Performing Arts

Arias of outstanding natural beauty

World-class performances, idyllic estates: country-house opera has become a fixture of the English summer season. So when the Garsington Opera Company needed a new home, it had to be somewhere very special indeed. Adam Edwards reports.

June 02 2011
Adam Edwards

In 1992 John Paul Getty Jr, the son of the late John Paul Getty Sr who was famously the “richest man in the world”, built a cricket pitch in the grounds of his estate on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border. Introduced to the game by his friend Mick Jagger, he had fallen in love with it and re-created a full-sized replica of the Oval, complete with pavilion and scoreboard, at the family home of Wormsley. It is the sort of charming, somewhat bonkers, folly that makes other rich men envious. The sporting ground is, as much as anything, a late-20th-century twist on the great landscape architecture of the 18th century; a grand, sweeping statement in front of the main house. And whether or not it was built with the intention to impress, it is hard to better in terms of one-upmanship.

However, John Paul Getty Jnr’s own son, Mark, may have done just that. Cricket may be the grandee of games, but it is still just a sport. Opera, on the other hand, is the aristocrat of the high arts and there is little that is considered more élitist than watching and consorting with the great tenors and divas of our time or hiring opera companies to sing in the grounds of one’s own private estate. But that cultural conceit pales in comparison with building one’s own architect-designed summer opera pavilion with an orchestra pit in the ha-ha. That is more akin to, well, owning a variation on the Glyndebourne Opera House. And that is what Mark Getty and the Garsington Opera Company have done.

The pavilion is a temporary structure that will be erected for three weeks a year and then dismantled. This, however, is no mere marquee. It is the grandest of canopies with its steel, timber and fabric construction, designed to give the appearance that it is floating. “The inspiration at Wormsley was the landscape,” says the pavilion’s architect, Robin Snell. “The Pavilion will be raised above the ground with places to linger and enjoy the view.”

On June 2 a gala performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute opened the pavilion that the general director of Garsington Opera Company, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, says “marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in our history”. And so it should, for it is the apogee of alfresco civilisation.

Garden opera, or country-house opera as it is more accurately called, is a uniquely British experience. The great European opera festivals such as those in Verona, Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg, are frequently stuffy, formal affairs. English country-house opera, while formal in the sense that most people wear black tie and evening dress, is more of an indulgent cocktail party between cadenzas. The interval lasts a good hour and a half, giving plenty of time to enjoy fine food and drink. This sybaritic way of enjoying opera can be said to have begun at Glyndebourne, the Sussex estate whose wealthy eccentric owner John Christie decided to build an opera house in his kitchen garden. He and his wife Audrey Mildmay planned to present opera as “not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere”. And in May 1934 the curtain rose on the couple’s first festival with six performances each of Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte. Audiences were captivated. According to Glyndebourne’s official history, “The first Glyndebourne season began with what many thought of as merely a rich man’s folly; but it ended with Glyndebourne becoming an international institution.”

For the next 50 years Glyndebourne remained unique. It became as much part of the social season as Royal Ascot and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The quality of opera was as good as anywhere in Britain and the picnics became legendary. “The combination of artistic excellence with unashamed hedonism makes it a heady mix,” says Anthony Whitworth-Jones, formerly general director at Glyndebourne.

Then in the 1980s Britain boomed. On the back of this prosperity the London season flourished. Sponsors moved in and a number of fashionable events that had for years been the preserve of the well-heeled upper-middle class were commercialised and some were subsequently debased. But Glyndebourne remained above all that and, indeed, became even more exclusive. The result was that a ticket for the Sussex festival was more sought after than a backstage pass for Live Aid. This continued rarefying of Glyndebourne prompted others to think about expanding the idea of country-house opera, in particular the late Leonard Ingrams – banker, musician and brother of Richard Ingrams, founder of Private Eye.

In 1982 Leonard and his wife, Rosalind, bought the 17th-century Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, which boasted magnificent terraces and gardens. Six years later he invited the Highgate Chamber Orchestra, with whom he had played during his years in London, to give a concert on the terrace. It was a success. The following year the couple staged their first opera, The Marriage of Figaro, to raise money for the Oxford Playhouse, which, because of a lack of funds, had gone dark in 1987.

