Country house opera is a rather British phenomenon. Germany and Italy became sovereign states only towards the end of the golden age of opera in the late nineteenth century. Their cities and statelets were already hospita- ble physically, and in the matter of popular appeal, to traditions of musical theatre overwhelmingly their own. France and other European countries are more associated, beyond their capitals, with festivals and diverse musi- cal offerings. London has two theatres dedicated solely to opera and ballet; Edinburgh and Belfast have joined London recently with one each; Cardiff has a large and adaptable millennium centre. The privately funded country house operas flourish, however. Unsurprisingly, most are to be found in the southern parts of the country. Glyndebourne on the East Sussex Downs, Garsington (now installed at the Getty’s Wormsley estate in the Chilterns), the Grange in Hampshire and now Longborough in the Cotswolds are the Downton Abbeys of the opera world. Travelling or chamber opera compa- nies, of which Freddie Stockdale’s Pavilion Opera was the most notable, perform quite often in stately homes; I have enjoyed Pavilion evenings in houses as far apart from each other as Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Mellerstain in the Scottish Borders. In the state-funded sector, Welsh National Opera is supported by both English and Welsh administrations as it is also, in effect, Birmingham’s opera company.
If you put on a country house opera season you will inevitable run into, and must fiercely transcend, the Glyndebourne image of rich people in black ties and long dresses enjoying champagne picnics during the intervals. Get over it. Glyndebourne itself has done so, and magnificently, by putting on perfor- mances artists long to perform in and people long to attend. And fair must be fair. Part of the point of Glastonbury is the mixture of yurts, mud, joints and sex that accompanies the music. Adequately accurate, both sketches are nonetheless clichés. Plurality should always rule in a culture. There is pop and there is posh; there are high, low and middle brows. Most of us, when means allow, shuttle between these or assume them simultaneously.
Means, where opera is concerned, are imperative. Opera is, and always will be, the most expensive theatrical and musical medium, one that matured in the nineteenth century. Putting it on with twenty-first rather than nine- teenth-century cost assumptions is, in economic terms, a barmy thing to do. Administrators, carpenters, scene shifters, costumers, publicists, singers, tidying-uppers, theatrical coaches, language coaches, orchestra, directors, caterers, conductors: enough personnel to occupy a small village let alone a country house. You need your own money, and other people’s money, and audiences queuing and clamouring for expensive seats.
Martin and Lizzie Graham are relatively recent recruits to so enlightened a barmy army. Martin started as a builder’s labourer and graduated to property entrepreneur. He discovered Wagner in his twenties. In his late fif- ties he mounted part of the Ring cycle in a barn. Last year, in his early seventies, he put on three complete Ring cycles (four operas in each) in his baby Bayreuth, a beautiful five hundred-seater opera house he built in the grounds of his Longborough estate. Wagner himself all but bankrupted two German states; he is the most expensive and demanding composer to put on. Yet the Grahams are right, I believe, to major in his work. He is, with Beethoven, the supreme musical genius of the nineteenth century; as a dramatist his range and psychological insight are exceeded only, as W. H. Auden has pointed out, by Shakespeare. The Ring operas are about – perhaps one should say they contain – the clash between the natural world, and men and women as sexual beings within it, and the consequences of mankind’s technical and industrial achievement: power over nature; power over fellow human beings. The pursuit and exercise of such power can lead to natural destruction and the death of love. This remains the story of our age, one we are still living through and one we may, if we are not care- ful, fail to live out. So the audience and the appetite for Wagner is huge, international and hard to satiate. The Grahams have to go on raising money but they will get their queues. The beauty of Longborough certainly helps. Their secret weapon, however, is Longborough’s principal conductor and musical director Anthony Negus. He is a follower of Britain’s most gifted Wagnerian conductor, the late Sir Reginald Goodall, and he has added a tension and excitement all his own.
No Wagner this year; Tristan and Isolde next year; Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Parsifal thereafter. The handout tantalizes with ‘a possible revival of the Ring along the way’. Like Martin, I am quite elderly. But I mean to hang on for them all.