Garsington Opera on the move

Garsington's artistic director Anthony Whitworth-Jones in conversation with Henrietta Bredin.

The Spectator, 27 November 2010

When is a country house opera not a country house opera? When it no longer has a country house attached. This is what is about to happen to Garsington Opera, which is moving, lock, stock, barrel and picnic basket, from the exquisitely planned and intimate gardens of the Bloomsbury-redolent Garsington Manor near Oxford to the wide open, rolling hills of the Wormsley Estate in nearby Buckinghamshire.

The move is a change and a challenge that the company's general director, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, seems thoroughly to relish. 'It's enormously exciting,' he says. 'Once we knew we were going to have to move from Garsington, the hunt was on for a suitable place, and we had to decide whether we should be looking for somewhere with a similar appeal or something completely different. In fact, Wormsley was one of the very first places we saw and my colleagues and I discounted it the first time round. Although we'd all given ourselves stern talkings-to about not attempting to recreate the particular atmosphere of Garsington, I think that we subconsciously still had it in mind as a template to try and match. We looked at 45 properties altogether, eventually narrowed it down to three, and - after a bit of negotiating about the actual site for the auditorium - decided that Wormsley, almost because it's such a contrast, was the right spot beyond a shadow of a doubt.'

There is of course a large house on the Wormsley estate, lived in by Mark Getty, but the auditorium will not be nestled up against it as it was at Garsington. From a look at the plans, what will appear (and disappear again, annually) is an elegantly simple structure, inspired by the design of Japanese garden pavilions and kabuki theatres, from which audiences will be able to enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding landscape and its 18th-century deerpark. It is designed by Robin Snell, who worked on the highly successful new theatre at Glyndebourne, and it will have 600 seats, all of them with more leg-room than Garsington patrons have been accustomed to.

The costs of the move amount to £3 million, a sum that one can't imagine coming readily to hand in the current climate of acute financial anxiety. Getty is supportive of the opera company's move, and happy to offer it a new home, but is not funding it directly. Impressively, £2 million has already been raised from existing supporters and this generosity must come from an attachment to Garsington as a performing company, not just as a rather exclusive picnic spot offering a little operatic diversion on the side. What does Garsington have that enables it to hold its own against the siren charms of Glyndebourne and Grange, the other two companies which make up the south-east of England 'Gossington Park' summer opera conglomerate? Are they in direct competition or do their charms complement each other?

'Well, we're all unabashedly planning for people's pleasure,' says Whitworth-Jones, 'concocting that heady mix of high art and hedonism, which at its best can be so intoxicating. There's room for all three within reach of London, in this capital-centric country, because we offer different things and each have our own character. I think Garsington is unique in the way that, ever since it was founded by Leonard Ingrams in 1989, it has chosen individual composers to focus on and to explore thoroughly.'

The choice of those composers has been refreshingly unpredictable. Haydn, Richard Strauss - ncluding a British premiere, of Die ägyptische Helena, Rossini - both the comparatively well-known works and the lesser-known, less frequently performed operas that he wrote for Naples, such as Armida and La donna del lago. The latest composer to attract the spotlight is Vivaldi, the mere mention of whom provokes a burst of Whitworth-Jones enthusiasm. 'He wrote a huge number of operas - over 90 altogether - and of course there's bound to be an element of dross, along with the fact that he reworked some pieces, using existing material and packaging them up again under a different title. Nonetheless, if you pick carefully, there are some real jewels. And we're planning to do three altogether, so that represents a proper investigation of works, some of which have been recorded, but very few performed since the time they were written.'

Next year's potential jewel is La verità in cimento, which has a plot involving babies switched at birth at the whim of a capricious Sultan, resulting in a ferment of rage, jealousy, thwarted love and implausible self-abnegation for all concerned. Cunningly, in 2012, the third opera will be L'Olimpiade, in which the Olympic Games provides the setting for fierce competition in both the athletic and the sexual arena.

Garsington also has a pleasingly pragmatic attitude to singing opera in the original language. In most cases they do but when it makes sense, they use a good singing translation. There was no point, for example, in expecting a cast containing no native speakers of the language, to learn Martinu's Mirandolina in Czech to perform to an audience unlikely to contain more than a tiny handful of people who might understand.

There is a focus on casting young British singers alongside singers from further afield, often making their UK debuts in Garsington productions. It's a good mix and is backed up by a serious commitment to looking after and encouraging a complete cast of understudies for each role, many of them drawn from the chorus. 'Every single role is covered and rehearsed properly, and we have a showcase at the end of the season when we invite agents, casting directors and interested members of the public to hear them perform 20 to 25-minute sections from each of the three operas. It gives the assistant conductors a chance too.'

Anthony Whitworth-Jones knows that the last million he has to raise will probably be the hardest but Garsington Opera is quite clearly not going to wilt and die without its country house setting but will spring into action, reinvigorated, at Wormsley next June.