Memories of old Garsington

It’s the middle of May and I’m just starting rehearsals for my 25th season of Garsington Opera. It’s always a happy time, reconnecting with my orchestral colleagues, many of whom have made this part of their summer routine for as long as I have.

These days it’s a slick organisation with an enviable international reputation. The gleaming opera pavilion set in the Wormsley estate owned by the Getty family has won architectural prizes. Top directors, singers and conductors take part in the festival which extends from May to August, encompassing schools’ performances, community operas, song recitals, broadcasts to giant screens on beaches, radio and internet transmissions, collaborations with other artistic organisations, and of course the main opera performances which are the epicentre of the activity. All of this is achieved without any public funding.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since the early days when one great English eccentric decided to set up an opera festival in his back garden so that he could watch operas that nobody else would stage.

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Leonard on the terrace at Garsington

Leonard Ingrams owned the 17th century Garsington Manor, previously a favourite haunt of the Bloomsbury set. Initially he invited Opera 80 (now English Touring Opera) to bring their Mozart productions to perform on the terrace at the back of the house. Encouraged by the success of this, Leonard decided he would like to hear operas by Haydn. Nobody had staged them within living memory so new productions had to be commissioned and Garsington Opera was born.

The group I played in, the Guildhall String Ensemble, was asked to form the orchestra for one of these early Haydn operas and we became the core of the orchestra for subsequent seasons. An early review of our Barber of Seville described the orchestra as the company’s “strongest artistic card” which helped cement our place. Most of us are still there. The conductors and singers appreciate the vast operatic experience of the Garsington Opera Orchestra, even if the occasional reviewer unthinkingly refers to us as a scratch band now and then.

The really special thing about old Garsington, apart from the ravishingly beautiful setting that kept three full-time gardeners in employment, was that Leonard watched every performance himself from the front row. This wasn’t a season put on by people who knew what other people should be listening to. It was a way for a real enthusiast to watch the operas he wanted to see. He chose the directors and conductors, he auditioned the chorus and cast (travelling widely to hear young singers in competitions), and he selected the operas to be performed. He wasn’t quite an aristocrat but he was certainly an autocrat.

And the breadth of rare repertoire was astonishing – 7 Haydn operas, 10 Rossini operas, 8 unknown Richard Strauss operas, Schumann’s Genoveva, Janacek, Martinu, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky… the list goes on. Hardly any of these works had ever been staged in Britain before. Der Rosenkavalier is one of the ten most often performed operas. How is it possible that none of the five companies who receive millions of pounds of public money every year had ever bothered to discover that Daphne, Die Ägyptische Helena and Die Liebe der Danae have equally breathtaking music?

It was such a privilege getting to know these forgotten masterpieces together. In Rossini’s L’equivoco stravagante I even managed to provide an alternative translation of an obscure Italian pun for the surtitles and was very proud when it got a laugh every night.

I got very cross at a party recently when an executive from Covent Garden tried to tell me that country house opera only dealt in popular repertoire.

Our Haydn operas were usually conducted by Wasfi Kani, a super-intelligent woman whose sharp financial acumen had put the festival on a sound footing. She had already founded Pimlico Opera and after falling out with Leonard she went on to start three more country house opera companies (though she no longer conducts.) She really ought to be running one of our national companies by now. If she was, they wouldn’t have to resort to staging Broadway musicals to make ends meet.

Garsington Opera learnt as it went along. Originally the performances were all completely in the open-air until a thunderstorm meant that one of Opera 80’s performances had to be relocated to the dining barn (where Leonard installed panelling he had bought from the old auditorium at Glyndebourne.) After that there was a canopy overhead.

Even then the rain could blow in from the sides so we had an additional polythene cover that could be brought down to give the orchestra extra protection. It was hard to persuade Leonard to let us use it, though. After one confrontation I went round to the house after the performance to apologise for having to stop him retracting the cover. I explained that there were really valuable instruments that had to be protected. One of our viola players was playing on a Grancino. This seemed to get through to him because he said, “I’ve got one of those!”

Another thing came as a surprise to Leonard. It turned out his neighbours didn’t want to listen to opera coming from his garden every night and the council received several complaints about noise pollution. I always felt sorry for the neighbours because even if they won the argument at a local level, it always went to a higher court where the judges were very likely to be part of Leonard’s audience! An uneasy truce was settled on where performances were limited to 20 a season and had to finish by 10.15pm. An enormous black screen was placed along the boundary of the property as a sound baffle. Shortly afterwards an audience member donated a reputed £20000 to replace it with one with pictures of trees because it would be nicer to look at from the temporary seating that was the auditorium.

I have so many other memories – barbecues outside the orchestra barn; my co-principal falling into a flower bed at an end of season party and creating his own crop circle trying to get up; the fuss when a prominent politician took away the camera of someone who had photographed him; the conductor shouting “Why are we carrying on?” as a performance of Figaro was literally drowned out by torrential rain (Answer: as long as you keep waving your arms around, we’ll carry on playing); the magnificent poppies in the formal garden that sadly shed their petals each year before the rehearsals ended. I would tell anyone who would listen that you could work out the number of different routes through the formal garden using Pascal’s Triangle.

Tragically, Leonard died in 2005 aged only 63, suffering a heart attack while driving back from a performance at Glyndebourne. Even after attending 20 performances of his own festival he had still been hungry for more opera. His untimely death was mourned by the whole operatic community.

Leonard’s vision goes on. The company moved to its new home at Wormsley in 2011 (can it really be 7 years ago?) and the absence of near neighbours has allowed it to expand its activity greatly. But it still brought a lump to my throat when the set parted for Act IV of Figaro last year to reveal the backdrop for the garden scene. I wondered how many of the much larger audience who now attend our performances recognised it as a painting of the terrace of Garsington Manor, the setting for those early days of this extraordinary enterprise.

Le Nozze Di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at Garsington Opera
Old Garsington recreated at new Garsington 2017

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