Anniversaries are in the air this year, with worldwide exposure of the greater (and lesser) operatic works of Britten, Verdi and Wagner everywhere, but at the Grange in Northington, a few miles north of Winchester where Grange Park Opera is preparing for its 16th annual opera festival, all three composers are conspicuous by their absence. Why so? “We didn’t make a deliberate decision to ignore them, and there will be operas by Verdi and Britten in the Festival next year, but we like to be a bit different, and distinctive, and not always do what the others are doing”. So says Wasfi Kani, Grange Park Opera’s founder, indefatigable fundraiser and elegant moving spirit, taking time off to talk to me amid the bustle of preparations for this season, which starts on Thursday 30 May and runs until Saturday 13 July--a seven week, four opera season that is an extraordinary achievement for a festival that started so small but now seems to be a major feature of operatic life in the UK each summer.
So what is in the 2013 repertoire, and why? Wasfi reminds me that Grange Park is in fact marking an anniversary, but a different one–-it is exactly 50 years since the death of Poulenc, whose 1950s visionary opera Dialogues des Carmelites will receive six performances in June and July, with the English Chamber Orchestra under the experienced baton of Stephen Barlow (whose inspired reading of Richard Strauss’s last opera Capriccio was for me the highlight of the Grange Park Festival in 2010, three years ago). The casting inspires confidence too, with Grange Park regulars such as Anne-Marie Owens and Sara Fulgoni singing alongside promising rising stars such as Olivia Ray and Hye-Youn Lee, who sings Blanche. Add in Nicky Spence as the Chevalier de la Force, and this production of Carmelites looks immensely attractive, and not to be missed.
Wasfi’s formula for the Grange Park repertoire has remained fairly consistent– a popular opera, an obscure opera that merits revival, and something somewhere in the middle. But with the almost instant success of the newly-built house--seating 550 but with no seats further from the stage than Row H of the stalls in Covent Garden and perfect sightlines from every part of the auditorium--came a realization that the Grange Park stage is a wonderful platform for singers. “I suppose my mission, a little while back, became to attract to the Grange a roster of really good singers, the best we could possibly afford” says Wasfi. “And given the timelines that are involved, and the forward planning that has to be done, what our audiences in 2013 will experience is some amazing singing from stars whom we felt encouraged to engage for the Festival at a time when everything seemed to be booming”. Does that mean that times are getting much tougher with the economic downturn? Wasfi laughs but answers the question entirely straight. “Anyone who tells you that nothing has changed, and that all aspects of their theatre operation are holding up, is probably fibbing. Opera, like everything else is a question of supply and demand, and with our longer season, we have increased supply. To have a season of full houses, demand has to exceed that supply, and if a party of eight one year becomes a party of six the following year, that’s a drop of 25%. But as things stand right now, we shall probably come out at about the same level as 2012–-which is fine”.
There are of course things that all opera houses can do to promote new, particularly younger members of their loyal audience base, and Grange Park has persisted with its scheme called ‘Meteors’, which allows young people aged between 18 and 35 to buy seats for £30 at selected performances. Similarly, its ‘Musical Chairs’ initiative allows young people between 14 and 25 to register their interest in attending and to be allocated seats free of charge, funded by donations from full-price ticket holders. In addition to both schemes, for the first time in 2013 there will be a designated train from Waterloo to Basingstoke for each Grange Park performance, with a roster of shared taxis to take operagoers on from Basingstoke to the Grange. Wasfi is keen on the idea. “Opera is a shared experience and we want to encourage individuals, and couples, to come and join in: each taxi will take a small group of those arriving and charge minimum fares. We are extending the theme of making new opera friends in the restaurant as well. This year we shall have some club tables, where you can sit with people you don’t yet know – and get to know them!” The trend, and the thinking is clear: Grange Park does not want to be the exclusive preserve of large corporate parties, but rather a family of individual opera lovers and supporters.
So what should the first-time visitor to Grange Park Opera plan to see this season. Wasfi is clear: “The big production, and it will be splendid to experience, will be Eugene Onegin. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (which excelled in its first outing to the Grange, for The Queen of Spades last year) will be in the pit and we have ten performances in all. Susan Gritton and Frances Bourne are singing Tatiana and Olga and Stephen Medcalf will conduct. But for lovers of bel canto singing, the experience of Bellini’s I Puritani at Grange Park will be outstanding.” Indeed, with Claire Rutter singing Elvira under the idiomatic baton of Gianluca Marciano, this new production of Puritani–by Stephen Langridge–looks hard to resist, the size of the piece and the size of the house complementing each other perfectly. It premieres on Friday 31 May and runs for seven performances.
Bellinian bel canto, late Romantic Tchaikovsky, idiosyncratic Poulenc: the Festival menu is distinctive and varied. But there is a fourth opera this year, just two performances (on 10 and 13 July) of Messager’s 1907 comic opera Fortunio, first performed professionally in the UK by Grange Park Opera in 2001! Wasfi is coy about exactly how director Daniel Slater intends to revive his production of twelve years ago this season, but from the various hints given, we may see something self-referential-- perhaps even glimpses of the Grange as once we knew it. Fortunio is light as gossamer, a perfect operetta romp for midsummer, and a welcome revival: it is also very funny, and likely to be the first production to sell out completely this season. That is, if one ignores the completely sold-out recital by tenor of the moment Joseph Calleja, whose first solo evening at the Grange is on 19 June.
The 2013 Festival promises some vintage evenings and Wasfi exudes confidence that the overall Grange Park trajectory is being maintained. With seven weeks of performances to begin in just over a month, the dining area in the old mansion is being improved, with new flooring, and the model train set that runs noiselessly around the horseshoe auditorium under reinforced glass panels has been restored to pristine condition – to coincide with the Waterloo designated train initiative. More important, there is still--perhaps even more than ever--a sense of purpose about Grange Park, a belief that a small house can run a big and ambitious repertoire and can draw audiences for what they do. Wasfi has the final word: “What I do think about this place, and the Festival, is that the founders are still running it: we have stayed together as a team, and building on the vision we were encouraged to pursue”. Those who have wondered about the Grange but never been should not hesitate to book--the operatic experience is memorable and the team is doing a terrific job.
See also thier website.
Photos: Grange Park Opera