Wednesday 18 May 2022

The lakeside theatre returns: I chat to Kirsty Hopkins, artistic director of West Green House Opera, about the company's plans

The lake stage at West Green House Opera in 2021
The lake stage at West Green House Opera in 2021

In 2020, in response to the pandemic and the season of cancelled operas West Green House Opera decided to make the most of their assets and organise a season of concerts at an outdoor stage with the audience able to picnic in the gardens. Last year the company continued in this vein with an enchanting lakeside theatre, which is due to return this year for a season that includes productions of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. I recently met up with the festival's artistic director, Kirsty Hopkins to chat about the season and longer term plans.

Kirsty is perhaps best known as a long time member of The Sixteen and she remains firmly with the ensemble but her links to West Green House Opera go a long way back as she has sung in various events there, whilst her parents are staunch supporters of the company. A couple of years back, finding the combination of family life (Kirsty has a teenage daughter) and touring rather taxing, she decided to look for a second string to her bow.

West Green House Opera was created by Marylyn Abbott, whose resurrection of West Green's house and garden following the IRA bombing has been near miraculous. Marylyn remains firmly in harness but back in 2019/20 she was looking for someone to assist with marketing and administration. Marylyn and Kirsty's paths crossed at a dinner party and Kirsty started to assist with planning the 2020 season. Faced with pandemic cancellations, the company was able to use advance ticket sales to pay the artists something, but it did rather leave coffers dry.

Marylyn asked Kirsty to fix the 2020 concert series and these proved so popular that they continue. Come Autumn 2020, the question was what to do next year?

Pre-2020 the opera took place in pre-fabricated structure adjacent to the gardens. But the core audience for West Green House Opera remained somewhat nervous, disinclined to return to indoor theatre. Using the lakeside for a theatre, the way it was for concerts, would not have worked because of the slope of the land. But there is a lake and an island, so what about a stage on the island?

This was more technically complex than it might seem. The lake was created by Marylyn and there were problems making it watertight. The lake floor is clay, so cannot have supports embedded in it, any theatre would have to be cantilevered over the lake. Contractors were placed and a season planned, with the audience in covered pavilions at the lakeside. The gardens would be lit, the result would be magical.

Except that a few weeks notice, the contractors pulled out saying their calculations were wrong, it wasn't possible. But some imaginative phoning round by the company's technical director, Neil, brought a new solution. 

And it was  magical. Access to the theatre island is via Chinoiserie bridge, the lighting was indeed imaginative and audiences were delighted. So much so, that it was decided to bring the lake stage back this year. After all it capitalises on West Green House's assets. There are other opera companies with theatres in gardens, but West Green House Opera's lakeside setting makes it unique.

The lake stage at West Green House Opera in 2021
The lake stage at West Green House Opera in 2021

There are adjustments and changes this year. Work has been done on the lakeside edge and it has been lined with oak from 19 trees lost in the storm. The audience will be in two pavilions, one with theatre seating, the other with cabaret-style tables. Thanks to the recent work, these will be closer to the stage than last year.  The singers are close miked, but the sound design last year by Gary Dixon was a great success and the same people are returning to do the sound design this year. 

Pre-2020, the company hoped to build its own permanent theatre. Now fundraising has re-started, but not for a permanent theatre, rather for their own lakeside theatre. This would still be demounted each year, but would be their own and remain the same each year, and the visualisations that I have seen look delightful.

The programme this year tries to capitalise on the pastoral setting. The Sixteen will be bringing Handel's Acis and Galatea, a concert performance using the sort of forces Handel would have used for the premiere at Canons, five singers and nine instrumentalists with no conductor. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro is directed and designed by Richard Studer and conducted by Jonathan Lyness, the team responsible for Mid-Wales Opera and who return to West Green each year. The cast includes Jacobo Ochoa as Figaro, Lorena Paz Nieto as Susanna, Galina Averina as the Countess and Nicholas Morris as the Count. 

Rossini: La cenerentola at West Green House Opera in 2019
Rossini: La cenerentola at West Green House Opera in 2019
directed by Victoria Newlyn & conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren

The other staged opera is Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore directed by Victoria Newlyn and conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, the team in charge of the company's 2019 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola [see my review and picture above]. Adina is sung by Samantha Clarke, Nemorino by John Colyn Gyeantey, Belcore by Nicholas Lester and Dulcamara by Richard Walshe.  In addition there is a semi-staged performance of the musical High Society, directed by John Lloyd Davies and conducted by Anthony Kraus. And as Kirsty points out, the work has a waterside setting. They also have their first Early Music evening. Soprano Miriam Allan joins lutenist Elizabeth Kenny for English lute songs, then after dinner harpsichordist Christopher Bucknall directs an ensemble in music from Purcell's King Arthur and The Fairy Queen.

West Green has always tried to support and promote young artists, but this year things have gone a step further and there are covers for the roles and a cover showcase in London. Concerts continue with lunchtime recitals from members of the company and other young singers.

Looking ahead, Kirsty is keen to make the company better known, to build on their current success and widen the audience.

West Green House Opera runs from 22 July to 31 July 2022 with performances of Handel's Acis and Galatea, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and more. Full details from their website

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