Country-house opera is enjoying a new vogue thanks to the efforts of a breed of promoter-philanthropists who are once again making their exquisite houses cultural hubs for local communities
This issue’s cover by Adam Dant is of linen-jacketed opera-goers enjoying both the music and the outdoor sculpture at the debut of the new country-house opera festival at Nevill Holt in Leicestershire. The festival is new in an important way: while it has been receiving productions from Grange Park Opera for a decade now, Nevill Holt will now have its own productions.
Hosted by David Ross, the festival — opening on 27 June with Mozart’s Magic Flute — will showcase rising stars of the British opera world under director Nicholas Chalmers. It will also feature a pop-up restaurant and walking tours of the garden during the interval where sculptures by such British artists as Allen Jones, Peter Randall-Page, Marc Quinn, Sean Henry and Barry Flanagan will be on display for the first time.
The auditorium is inside a converted 17th-century stable courtyard formerly used to house a science lab, indoor swimming pool and classrooms when Nevill Holt Hall was a prep school. Ross bought the Elizabethan mansion in 2000 after the school had closed due to dwindling numbers — evidently not a problem for the festival as an extra fifth performance has been added due to sell-out demand.
Country-house opera is enjoying a new vogue thanks to the efforts of a breed of promoter-philanthropists who are once again making their exquisite houses cultural hubs for local communities. Ross is probably best known for making a fortune in the 1990s as the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, but since then he has also become one of the leading collectors of Modern and Contemporary British art, much of which he will be displaying to the public for the first time this summer.
Charles Saatchi recently said that ‘an art collector is somebody who buys art that he does not have space to hang on his walls’. That is not the Ross type of collector. At a time when public sector arts funding is facing bloody cuts, and so many collectors like Saatchi are happy to compulsively buy works out of commercial vanity only to stash them away, strangled in bubble-wrap, in heavily guarded storage vaults, Ross is a throwback to the collectors and cultural philanthropists of the 19th century who enjoyed sharing their private passion for collecting with the public. Such cultural patriotism is to be applauded and is one reason why Spear’s is delighted to be a media partner of this exciting new festival.
Country houses like Nevill Holt have always acted as hosts — and stage sets — for local theatre, opera and music, as well as being architectural muses and/or creative refuges for struggling artists and writers. Nevill Holt dates back to the 13th century, with the house inhabited in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the Cunard shipping dynasty, most notably by the society hostess, publisher and anti-fascist Nancy Cunard.
Like Ross, Cunard used her money to take financial risks to support the arts. She published experimental works by talented young writers and poets, including WH Auden, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett. Her publishing press, The Hours Press, was famous for the beauty (and expense) of production and illustration without any realistic hope of commercial success. Knowing Ross’s zeal for perfection, I am sure the quality of production for The Magic Flute will continue this Cunardian tradition of underwriting the avant-garde from love of the arts.
The quixotic and daring Cunard did perhaps go a bit far in her championing of unfashionable artistic and political causes. For revenge on her politically incorrect upper-class mother, who was appalled when she started dating an African-American jazz musician (‘Is it true my daughter knows a Negro?’ she was quoted as saying), Cunard published a controversial pamphlet that championed the idea of interracial sex between blacks and whites called Black Man and White Ladyship. Probably wisely, Ross is launching with one of Mozart’s most popular operas, although next year the idea is to introduce a more experimental programme.
It is also reassuring to know that David Ross is not the only opera fanatic to have been bitten by the country-house festival bug. Former restaurateur Christopher Gilmour — whose father was Sir Ian Gilmour, who used to always have opera blasting out of the corners of Christopher’s — has spent the last four years renovating his exquisite Buckinghamshire house, Winslow Hall, the last country house built by Christopher Wren. From the start, he planned to stage a new opera festival, and personally supervised the stage set, canopy design and seating, along with a pop-up bar in the grounds.
Last year Gilmour and his wife Mardi launched their new opera festival over a week in partnership with Stowe Opera (who had been made homeless from Stowe school). Like Ross, Winslow Hall Opera launched with Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro), and the Gilmours are also sanguine about the commercial reality of a venture for which tickets are just £60 and which allow free picnicking on the acres of lawn, à la Glyndebourne. (Nevill Holt tickets start at £50.)
‘It is absolutely impossible to make a profit even if we sell all the tickets,’ admits Gilmour. ‘The idea was born out of a love for opera rather than a wish to make money,’ the words of a true opera nut and 21st-century philanthropist. What’s more, for the Winslow Hall 2013 season, Gilmour has even extended his opera festival to two weeks. We salute him.