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‘Country House Operas’ Offer a Glimpse of Opera’s Future


When the 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 was facing, not to say the maintenance of a crumbling 50-room house once briefly owned by Henry VIII.

His solution: Arrange a registered charity, or trust, to show all of it into an arts center, including a summer opera festival in search of a recent home. Like an intervention by the gods in a Wagner opera, the tax bill was slashed, a 700-seat theater was inbuilt about 11 months and the well-heeled got here to frolic at West Horsley Place, which had been largely frolic-free for a long time.

The success of Grange Park Opera (its current season runs through July 17), about 23 miles west of London, is an example of a symbiotic relationship between old English country estates that profit from becoming a British charity and a thirst for highbrow arts and socializing away from the bustle of the capital within the summertime.

It’s considered one of several so-called country house operas around Britain. Others include Garsington (in a short lived structure on the Getty estate) and The Grange Festival (in a dilapidated Greek Revival mansion, which was Grange Park Opera’s first home, starting in 1998). There’s also Glyndebourne, which in 1934 began daylong outings to an opera within the country, complete with champagne while strolling the grounds, picnics on lawns or tucked away in garden corners, and lavish meals in dining rooms sheltered from the weather.

“In the event you go to the opera in London, you have got to scramble for a drink on the interval or gulp down something to eat in 20 minutes,” said Wasfi Kani, the founder and chief executive of Grange Park Opera. “But as an alternative of just just a few hours in a night, you possibly can make it a half day, have a walk within the country and revel in your dinner at a leisurely pace.”

That pace — and an unofficial dress code of tuxedos and evening gowns — also harks back to the opera of old. To some, the country house operas aren’t only steeped within the romantic history of upper-crust England, but, sarcastically, may additionally provide a glimpse of how opera may survive.

“Houses like Grange Park are somewhat the long run of opera because they’re smaller and have less overhead, which is acceptable for dwindling audiences,” said the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who returns to the festival this summer in “La Gioconda” after opening the opera house in 2017 with “Tosca.” “They built all of it in lower than a yr, and right as much as the last minute. We were doing ‘Tosca,’ and the soprano was singing ‘Mario, Mario, Mario’ to the sound of drilling.”

The corporate, which often stages 4 operas or musicals each summer, has an annual operating budget of around 4 million kilos, about $4.9 million, and a full-time staff of about 12 (with 300 to 400 part-time staff in the course of the summer). Like most other country house operas, it’s funded entirely by ticket sales and donations, receiving no government money.

Mr. Gascoigne, the unique host of the favored TV show “University Challenge,” died in February at 87. But his vision to make West Horsley Place a trust — just like a U.S. nonprofit organization — is undamaged, 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 fifteenth century, and Mr. Gascoigne’s great-aunt, Mary Innes-Ker, the Duchess of Roxburghe, was its last resident (her ashes are buried beneath the orchestra pit). She lived alone for years in an almost Miss Havisham-like existence where few visitors went beyond the front rooms. When she died in 2014, the house and grounds were in disrepair.

“Each time there was a recent drip, she thought: Get a recent bucket,” Mr. Gascoigne was quoted as saying in 2018.

Ms. Kani had been in search of a recent home for Grange Park Opera, since its previous home was quite far for its core London audience. She examine Mr. Gascoigne and the home and debt he was being saddled with. It gave the impression of a moment to seize.

Turning the property into an arts center with an opera house gave the impression of a nice idea to Mr. Gascoigne and his wife, Christina. Most of the home’s furnishings and artworks — together with silver, crystal, servants’ outfits and even a long-lost pencil and chalk drawing that thrilled Sotheby’s experts — were auctioned to offset the remaining tax bill and pay for repairs on the home. Mr. Gascoigne gave up about £20 million in assets to create the trust.

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

And his legacy plays out in a five-year-old opera house and the meandering gardens, honoring opera’s leisurely origins when the European elite had little more to do on a given day than hearken to opera and fuss with their formal wear.

“I’ve at all times said that a 3rd of them come since it’s an incredible place, a 3rd of them come to see the opera and a 3rd of them to say they’ve been there,” Ms. Kani said.

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