The transformation of Nevill Holt Opera in Leicestershire brings a touch of Glyndebourne to the Midlands and is an unique celebration of music, landscape and the English country house, writes William Cash
The heatwave has come just as the curtain has gone up on the country house opera season. This strangely English cult is enjoying a magnificent revival this summer season partly thanks to the much anticipated opening of the new Nevill Holt Opera, which has been dubbed the Glyndebourne of the Midlands. It has been created without assistance from the public purse and is a testament to what is possible with clear philanthropic vision and determined belief in launching the best young talent on the world’s stage.
Opera has a special beauty and joy that is infectious. It’s no coincidence that David Ross chose Le Nozze di Figaro to launch what is one of the most ambitious and important new country opera houses in Britain since architect Michael Hopkins built the £30 million new Glyndebourne opera house in 1992, which seats 1,200. When the doors opened on the Christie family’s new upgraded opera marvel, they chose to re-open with Figaro, just as Glyndebourne’s first ever professional opera, debuted at Lewes in Sussex on 28 May 1934, was Figaro.
Spear’s was lucky enough to be at the opening preview night of the Nevill Holt Opera on 14 June. The thing that first struck me was how the operatic set begins in the garden and the aesthetic beauty of Nevill Holt which, frankly, as a Grade I building of medieval origin, is in a different architectural league from Glyndebourne, a rather rambling Grade II largely Victorian mansion with a controversial industrial wind turbine spoiling the natural landscape setting.
Indeed, country house opera is all about ‘setting’ as much as singing. Ross uses the spectacular backdrop of a rolling canvas of unspoilt Leicestershire landscape – where it meets the sky – to provide aesthetic scenery that is dotted like a painting with a superb collection of modern and contemporary sculpture. This transports the guest into a garden of aesthetic delight, as if one is stepping into the magical paradise of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, Rubens’ famous landscape painting around his sprawling 15th century manor house near Antwerp. In this painting, manor house, landscape and beauty are fused into one coherent world where nature, architecture and art become part of one sublime Arcadian vision.
Renaissance man David Ross (of Carphone Warehouse fame) has done something similar at Nevill Holt. From the moment one finds oneself standing beside the post box-red flared trouser leg of Allen Jones’s seven metre tall 2014 sculpture called Dancers, one feels transported into Ross’s magic Mozart kingdom. Through comedy, drama, burlesque and wit, we are lifted to another world where music cuts through the suffocating real world of the industrial, material, physical and digital into a ‘World Elsewhere’.
Having a coffee in a cafe in Putney the other day, I saw a musically minded friend. He is the sort who had a wardrobe full of crumpled linen suits and knows his Bartók from his Britten and has been going to Glyndebourne for decades, Fortnum hamper in hand.
‘Have you seen Figaro at the new Nevill Holt opera?’ I asked.
‘Twice,’ he said. ‘The second time was even more sublime than the first where there were a few minor glitches. But it was opening night, and what an opening it was. Lawson Anderson as Figaro was extraordinary. A young star to watch.’
That opera fans in Parson’s Green should be trekking twice up to Leicestershire to experience Ross’s new Nevill Holt opera house is indicative of how the much anticipated multi-million pound construction is impacting on, not only England’s burgeoning country house opera scene, but also the future of the international opera world. Ross’s ambition is nothing less than to create one of Europe’s very finest acoustic opera stages specifically with the intention of nurturing the best emerging global opera talent. And, although he has received generous support for performances this season from UBS and the Garfield Weston Foundation, what is even more remarkable is that the new opera house is funded almost entirely by Ross himself, through his foundation.
It is easy to assume that the Nevill Holt opera is re-inventing the very idea of country house opera at a time when the genre is flourishing, but make no mistake. Positioning oneself as a serious player in the increasingly competitive world of professional country house opera at the highest level is not for the financially faint-hearted. Of all the ways to spend money, running one’s own opera house (let alone building one) makes owning a luxury yacht or a string of racehorses seem like collecting nursery toys.
