Bricks, plywood, and rambling roses
Wasfi Kani originally launched the Grange Park Opera festival in 1998 on a country estate in Hampshire. But following a dispute with the owners of The Grange, Kani started looking around for alternative premises. Meanwhile, in 2015, British TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne inherited a 14th century estate from his aunt Mary in Surrey, not far from London. Though beautiful, it was badly run-down and extremely costly to maintain and seemed like a deadweight.
A foundation was set up to run the estate, named West Horsley Place, the interior was auctioned off to pay for the running costs and it is now mainly used as a film location. And Grange Park Opera was offered a 100-year lease on the estate’s grounds, where the theatre now stands. Otherwise, there is little that connects the estate and the festival.
“In a hundred years the world will be unrecognisable anyway,” Kani predicts. Her gloomy tone is due to the pandemic. And quite untypical of her, the prime mover on the UK’s independent opera scene, famous for her business acumen, fundraising skills, tenacity, and drive.
In no time at all, Kani raised enough money to start building. Archaeological, badger and bat checks were carried out and green light obtained. A clearing was made in the little wood and 230 tons of steel brought in for the basic framework. Rather than being concealed, this is largely exposed – a rusty red statement skeleton. After just 11 months (!) there was enough opera house in place to host the first season.
In the first year, the venue was left a barely covered cylinder – playful, but with an overall archaic, austere feel. “We thought it looked a bit too much like a silo,” Kani admits. So, they decided to run a wooden colonnade around the building, not only to enliven the appearance but also to offer the audience protection from the sun and rain. Pillars are made of solid larch-tree trunks. The honey-coloured wood has started to weather and turn a delicate silver in places, and rambling roses are entwined around them – a romantic touch that is tempered by triplets of naked lightbulbs hanging from bright green cables.
So far, the project has cost a relatively modest eleven million pounds. But work is set to continue, so long as funds remain available. Parquet flooring has just been laid in the lower foyer. Looking closely, you can see the seams between the plywood panels in the circles; the ceilings, even in the main hall, are just exposed concrete. “We still have to do something there,” Kani says critically.
But she has not been idling: She defied the enforced closure by producing a reduced but powerful ‘Found Season’ to go online. And she even staged a world premiere in September. Instead of the scheduled new piece about the death of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko (which has been postponed), she staged a comedy titled ‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’. It is about a truly murderous virus; most of the twelve characters who gather around the long banqueting table are preparing to die. Composer Alex Woolf, who is a one-man orchestra on the grand piano, had six weeks to learn the music. David Pountney, who wrote the libretto, had one day for the production. The pit, which can accommodate 70 musicians and has already withstood the Valkyries, was manned almost solely by Toby Purser, assisting as conductor, and making sure that everything ran as smoothly as possible, considering the reduced preparation time. Kani herself stood in as prompt: Multitasking is a must in these times. Grange Park Opera does not get any subsidies. Revenue from ticket sales – the theatre seats 700 – has fallen to nothing. Money is tight.
Kani uses our tour of the grounds the day after the premiere as an opportunity for a general inspection, giving instructions for a wire mesh fence in passing. The third circle is decorated with porcelain from the manor house. “In honour of the duchess,” she says. “After all, without her, we wouldn’t be here now.” We take a little detour through the junior hall, the Piccolo Theatre seating 50, situated in the right wing of the opera house, and the prop store, checking that everything is in order.
Pountney based his libretto for ‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’ on the Pushkin play of the same name, which in turn refers to an earlier text by John Wilson, dealing with the cholera pandemic of around 1830. This historical background perfectly suits the genius loci of the Theatre in the Woods, which is inspired by various famous opera houses. The performance hall with its four circles – in a horseshoe shape based on a tangible round (22m in diameter in the stalls) – was inspired by the Scala in Milan. Outside there is a trumpeters’ balcony reminiscent of the Bayreuth festival theatre, with a wrought-iron railing acquired by auction on Ebay. The London National Theatre’s plain concrete wells served as the model for the stairways, but here they are lent warmth by the addition of solid wood stairs and props on display. And the many doors, leading outside, recall the Royal Albert Hall. One of Kani’s dreams is to have a model train set in the foyer that will stop at miniatures of the world’s major opera houses.
Even the performance hall is not yet finished, but the acoustics are good as it is, so Kani is wary of making further changes, such as panelling the ceiling. “But I really must still build a proscenium,” she thinks.
I ask whether she can pay the few people cooperating on her ‘Found Season’ the regular rate? “They will all be paid, yes. But the fees are tiny.” Her remark is a reminder of the havoc that Corona is causing on the free market. Established players can perhaps afford to work for little pay for the time being. But what about those who need regular income most? Kani is raising funds for freelancers in need by getting stars like Bryn Terfel to perform birthday songs for private individuals which she then sells. You need to be resourceful at times like this. And Kani never lacked resourcefulness.
Nevertheless, the Grange Opera’s director is pessimistic. “Some of our patrons have not gone out of the house since March,” she says. “So long as it’s not really safe, they’re not coming back.” So far, they – who she endearingly refers to as “the pandemicists” – have stayed financially loyal but “if this goes on two more years that will soon change.” Some staff members have already been laid off, and more will have to follow. “It’s unavoidable.”
Whether performances of Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’, Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’, Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Ivan the Terrible’ and the world premiere of Anthony Bolton’s ‘The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko’ can take place as planned in the coming festival season or not, Wasfi Kani – who was recently awarded a CBE – will surely make the most of the situation.
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