“The setting was perfect for Figaro,” wrote the music broadcaster and writer Richard Osborne. “With a manor house stage left and a garden stage right, little was needed in the way of scenery. And the weather held.” The opera raised £50,000 and was so successful that in 1990 the Ingramses staged six new performances, including Così fan tutte. Osborne says in his book, Garsington Opera – a Celebration, that one national newspaper columnist reported after the show, “It was one of the most bewitching evenings I can remember. The house and garden beggar description; the scent of philadelphus and old roses in the June night, the rosy colour of the Elizabethan bricks, the inspiration of the direction and the very high standard of the singing all seemed too beautiful to be real.”

Within 12 months a company, Garsington Opera, had been formed, listing its priorities as artistic excellence and improving the facilities at Garsington, plus supporting causes such as the Oxford Playhouse. By the start of the 1992 season there were 250 “founder friends” and several hundred more “friends” contributing to the company.

“Garsington was the offspring of Glyndebourne,” says Whitworth-Jones. “It is not necessarily as grand but it was the first company to follow the Glyndebourne model, in particular with the idea of starting late in the afternoon with a long interval for dinner.”

After Garsington came Grange Park Opera in Hampshire. It was founded in 1997 and is housed in a Greek-revival mansion in the grounds of the Baring banking family’s 19th-century home that now stands empty. The company will spend £3m this year on its festival with its income split evenly between ticket sales and donations. Then there is the Longborough Festival Opera in Gloucestershire, which was founded around the same time and is based in a converted barn.

There are also a number of small opera festivals such as Buxton in Derbyshire and touring opera companies such as the Garden Opera Company. Peter Bridges, its artistic director, says: “We bring our own stage, lights, amplification and set and can put it anywhere you want. We turn up in the morning and put it up by the evening. For the price of a box in the Royal Opera House [£6,000] you can get a whole opera for 500 people. It is not always a glamorous production but we put on an honest, clear show for people, many of whom didn’t expect to like opera.”

At Garsington everybody likes opera – it specialises in the less well-known works and in nurturing new talent – and it is very glamorous. But then two years ago the Ingrams family decided that they wanted the house to themselves. A new home had to be found and, after seeing more than 50 properties, the company finally plumped for Wormsley. Whitworth-Jones describes it as a “step up”, which is a gentle piece of English understatement. The 2,500-acre Wormsley Estate had been owned by the Fane family since the middle of the 18th century and no public roads had been driven through it until the building of the M40 on the estate’s northern rim, where it now cuts through the chalk hills and drops down dramatically to Oxfordshire. Despite the motorway it remains, as it was once described, a “backwater beauty”.

John Paul Getty Jr moved there in 1986 and undertook an extraordinary five-year programme of restoration of the mansion that included adding one of the most important private libraries in Britain, and the revamping of the cottages, farms, estate building and woods before finally crowning the works with the replica Oval. Now the final folly is to be added to the estate – an opera house. The brief to the architects was “to design an opera house that would fit within an historic, romantic 19th-century landscape park, that would shelter an audience while enhancing both the idyllic views and some of the greatest music ever composed, and that could be built within weeks and then be dismantled again for repeated annual use.”

The result is a Japanese-influenced timber, steel and sail-fabric pavilion that floats over a curved ha-ha in a natural amphitheatre with pasture, lake and cricket pitch ringed by beech woods. It seats 600, and the roof and side panels have been designed with the acoustics in mind so that even the drumming of the rain – an irritant that the richest of men cannot control – has been minimised by suspending a mesh layer above the roof. “It is a ravishing pavilion,” says Whitworth-Jones. “We have a lease here for 15 years and the pavilion is designed to last that long and beyond. It will gain its own following. Thirty years ago there was nothing except Glyndebourne. Now the summer plays host to many more opera companies across Britain, but I like to think that this pavilion is the perfect place to hear and see country-house opera.”

John Paul Getty Jr died in 2003; Mark Getty, continuing his family’s long tradition of parsimony when speaking to the press, said simply: “I see Garsington Opera forming a central part of a vibrant cultural future for Wormsley Estate.” Perhaps it should be better left to the 19th-century poet John Keats to sum up the glorious folly next to the cricket pitch when he wrote, “Give me books, fruit, French wine, fine weather and a little music out of doors played by someone I do not know.”

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Opera