With the creation of the new Nevill Holt opera, Ross joins the select club of English country house opera founders. The formula is fairly simple: quality opera in a ‘historic’ and ‘intimate’ setting, usually starting around 4pm, with a backdrop of exquisite natural beauty. Guests wear black tie and bring picnics or eat in style in tents or restaurants; and it helps if you can reach the place in not much more than an hour from London (by train at least). At Garsington, opera buffs this week have been enjoying The Magic Flute in the sensational Opera Pavilion amidst the rolling scenery of the Chiltern Hills.
The slightly more progressive Grange Park Opera in Surrey also opened with Figaro back in 1998, and this year’s offerings include Oklahoma! by Rodgers & Hammerstein and a new play about the darkly troubled private life of Maria Callas. The latter is not to be confused with The Grange Festival which is taking place at the Baring family estate of Northington, Hampshire, with the opera venue – nearly demolished after a fire in 1975 – being regarded as one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture. This year’s Grange Festival – which was only launched last year – includes the Barber of Seville, Candide and Agrippa. The Grange also includes ballet and contemporary dance due to its large stage size.
Most country house operas – Nevill Holt included – have evolved from amateur to professional with a number of rebirths or even relocations. After being founded in 1989 by the late Leonard Ingrams and his wife Rosalind at Garsington Manor, near Oxford, Garsington Opera moved to the Wormsley Estate, home of the Getty family, in 2011. As with the selection of the Glyndebourne chorus, Garsington make every effort to select members of their ‘Opera Chorus’ from the cream of young talent graduating from ‘music conservatoires’.
But this is where Ross, cultural entrepreneur and now chairman of the National Portrait Gallery – has seen an opportunity. Ross isn’t just interested in using his choruses as showcases of the best emerging new global operatic talent, but rather is much braver and wants to give career-changing leading parts to opera’s rising young stars themselves like Lawson Anderson (originally from Atlanta, Georgia) and Northern Irish soprano Aoife Miskelly (playing Susanna).
Above all, the Nevill Holt has invented a new genre: the country house and garden opera. Although one cannot see the opera house externally, due to the clever way that RIBA-award winning architects Witherford Watson Mann have hidden the 397-seater opera house inside the old crenelated and pedimented stone stable block, what I liked is how the drama of the evening’s stage show begins the moment you walk through the gates where Ross’s remarkable modern sculpture and art collection provides a theatrical backdrop to the intimacy of the actual opera house. The landscape behind only adds an additional level of aesthetic texturing to gather the senses.
Just as Glyndebourne went to extreme lengths to perfect the acoustics of their 1992 horseshoe-shaped theatre, hiring Arup to do the acoustics, Ross has gone to similar lengths to maximise the intimacy of the theatre. The state-of-the-art acoustics have been installed and curated by Sound Space Vision. As a fly tower was not permitted above the stage due to heritage planning restrictions, a simple solution was found with a timber roof structure being fitted onto the old stable’s 17th century stone parapet walls. Even the air vents are described as ‘sound attenuating’ and every aspect of the design – from the chairs to the sound proofed skylights – has been calibrated to make the singers and audience get maximum enjoyment from the theatre. Indeed, so good are the acoustics that I thought the opera company may have been ‘miked up’ to enhance their voices as they stretched themselves in their arias. But no. The sound is entirely natural, albeit aided by sophisticated acoustic technology.
The Nevill Holt Opera is more than just about being an important new addition to Britain’s cultural landscape. It is genre-resistant and disruptive, as it is about the art of the culturally possible, stretching voices and talent as much as creating a cultural Arcadia that folds out against the Leicestershire sky like an Augustinian Rex Whistler canvas. The senses are raised as the entire ‘spirit of place’ becomes a work of art. As guests drank cocktails and champagne in the gardens before the opening of Figaro, one felt that the giant sculptures — notably works by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi, Marc Quinn and Peter Randall-Page — were among the guests.
As I ate dinner in a smart tent, I looked out towards an Illyrian English landscape, melting into the evening summer’s sky beyond, with a spectacular bronze horse head (Horse at Water) by Nic Fiddian-Green almost grazing on the manicured lawn in front of me. The head was inspired by the friezes of the Parthenon. Nature, art, landscape and the sky are merged in a dramatic fusion of art and beauty, all washed down with champagne and excellent Provençal rosé in an extended interval that allows you to actually enjoy your dinner.
