Opera with a view
Martin and Lizzie Graham were already experienced opera producers when they started building a festival theatre in a part of England officially designated an “area of outstanding natural beauty”. They had made a sizable fortune through property investments and started putting on popular pieces in the stables of an estate they had bought. One move later, they converted one of their barns – a simple brick box, two storeys high – into a stage venue.
They opened it in 1998 with Wagner’s Rheingold.
The major goal back then was to get the Longborough Festival Opera (LFO) ready for “the real thing” in 2013: a season to mark the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
To do this, a lot of conversion work was needed. It took two years to dig out and build the orchestra pit, extending as far as possible backwards under the stage, after the Bayreuth model. Today it can accommodate 60 – or, at a push, 70 – musicians. Then the Grahams had the roof raised to improve the acoustics. Straight after, they launched another Ring with a production of Rheingold (2007). And “in the bicentenary year 2013,” says musical director Anthony Negus proudly, “Longborough was the only place in England where you could see scenic performances of the entire Ring.”
The festival theatre
Behind the brick façade there is a charming, simple auditorium, with gently rising stalls and a balcony divided into boxes. The roof and exterior walls are clad in corrugated sheets, agricultural style, and sun beams peek through cracks here and there into the hall. Production teams need to make do without a backstage or stage tower; permanent lighting bridges have only recently been installed. Because there is only room for the current production’s scenery, the theatre uses a stagione system. “The hall is not insulated; we can’t heat it,” adds Curtis, “it really is a summer venue”. And it is on the grounds of a private residence. Audience numbers may have risen from 400 in 1991 to 10,000 in 2019, with Wagner fans coming from all over Europe and even Australia, but attending it, you still feel like a guest at a friend’s house.
Behind the theatre, there are auxiliary buildings to house dressing rooms and make-up rooms, and a few rooms for accommodating the members of staff who are most urgently needed on site during the season. The artists traditionally stay in the village. For the orchestra rehearsals, musical director Anthony Negus drives to neighbouring Brockley to use the village hall, a kind of communal function room. “It’s a compromise. We really need a better solution, especially regarding the acoustics,” says Negus. To rehearse the stage scenes, the opera rents rooms in London, a 90-minute train journey away.
The Big Top
In 2020, Corona forced the LFO to postpone an entire (modified) season and switch to chamber concerts and digital presentations instead. An emergency fund kept the entirely unsubsidized festival afloat and loyal supporters donated £340,396 (almost €397,500). “That enabled us to at least pay the artists a third of their fees,” explains Polly Graham, director, and the founders’ daughter. Normally, the company works with a budget of almost £2 million (€2.3 million), employs three fulltime and seven parttime members of staff, and on average 280 temporary workers in the season.
To make a 2021 season possible, the festival borrowed a marquee from the Lost in Translation circus troupe. The big top’s coverings can be folded up all around the bottom to allow the breeze to blow through, making a well ventilated yet weather-protected venue that meets pandemic requirements. The LFO had a new interior especially made. The round performance area is in the middle. A quarter of the outer ring is taken up by the orchestra podium, which is flush with the stage. 190 audience members can be spread across the remaining three quarters. The sloping ground posed something of a challenge: Relatively high risers were needed for the auditorium on one side while on the other side it can simply follow the natural gradient.
“The acoustics are of course not as good as in the main hall,” says Graham. “You need to get used to the surrounding noises. There is nothing to muffle the sound of airplanes flying overhead and you can hear the generator running the whole time. While for Robert Howarth, head of music, that wasn’t always easy, Polly Graham enjoys the challenge. “I, myself, am really in my element in venues like this – I have always loved making productions in unconventional conditions. You just have to work with them rather than against them.” In fact, she finds the classic proscenium set-up confining. She set Monteverdi’s Ulysses in a trailer park, where Odysseus is a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. The stage set consisted only of a fridge, a bathtub, and some retro lamps with fringed shades. The performance stretched across the entire tent and around the outside. The trailers were outside by a cluster of trees – trucks are parked every year behind the festival theatre to serve as artist dressing rooms.
For the future, Graham hopes that her audience will follow her to explore the repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries. And she dreams of getting the festival established enough to change to repertory. In other words, she would like facilities to store more stage sets and hold rehearsals on the grounds. At the same time, there are plans to make the LFO as green as possible, in keeping with its location within “outstanding natural beauty”. The Corona amphitheatre has been carefully dissembled and stored away. No doubt some use will be found for it – Graham would certainly like to have a permanent second venue for their more experimental projects. “At some point I would really like to do a ‘Ring in the round’,” she says. “Me too!” calls Negus with delight.
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