With three weeks to go, rehearsals in full swing and a plethora of tasks to complete and conundrums great and small to resolve before the curtain goes up for opening night of the 15th Grange Park Opera festival season, it is a wonder that Grange Park’s irrepressible founder Wasfi Kani has any time at all to sit down and talk about her operatic interests, her plans and her many projects. But find time she does, and I spend a fascinating hour with her, peeking behind the scenes of what makes this relative newcomer in the UK opera firmament such a success and such a ‘must visit’ venue for anyone interested in top quality opera in the UK today.
The achievement is all the more extraordinary if one starts by looking back to 1998, when a smallish body of opera lovers found their way across fields and tracks, almost literally in the middle of nowhere, to a crumbling English Heritage mansion called The Grange at Northington, not far from Winchester. There, in a once-elegant Orangery, that had later been converted to a picture gallery and now (cracked plaster ceiling and all) hosted a job lot of plush seats acquired from the Royal Opera House as a result of its own refurbishment, a Gala Evening of operatic extracts was followed by a few performances of Figaro’s Wedding (in the Jeremy Sams translation) and a concert by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. As a festival programme it was limited, but every seat was sold and the festival was launched.
The following year saw a modest expansion, with performances of The Barber of Seville and a Ravel double bill – L’Heure Espagnole and Les Mamelles de Tiresias, which started a ‘word of mouth’ about Grange Park – but it was not until year 3, the year 2000, that the festival had grown up enough to do what it has done ever since: to mount three brand new productions, over a five week period, of an eclectic mix of operas. I ask Wasfi what her formula is for the Grange Park repertoire. "It is quite simple really. I normally choose one popular opera, one pretty obscure piece and the third choice is usually somewhere in the middle". If one applies that to the 2012 programme, the popular choice is Madam Butterfly, the (mildly) obscure piece is Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and the middle ground is occupied by Mozart’s Idomeneo. Mind you, the 2012 festival is fairly mainstream compared with some of the rareties Grange Park have brought us over the years: I think back to Fortunio, to Thais, to Cavalli’s Eliogabalo and to Chabrier’s Le Roi Malgré Lui to name but a few examples of truly adventurous programming.
So where does Grange Park Opera now stand in the scheme of things? How far has it come and how far is it going – what, if any, is Wasfi’s ‘end game’? She resists the latter notion firmly. "I haven’t got an end game. What I have got is a passion for doing opera as well as we can possibly do it, and for as long as possible. The first thing I realized we absolutely had to do was to build the new, proper theatre, raise the money, whilst keeping the festival going and attracting ever better singers to come and perform here. The quality of the singers in a house this size (the new auditorium at Grange Park is a traditional shape, seating around 500, with superb sight lines from every part of the house) is absolutely paramount. People tell me time after time that they have never experienced opera as up close and personal as we can offer at Grange Park. But it is entirely logical – the back row of our stalls is nearer to our stage than the seventh or eighth row of the stalls in Covent Garden. So everything is very immediate – you really get involved in everything that happens on stage". I can vouch from my own experience of going to Grange Park Opera for 12 of the last 15 years that the new theatre does indeed have a very singer-friendly acoustic and that you do indeed find yourself drawn towards and into the onstage action – it is that sort of operatic experience. But there is more.
"The decision a few years back to engage the English Chamber Orchestra for the entire festival also made a huge difference to artistic standards. There is now a long orchestral rehearsal period and the results in recent years speak for themselves. In fact over the last five years we have increased expenditure on the artistic programme by 30%, trying to get the balance right between first class singers and the orchestra that underpins them: and this year we are going a stage further, using the ECO for Madam Butterfly and Idomeneo and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (the first time they have played at Grange Park) for The Queen of Spades and for the Simon Keenlyside Gala Evening." The latter promises to be a very special event, on 2 July, and Keenlyside has the size of voice and baritonal purity that will suit Grange Park to perfection – I can metaphorically ‘hear’ him in the house already. Keenlyside is also booked incidentally to sing at Grange Park in the 2016 season in – wait for it – Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Having sung the role in the Caurier/Leiser production that started life in Geneva in 1996 and ended up at the Metropolitan Opera two years ago, Keenlyside will bring twenty years of experience to this hugely demanding role – and a five act French grand opera at the Grange will be a highlight of the 2016 season! I can’t wait.
But back to 2012 – in these challenging economic times, how is Grange Park faring? Wasfi sounds confident without being bullish. "There is no doubt that raising corporate sponsorship has become more difficult, but corporates at Grange Park only account for around 12% of our budget. It is individuals who are really important to us, and that side of the festival is holding up really well. People come here, like the experience, and bring others to join the party, or the Grange Park family of supporters". In my own case, that is exactly how I came to know and then to support this extraordinary enterprise. And the – relatively – modest size of the auditorium promotes the feeling of inclusion, of being part of a family of supporters who wish the festival well. So the accent is truly on the individual supporter – the opera lover – and much less on the corporate giver.
