‘Country House Operas’ offer a glimpse into the future of opera

When British TV host Bamber Gascoigne unexpectedly inherited a 350-acre estate in 2014 from his 99-year-old great-aunt, he was stunned by the inheritance tax bill he faced, without talk about the maintenance of a 50-room building in ruins. lodge once briefly owned by Henry VIII.

His solution: Create a registered charity, or trust, to turn it all into a center for the arts, including a summer opera festival looking for a new home. Like an intervention of the gods in a Wagner opera, the tax bill was reduced, a 700-seat theater was built in around 11 months and the well-heeled came to frolic in West Horsley Place, which was largely without frolics for decades. .

The success of Grange Park Opera (its current season runs until July 17), about 23 miles west of London, is an example of a symbiotic relationship between former English country estates which benefit from becoming a British charity and a thirst for scholarly arts and socializing away from the hustle and bustle of the capital in summer.

It is one of many so-called country house operas in Britain. Others include Garsington (in a temporary structure on the Getty domain) and The Barn Festival (in a ramshackle Greek Revival mansion, which was the first home of the Grange Park Opera, from 1998). There is also Glyndebournewho in 1934 began day trips to an opera in the country, complete with champagne while strolling in the park, picnics on the lawns or hidden in the corners of the garden and sumptuous meals in halls to eat sheltered from bad weather.

“If you go to the opera in London, you have to rush for a drink at intermission or grab something to eat in 20 minutes,” said Wasfi Kani, founder and managing director of Grange Park Opera. “But instead of just a few hours in an evening, you can make it half a day, walking around the countryside and enjoying your dinner at a leisurely pace.”

This rhythm – and an unofficial dress code of tuxedos and evening gowns – is also reminiscent of the opera of old. For some, country house operas are not only steeped in the romantic history of English high society, but, ironically, can also provide insight into how opera can survive.

“Houses like Grange Park are sort of the future of opera as they are smaller and have less overhead, which suits a dwindling audience,” said Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who returns to the festival this summer “The Mona Lisa” after opening the opera in 2017 with “Tosca”. “They built everything in less than a year, and until the last minute. We were doing ‘Tosca’ and the soprano was singing ‘Mario, Mario, Mario’ to the sound of the drill.

The society, which typically puts on four operas or musicals each summer, has an annual operating budget of around £4 million, or around $4.9 million, and a full-time staff of around 12 people (with 300 to 400 part-time workers during the summer) . Like most other country operas, it is funded entirely by ticket sales and donations, receiving no money from the government.

Mr. Gascoigne, the original host of the popular TV show “College Challenge” died in February at age 87. But his vision of doing West Horsley Trust – similar to an American non-profit organization – is intact, and the Opera Company, a separate charity, has a 99-year lease on the estate.

The core of the 50-room mansion dates from the 15th century, and M. Gascoigne’s great-aunt, Mary Innes-Ker, Duchess of Roxburghe, was its last resident (her ashes are buried under the orchestra pit). She lived alone for years in an almost Miss Havisham-like existence where few visitors went beyond the front rooms. When he died in 2014, the house and land were in poor condition.

“Every time there was a new drip, she thought: Get yourself a new bucket,” Mr. Gascoigne reportedly said in 2018.

Ms Kani was looking for a new home for the Grange Park Opera, as her old home was quite a distance for her main London audience. She read about Mr. Gascoigne and the house and the debt he was struggling with. It seemed like a moment to be seized.

Turning the property into an arts center with an opera house seemed like a good idea for Mr. Gascoigne and his wife, Christina. Lots of furniture and artwork in the house – as well as silver, crystal, servant outfits and even a long lost pencil and chalk drawing which delighted Sotheby’s experts – were auctioned off to offset the remaining tax bill and pay for repairs to the house. Mr Gascoigne gave away around £20m of assets to set up the trust.

“Grange Park Opera approached Bamber and me at the perfect time,” said Ms Gascoigne, who was married to Mr Gascoigne for 57 years. “What was a potential financial burden became almost community service for Bamber in his later years.”

And his legacy unfolds in a five-year-old opera house and in the winding gardens, honoring the quiet origins of opera when Europe’s elite had little more to do on any given day than listen to opera and s take care of their ceremonial clothes.

“I’ve always said that a third of them come because it’s an amazing place, a third of them come to see the opera and a third of them say they’ve been there. “said Ms. Kani.

Toya J. Bell