Back in 1991, as his 49th birthday approached, Martin Graham, a property developer and Wagner aficionado with a home in Gloucestershire, conceived a grand ambition. He would create an opera house in which to stage the complete Ringdes Nibelungen – a cycle of four operas lasting about 15 hours in total – surely the first theatre to be built for such a purpose in Europe since Wagner himself created the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in the 1870s. He wrote to the celebrated conductor Georg Solti for advice. “You’re mad!” came the reply. Next he sought guidance from George Christie, whose father built the famous opera house Glyndebourne and who was at the time running the now world-class festival there. “You need help!” he responded, adding: “Come and see me.” Graham took him up on the offer. “He gave us a lot of encouragement,” he says.
Two decades on, Graham’s dream will be realised this summer, when Longborough Festival Opera, as it has become known, stages the first of three complete Ring cycles in June – an undertaking that will involve a cast of 31, a chorus on the stage and 70 musicians in the orchestra pit.
Graham’s foray into opera production developed gradually, beginning with concerts of chamber music that he and his wife, Lizzie, would host in their drawing room. Next they invited a touring opera troupe to perform on a temporary stage in the courtyard of their stable block. The first two performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro raised a total of £3,000 for the care charity Sue Ryder and children’s charity Barnardo’s, and the Grahams began to repeat the event annually with small-scale productions of operas by Mozart, Puccini and Verdi. By 1996, however, they had moved to a house with views across three counties and, crucially, a barn. And the idea of converting it into a permanent opera house was born.
The structure, says Graham, was basically an old shed – although at 7,000sq ft, a substantial one. But he has added an Etruscan-red Palladian façade, adorned with statues of musicians along its pediment, and painted the interior crimson. He also installed a gallery, boxes and some sycamore panelling, as well as 480 seats thrown out by the Royal Opera House when it embarked on its wholesale refurbishment. “All you need to do anything is confidence and determination,” says Graham. “You don’t need an IQ of 180, you just need to know what you want. But you mustn’t think that because we’ve got this far it’s an easy ride into the future.”
Graham won’t divulge what he’s spent on the project, but opera is an expensive business. “And there’s always the pressure to do better,” he says, to which end he wants to raise £500,000, in order to secure the future of the festival – he now has Wagner’s five-hour Tristan und Isolde in his sights – and maintain its high musical standards. In past years, the venerable bass-baritone Donald McIntyre has sung Wotan in Das Rheingold, while Dame Anne Evans has been coaching this summer’s Brünnhilde, Rachel Nicholls. And past cast members have gone on to perform with major international companies. “Richard Farnes [music director of Opera North] comes and practically signs up our singers there and then,” says Graham. “Everyone needs help, and it’s nice to be able to give singers exposure. Young voices do seem to blossom here.”
Just as they promise to at Saffron Hall, a state-of-the-art concert-hall-cum-theatre that will open this November in Saffron Walden, Essex. A philanthropic venture of the purest kind, it’s a gift to the town from a local resident, a 40-something City fund manager who believes passionately not just in the arts, but in state education. For the hall will also be used by Saffron Walden County High School, a local-authority funded academy, on whose campus it is being built.
“Music is about joy and self-expression, and is key to sociability and learning,” says the benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s good for parents and the community to become more involved in their local schools, and for people to give to state schools, not just to private ones. Major and potential philanthropists will, I hope, be inspired by our plans and, in the future, by our achievements.”
For although “the school is very strong on music and drama, and the town is buzzing with ensembles – music-theatre companies, an orchestra, a choral society, a town band and dance schools – at the moment this is a part of the country that not many professional performers come to,” says Jenny Goodwin, the hall manager, who will be programming performances. She and the hall’s benefactor are therefore keen to attract musicians and ensembles, national and international, of the highest calibre. “It will take time to build,” she acknowledges, “but our aspirations are high. And the discussions I’ve had with potential performers have been extremely positive.”
Hence the exacting technical specification to which the 730-seat hall, estimated to cost £10m, is being built – making it surely the only school hall in existence with acoustics designed by Paul Gillieron, who more usually collaborates with the likes of Zaha Hadid (he worked on the Maxxi National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome) and Michael Hopkins (with whom he joined forces on the velodrome in London’s Olympic Park), and numbers the Royal Shakespeare Company among his clients. It will be an auditorium of the highest sophistication, the quality of sound adjustable depending on what the stage is being used for, whether it’s drama or lectures, chamber or symphonic music, musicals or opera.
Even something on the scale of Wagner? “Well, there is an amateur company in Scotland that has done a complete Ring over four weeks,” Saffron Hall’s funder, himself an amateur musician and singer, told me at a concert at London’s Barbican. “I’d love to be able to bring them down to stage it.” Furthermore, he is “determined to make this the best concert hall in East Anglia” – quite an ambition if one considers Snape Maltings and all that Cambridge has to offer, but one that he stands every chance of realising.
Coincidentally, it was a love of Wagner that “played a big part in the genesis of Glyndebourne”, says Gus Christie, executive chairman of the opera house and festival founded by his grandfather. John Christie had been to Bayreuth in his youth and felt that England needed a similar cultural centre. Having inherited the Elizabethan house at Glyndebourne, he set about fulfilling this passion by building a large music room, in which he installed an organ with more stops than the one in Westminster Abbey. Here he staged scenes from operas, cast with amateur and professional singers.