Actual ticket sales illustrate the point: Wasfi has the figures to hand and they mirror the world economic situation quite nicely. "We sold 10% more tickets in 2007 over 2006, and then we stood still in 2008. We were 5% down in 2009, then 15% up on that figure in 2010 and a further 15% up last year. This year, with a few weeks still to go, we are almost exactly on par with last year". That will mean sold out performances at weekends and pretty full houses for the rest of the time, but Wasfi is keen to stress that her box office team will always try to accommodate late booking requests: her aim is to achieve a sold out festival. The production approaches to Idomeneo and The Queen of Spades sound particularly fascinating to me (I am enjoined not to say too much, but Idomeneo will be set in the 1780s, just after it was written…) and the size and scale of Madam Butterfly will fit Grange Park to perfection – as they have already proven, not only with an exciting recent Tosca but with an even more visceral Fanciulla del West some four years ago.
I return to my earlier question: if no end game, then whither Grange Park? Wasfi has clearly given the future development of her festival brainchild a great deal of thought. "What is clear to me is that our season is too short. We need to cover more weekends, to give the maximum number of people the chance to come and enjoy opera here, and we need word of mouth to build, so that people still have time to plan a visit to us when they hear that a particular production is really special. As things stand, we often get a wave of interest in a production when it is already too late – the remaining few performances sold out and the festival shutting up shop almost as soon as it has opened". This raises the question of good neighbourliness – Wasfi was at Garsington Opera in her previous incarnation, and knows only too well the problems that can be caused by neighbouring householders and landowners objecting to the arrival of audience-bearing vehicles in an otherwise quiet and peaceful part of the countryside. But with Grange Park it would appear that all interested parties have been consulted, and the green light given for the opera season to expand into seven weeks, allowing many more performances. There are also plans afoot to collaborate with Buxton, where the festival would be a natural run-on for Grange Park productions and for general creative collaboration. So the short answer to my ‘whither’ Grange Park question is quite simple: a bigger, longer and ever-better festival of opera is what is planned, to take full shape over the next five years.
I ask the usual question nowadays about outreach – the broadening of the audience base and the attraction of younger, more socially-mixed audiences to the Grange Park bill of fare. Wasfi reminds me first of the admirable record of Pimlico Opera, which is associated in all sorts of surprising ways with Grange Park and which for over 20 years has taken musical theatre of a high standard into prisons, relying on the serving prison population to provide a chorus, put a show together and generally participate in what some inmates are on record as describing as a ‘life-changing experience’. This is outreach of a bold and particularly gratifying kind. But reduced price tickets are available for the Grange Park festival itself in two ways: in a sponsorship scheme called ‘Musical Chairs’, young people aged 14 – 25 can register their interest and can be allocated free seats for certain performances: the scheme is funded by donations from Grange Park supporters paying full price for their own tickets and a little bit more on top. More traditionally there are the ‘Meteors’ – young people aged 18 to 35, who can buy £30 seats for selected performances, sometimes at relatively short notice. Both schemes – understandably – are flourishing.
There is anyway a mini tradition at Grange Park now of putting on musical theatre alongside the standard, and more esoteric operatic repertoire. Apart from Gilbert and Sullivan, there have been productions of Anything Goes, South Pacific and Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, to name only a few. And in 2015 there will be Fiddler on the Roof, starring an old friend of Grange Park, Bryn Terfel. This eclectic choice of repertoire in itself guarantees appeal to a slightly broader audience base and, combined with the £30 and free tickets for the young, gives Grange Park audiences a certain buzz.
I invite Wasfi to think ahead – with all that she has achieved so far, what would really excite her if she could manage to stage it at the Grange? "One of the revelations to me, of all the productions we have done here, was just how good Wagner sounds in this theatre". It is true, thinking back, that the 2011 Tristan und Isolde had a luminosity of sound that was very special, the soloists being able (for once) to treat almost as chamber music some of their exchanges. So where is this taking her? "Well, I’m not actually planning a Ring Cycle, but we will stage a Rheingold in 2015 and I think we’ll move on to Die Walküre thereafter". So two out of the four are on the cards, and if Walküre comes off, can Götterdämmerung really be that far behind? But all this is several years down the line. For the moment, Wasfi has a 2012 festival to get into final shape, singers to cosset, an operatic Phoenix to resurrect, just as she has done fourteen times at the Grange now. It is an exciting project for her, for her whole team and for the UK opera-going public, for whom Grange Park Opera is now firmly on the map.
More information is available at http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk/.