The British way of opera – with picnics
The annual Garsington Opera festival started life 30 years ago near the English university town Oxford. Initially a back-garden bash held by landowning opera enthusiasts, it continued year for year, gradually growing and becoming increasingly professional. Very like Glyndebourne, though smaller and more intimate, it is just as stimulating and well worth a visit.
Now held on the Getty-owned Wormsley estate in Buckinghamshire, Garsington Opera was named after Garsington Manor, an estate just outside Oxford where the festival first took place 30 years ago as a fundraising event. To raise money to save an Oxford theatre from closure, the manor owners Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams sold tickets for two performances of the “Marriage of Figaro” by Opera 80 (now English Touring Opera) on their terrace. The event was such a success that repeating it was virtually a must. For the first few years they hired touring companies, but in 1993 an orchestra was put together especially for the event and Garsington’s identity as a festival was cemented. When Glyndebourne had to miss a year for rebuilding work, Garsington got the chance to shine with the outdoor opera-loving, summer festival public.
Relocation to Wormsley
In 2005 Leonard Ingrams suffered a heart attack on the way home from Glyndebourne. A few years later, the Ingrams decided to sell their estate. The festival needed a new location. 40 estates were considered, 30 viewed, and 4 met all the requirements. The main criteria were good transport connections with the capital and enough space for visitor parking and the auditorium, which architect Robert Snell was already busy designing.
Wormsley, owned by the Getty family since 1985, seemed the best bet. The landlords welcomed the festival idea, even clearing out their vintage car collection from the barn for the summer and fitting it with a mezzanine to accommodate the festival’s needs.
Snell designed a pavilion of light wood, metal beams, canvas and awnings – half marquee, half building, and dismantlable. The organizers did not yet dare to imagine a permanent structure as the contract with the Gettys was due to expire in 15 years. The structure was initially intended to be put into storage every autumn (though this was never actually necessary). Snell cleverly adapted his design to the contours of the estate, making use of the ha-ha, the walled ditch separating the formal gardens around the manor house from the lower-lying meadows, by placing the stage end of the pavilion on top of it. The orchestra pit is nestled into the ha-ha wall while the auditorium hovers over the wildflowers like a pier. No pit is required for the pit! A wooden staircase leads down to the meadows while sparkling wine is available at the top. Audience capacity is only slightly larger than in the old Garsington, having risen from 500 to 600 seats. “Intimacy is one of the characteristics that our visitors most appreciate about Garsington,” says Creed. Fortunately, the public has not been put off by the move and the identity crisis the organizers feared never materialized.
The pavilion offers shelter from the rain and harshest winds, but no more. On chilly days, the ladies’ diaphanous evening dresses disappear under the festival-provided beige blankets, stored in large baskets. On hot days, the men are left perspiring under their stifling dinner jackets.
Playing with the elements
The inconvenience of feeling the elements is more than made up for by the view through the transparent walls of forests and gardens (though the ditch also needs to be shaded from the sun to protect the instruments). The view from the stage is the same, as there are no wings. The stage and auditorium are both 20 metres wide. Technical director Stephen Hawkins is as proud of the unbroken sightlines as he is of the acoustics. In this open setting, every production team needs to find their own solutions for the performers’ entrances and exits. Either the performers exit to the outside, which often suits the drama, or scenery is arranged to facilitate exits to the back of the stage.
One challenge typically facing open-air venues is how to deal with natural light. For Offenbach’s comic opera “Fantasio”, set designer Francis O’Connor and light designer Howard Hudson made striking shadows from yellow arcades fall on to a pattern of Bavarian blue-and-white diamonds. The stage is arranged like a chessboard in reference to the Bavarian princess Elsbeth’s purely strategic marriage to an Italian prince. It’s Game of Thrones in primary colours.
A production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” masterfully integrates the natural elements. Here, Christopher Oram (set) and Malcolm Rippeth (light) make effective use of simple means. In a morbidly charred orangery, window casements open and close ominously, causing glaring strips of sunshine to alternate with an eerie glow. The feeling of oppression that conductor Richard Farnes conjures in the pit intensifies as the dusk draws in. The illusion of a lake appears, where the ghost of the former governess wanders in her voluminous hooped skirt, and into which the current governess then wades. At first, it is just a narrow strip of water at the right of the apron. But after the interval, we find it has spread far back to the middle of the stage. The mighty stones portraying the base of the castle have subsided and crumbled. The water gnaws at the characters’ self-certainty. Reflecting their fear-filled faces and the flickering candlelight, it becomes symbolic of their dangerously unstable states of mind.
Upgrades in the granary: Prospects for the future
Louisa Muller’s production of the Britten opera is one of the festival’s highlights. The other is a tremendously witty production of Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”, rich in loving detail, by director Paul Curran. Set designer Kevin Knight placed the action in a typically English village hall setting, complete with dilapidated kitchenette. Later, the scene changes into a no less typical English pub, with a dartboard, hunting scene prints, and a portrait of the Queen. The chorus mucks in by more than just singing, moving chairs, shifting tables, and whipping away walls, since the pavilion does not have a stage tower. Scenery changes are either executed by means of trolleys or postponed to the long picnic break.
The backstage area is large enough to accommodate the scenery for the second half. If a different production is rehearsed the next day, trucks come to remove the scenery that night. Logistically, many aspects are less than perfect. Garsington’s rehearsal stage, for example, is in London, and in the East End – i.e. the wrong end – at that. And because property in London is so lucrative, the organizers never know from one year to the next whether the building will have been converted into lofts. Boyd and Hawkins both feel they are never in either place for long enough. What’s more, the rehearsal stages are much smaller than the stage area in the pavilion, meaning that precious time is lost on adjusting and acclimatizing.
But this is made good by the knowledge that the festival can stay at Wormsley – the lease was recently extended by a further 50 years. At last Creed can make serious plans for a central production site at the north end of the grounds. If all goes well, the ten-million-pound conversion of the old granary can begin in January and be operational by 2021. Two true-to-scale rehearsal stages are planned, a large rehearsal room for the chorus, and office space for the twelve permanent employees and the summer freelancer. At six to six-and-a-half million pounds, Garsington has a budget a fifth the size of Glyndebourne’s but is nonetheless a serious contender. Indeed, musical standards are expected to soar next year, with Philharmonia orchestra and English Concert using historical instruments. “We were the second summer festival; now there are at least four operating at this level. And they are all expanding,” confirms Creed. “Competition? Not a bit! We don’t take anything away from each other – on the contrary. We generate audiences!”
Sauntering down the outdoor staircase in the late summer evening, still a little dazed by “The Turn of the Screw”, I see the now-deserted picnic marquees glowing in the darkness. Torches and fragrant fire bowls line the path across the meadow. Wouldn’t it be nice to stay awhile by the fire? It’s a perfect place for glamping! It seems a shame to leave. There isn’t really a ghost.