It was during one of these pro-am opera performances that he met his wife, Audrey Mildmay, a professional soprano singing in a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. As the official history of Glyndebourne recounts, John Christie was “instantly captivated by her”, and although “she begged him not to fall in love with her”, they were married within six months, soon after which he built her an opera house – “as a 320-seat barn, really,” says Gus Christie – in the grounds. “If you’re going to spend all that money, John, for God’s sake do the thing properly!” she’d said. So the auditorium was constructed to professional standards, and in 1934 the Glyndebourne Festival was born. It was an event that John Christie was determined would present “not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere” – and it’s fair to say the ambition has been realised. Such stellar singers as Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni, Janet Baker, Kiri Te Kanawa, Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel have since performed on its stage; present-day stars Roberto Alagna and Rolando Villazon made their British debuts with the company; and Erté, John Piper, David Hockney and Anish Kapoor are among the artists to have designed sets there.
To cope with demand and to make the project economically viable, the original theatre was replaced in 1994 with a beautiful, acoustically warm 1,200-seat auditorium designed by Michael Hopkins. The Christie family continue to live at Glyndebourne and oversee the festival, which now has an annual turnover of almost £25m, with 317 employees, and relies on box-office revenue, corporate sponsorship and philanthropy to survive.
“I never knew my grandfather but I’m sure he wanted his investment to continue, and I think he would have been delighted that it has remained in the family,” says Gus Christie, who assumed its leadership in 2000. (His sister is also a trustee.) His background as a cameraman and maker of wildlife documentaries “was hardly ideal training. But I did learn a lot about managing people, and having the right people in the right roles is a huge part of this job,” he says. “I was daunted by the whole idea of inheriting the national institution that Glyndebourne had become, but I’m very glad I did it.” Not least because, as with his grandfather, he too met his wife, the soprano Danielle de Niese, there.
Whether or not Glyndebourne stays in the family remains to be seen. “For three generations to do something is fairly unusual now, but four is almost unheard of,” says Gus. “I have four sons, however, and it would be wonderful if one of them wanted to continue with it. Inheritance is a complicated thing, because you don’t feel you’ve earned it and that means you have to prove yourself. But it’s rewarding and challenging. And it’s a lot of fun.”
There is a sense that those who establish such venues have an eye on posterity. “If you create something that’s worthwhile then it will last a hundred years,” says the entrepreneur Peter Millican. Having founded and sold a chain of retail opticians, Millican turned to property development, notably Kings Place in London, an office complex that has played a key role in the transformation of the area around King’s Cross and contains two concert halls. “It’s like a piece of sculpture that’s lived in,” he says. “The carpets and windows will be replaced, tenants will come and go, but the building and its concert halls will remain.”
The £100m development was designed by Dixon Jones, the architects behind the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House, and although it was a commercial venture, Millican wanted to incorporate a cultural element – not just the auditoriums but galleries, a restaurant and a café. “The problem with a lot of big city offices is that the public space is too often sterile,” he says. “I wanted to create something that could be used not just by the people who work in the building, but by the community.” The business proposition might have been to build offices but, driven by a passion for music, he wanted equally to provide “a hub for music, art, dialogue and food”.
In order to run the concert halls, one seating up to 420, the other 220, he established a charity, the Kings Place Music Foundation, to which they have been leased for 99 years. During the day they are rented out for conferences, providing an invaluable revenue stream. Together with income from ticket sales, this should mean the concert halls become self-sustaining this year, less than five years after opening.
Millican’s interest goes far beyond the fabric of these venues. He is not only a trustee and chairman of the foundation, he’s running most of the programming, too. He speaks with particular pride of this year’s Bach Unwrapped series, a season of concerts featuring a raft of starry soloists, the choirs of King’s and Clare College Cambridge, the Academies of Ancient Music and St Martin in the Fields, as well as Aurora Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, all of which have offices in Kings Place. The line-up also now embraces more jazz and folk – “which we’re establishing a good reputation for”, says Millican – as well as lectures, readings and talks.
His enthusiasm is palpable. “Honestly, it’s wonderful,” he says, beaming with pride at the size of the audience the halls attract. “King’s Cross was a pretty edgy area when we started, and it takes time to change people’s habits, but we’ve built a loyal following. And almost everyone in the music world is so pleasant. Most of them don’t make very much money, so they’ve got to love what they do, which makes for a great atmosphere.”
Not that he’s content to rest on his achievements to date. His outreach programme, which strives to introduce music to the widest possible audience, particularly children at local schools, is thriving. “And we’re starting to commission new music,” he says, adding that he’s also started up what he calls a Music Base, a space where people working in music can rent desks so they have a central-London base. “Things you might never have predicted happen here because people bump into each other,” he says. “There’s a real chemistry. We’re creating relationships and connections that wouldn’t have otherwise come about. So we’re not standing still: we’re thinking about the future and we’re very excited.”
In light of the cuts to funding faced by the arts, it’s a rare and encouraging note of optimism. “There’s clearly going to be less public investment in everything,” says Millican. “But hopefully people will copy some of our ideas. Of course, you couldn’t run an opera house on this model, but for smaller venues it can work.”
Indeed, should you wish to try, Savills is currently selling the 180-seat concert hall Potton Hall near the Suffolk coast, set in 9.5 acres with a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom 16th-century farmhouse, indoor swimming pool and two further cottages alongside, for £1.75m. Commissioned by a former racing driver turned specialist sports-car dealer, the late Alan Foster, it too started life as a barn with great acoustics. Not that you’d know it had an agricultural past: over the past two decades it’s been used as a recording studio by the UK’s leading classical-music record labels, so the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Ian Bostridge, Kate Royal and Sarah Connolly have all performed there. Were it to be bought by another music lover, they might continue to do so.