As a young man, opera was not a subject with which Geoffrey Kingham was overly familiar. The closest the financier had come to exotic warbling in foreign tongues was the Queen album A Night at the Opera – and in particular lead singer Freddie Mercury’s startling vocals on Bohemian Rhapsody, a song that in later years Geoffrey denounced publicly as little more than a banal, incomprehensible child’s ditty.
For age had tempered his opinion of the classical singing theatre. He no longer held the view espoused by Mark Twain, who said, “I know of no agony comparable to the listening to an unfamiliar opera.” Rather, Geoffrey now approved of opera as long as it was in a language he didn’t understand.
This was mostly because it gave him a social cachet that an evening at Mamma Mia! or Les Miserables singularly failed to do. Geoffrey, a confirmed bachelor at the age of 46, was now a Friend of Covent Garden and attended regular productions at the Royal Opera House, mostly as a walker to wealthy dowagers. In return, this gave him access to some of London’s finest drawing rooms and invitations to occasional grand country house weekends. And the most prestigious of these came last year from Lady Mary de Galliard, who invited him to attend a charity evening in a marquee in the grounds of Helden Hall, for which she had hired the Bel Canto Travelling Opera for the night, to serenade her smart county guests.
The travelling garden opera is a summer mainstay of the shires. It is not only an annual event in many well-heeled provincial towns, but can also be hired by private estates, thereby establishing the owners as charitable, rich and cultured. And Lady Mary de Galliard was all three of these.
Geoffrey had been invited to stay at the hall and bring a guest, if he so wished. And, perhaps somewhat rashly, he invited his current partner, press officer Steve Wilson. He had met Steve at a reception for the Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins. Steve, a fan of Jenkins since he saw her on The X Factor, was a lover of musicals (or musical theatre, as he liked to describe it) and Geoffrey and he had taken in a couple of West End shows when they were first dating – although nowadays each violently eschewed the other’s interests. However, Steve was not going to turn down an invitation to Hedley Hall, despite Geoffrey’s insistence that he remove his nose piercing and dress in a formal dinner jacket – the crop-haired PR resolutely refused to wear a bow tie, though – to attend the operatic beano.
On the lawn outside the marquee the hundred-plus guests mingled while supping glasses of pink prosecco and tucking into light canapés served by pretty girls in austere black dresses. At the sound of a gong the visitors took their seats and settled down to listen to a tenor, bass, baritone and soprano crank out a combination of famous and not-so-famous arias and cantatas, accompanied by a single pianist.
The singing had started at 7pm and after what felt like two hours Steve looked at his watch to discover that it was only 7.20pm. The caterwauling, which is what he considered it to be, seemed interminable. He was bored, the damp heat inside the tent forced him to undo the top three buttons of his shirt and, to Geoffrey’s fury, he started texting during Verdi’s tricky aria Di quella pira.
The interval could not come soon enough for either man. Back on the lawn, where white wine and rather more substantial hors d’oeuvres were doing the rounds, Geoffrey remonstrated with Steve, demanding that before he met his hostess he button up his shirt to hide his gay pride tattoo on his upper right pectoral muscle. But it was too late. Lady Mary had swanned over to the two men and was looking at Steve with disapproval.
“If you’re a friend of my darling Geoffrey,” said the grand dowager, in a tone that implied there could be no other reason for Steve’s presence in her grounds, “you must simply adore opera.”
“Oh I do,” said Steve. “Why, only last month, Geoffrey and I went to a night at the opera at the Dominion Theatre. The performance was a collection of arias originally sung by that great baritone, although some think of him as a lyric tenor – Freddie Mercury.”