met he had been performing in Iford Arts' production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide at the Cheltenham Festival, and he will be in the chorus for Opera Holland Park's production of Mascagni's Isabeau. So very much has a double life, as sing and as producer and artistic director. He has his own company, Indomitable, which does interdisciplinary work, workshops and movement training. And he feels that being a performer in opera affects beneficially the way he facilitates it.

This sort of portfolio career is becoming more common the arts and Guy cites Barbara Hannigan as a prime example as she combines singing, conducting and a young artists programme. It means that the people who are performing in a work are also helping to create/facilitate the performance in the first place. And it means that Guy has developed useful skills in marketing, production management, producing and directing. He is aware that he is still young with exciting possibilities ahead and can see in which direction his career goes.

Waterperry Opera Festival runs from 17 to 19 August 2018 at Waterperry Gardens. Full details from the festival website.

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