The sculpture park and garden setting is ‘integral and central’ to the broader experience at the Nevill Holt, according to Ross. There is new planting and we can look forward to the garden becoming even more important to the visitor experience. I’d like to see a few more examples of David’s extraordinary post-1965 British Pop Art painting collection on show, imagine if we were able to gaze at some Hockneys before the show? The curated effect is that one senses that the sculpture park pieces, just as much as the mature trees, are members of the cast themselves. They stand up — or pop-up — around the garden like magical props that have strided out of the opera house onto the lawns to enjoy a drink themselves.
Ross’s quirky and eclectic blending of modern sculpture with operatic wit of Mozart’s comic opera works largely thanks to the contrast between the dramatic sculpture and sprawling landscape with the ‘intimate’ setting of the theatre. The space is perfectly suited for slightly smaller scale operas which do not have Wagnerian scale casts. Nevill Holt is thankfully no Bayreuth. The atmosphere inside the theatre is more like a small Wren country church, understated but expertly built by a master architect.
Talking of which I must add that another private country house opera worth attending (currently playing Verdi’s Il Trovatore) is hosted by Christopher Gilmour at Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire — in a small stately home that was built by Wren — and conducted by his brother Oliver. Whilst produced with nothing like the budget or world-class cast of Nevill Holt or Garsington, Winslow Hall shows how strong the British appetite is for country house opera — and you don’t have to dust down your dinner jacket. Almost all the world class country house opera houses of today began as amateur companies fired by the passion of their founder-owners, most of whom spent their own money recklessly and suicidally in pursuit of their noble dreams.
The triumph of the new Nevill Holt Opera — which the Telegraph‘s opera critic Rupert Christiansen has described as an ‘indisputable triumph’ — needs to be understood in the context of what the country house represents to the English imagination and our sense of cultural identity. The truth is that since the 16th century, it has been the English country house that has been the stage set for social and artistic mobility in this country, so it is only fitting that a cutting edge new opera house should be a launchpad for new opera talent. Shakespeare first trod the boards and learnt to be a playwright in various country houses, notably in Lancashire, whilst touring.
By championing new world class opera talent in leading — nor just chorus or supporting — roles, Ross is taking the English country house back to its artistic roots, as a showcase for talent and also an important ‘cultural hub’ for the local community. And don’t think of country house opera as elitist. Ross didn’t even wear a bow tie and preferred to drink beer (as usual) to champagne. Guests came from everywhere. In addition to black tie wearing local gentry and local opera lovers, the train I travelled up on (and do go by train, only an insane person would drive from London) contained a colourful cross-section of opera buffs and society cultural lizards.
There were heritage heavyweights like Dr Simon Thurley and his wife Anna Khay, Harry Dalmeny from Sotheby’s, the head of the Royal Opera House, Italians like Lady Forte and Count Manfredi della Gherardesca, the orchestra was the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the headline sponsors were Citibank from America and Credit Suisse, a truly international cultural cocktail mix. There were almost as many people from the heritage/art/culture world as the opera world itself. I chatted afterwards with Alex Beard, the head of the Royal Opera House, on a scouting mission, who told me that his ‘stand out performance’ was Aoife Miskelly as Susanna.
In creating the visual wit and spectacle of Nevill Holt, few have done more — in such a short time — to take the tradition of the English country house opera mainstream than David Ross. If we are to regard the English country house as a work of art, then Ross — thanks to his architect’s and his own vision — has taken the English country house into new territory, a wonderfully dramatic combination of modern and classical, an assault on the aesthetic senses that perhaps only great opera can raise to such a pitch of perfection.
And to think that back on Christmas Eve, when Ross first showed me around, the old stables still looked like a building site hit by a flying bomb. To have brought the project together on time is a remarkable cultural achievement and the result is an architectural hymn to the art of the possible. A knighthood for services to ‘dreams’ is the very least Ross should receive for being a true renaissance entrepreneur and visionary with a cause.
William Cash is founder and editor-at-large of Spear’s