The rise and rise of picnic opera

Judith Strong

Judith Strong charts the growth of the opera festival and heralds Clapham’s own contribution to the art form – St Paul’s Opera.

Should you happen to board a train heading south from Clapham Junction any early afternoon over the next three months you may be rather bewildered to encounter an assortment of people in evening dress, the men sporting panamas and carrying large wicker hampers or chiller boxes plus golfing umbrellas. Panic not! You will simply have stumbled upon one of the phenomena of the English summer season and they are en route to the granddaddy of all country house/picnic operas, Glyndebourne.

The idea of this form of opera often polarises opinion. Are they a small but significant part of the opera economy, staging innovative productions in a creative repertoire or a load of over-dressed, over accented toffs snoozing through an antiquated performance after indulging in lashings of champagne and smoked salmon? Well, there’s a bit of truth in both those ideas but one thing is certain, they have never been more popular.

It all began in the mid-thirties when John Christie, the wealthy owner of a splendid Sussex manor house, just happened to have a wife, Audrey Mildmay, blessed with a glorious soprano voice. Small scale performances within the house got a boost with the arrival of influential emigre musicians from Nazi Germany and an opera festival was born. In 1936 you could buy a season ticket for five operas for the princely sum of £11 – these days add a couple of noughts to that. In those days, the entire audience of 300 was fed in the Dining Room although they often took a glass of champagne wandering around the grounds... a precursor to the fabled picnics.

By 1950 there was a ‘real’ theatre but despite the arrival of the best singers from abroad and its glamorous image, nothing could disguise the fact that the theatre was no more than a concrete barn. Perhaps it was this, and the austerity of the post war era, that contributed to picnics becoming de rigueur.

The idea of poncing about in evening wear in a wet field setting up a sophisticated dining experience (no egg and cress sandwiches here) requires a level of English sang-froid which any foreigner encountering it views with a mixture of total incredulity and secret admiration. A young Italian doctor I took a couple of years ago was absolutely speechless with disbelief as she took in the lawns strewn with elegant picnickers on what was fortunately the perfect summer day. Being Italian, she then spent the next hour fretting that her outfit wasn’t smart enough.

Picnic Opera
It wasn’t until the period of conspicuous consumption in the late ’80s that Glyndebourne had any rivals. The first was probably Garsington, which from 1989 was attached to an Oxfordshire manor house. It became the festival of choice for those who felt Glyndebourne was getting ‘just too corporate, darling’. Two years later, Lizzie and Martin Graham built a 500-seat theatre in the gardens of their Cotswold house, Longborough, allowing 7,000 people to experience opera there every year.

Then the dynamic Wasfi Kani rented the orangery of a ruined mansion from the Baring family and Grange Park Opera was launched. Soon it had its charming theatre with the old seats from Covent Garden and a toy train running underneath the circle floor.

And now, at Neville Holt in Northamptonshire, David Ross of Carphone Warehouse is upgrading the original theatre to a new state of the art 400-seater. And up and down the country small scale festivals have developed giving opportunities to the local population and the seemingly endless stream of talented young singers emerging from the music colleges.

Where there are artistic temperaments and hard financial decisions it’s not surprising that some of these earlier arrangements came unstuck. In 2011, Garsington had a forced move to a stunning architectural box of a theatre that seemed to float above the lush pasture of the Getty Estate at Wormsley in the Chilterns. And Wasfi’s Grange Park now has a new home in the grounds of West Horsley place in Surrey, inherited by Bamber Gasgoigne from an elderly aunt. Unbelievably in two years she has raised the £8 million pounds needed to build a completely new theatre modelled on La Scala next to the old orchard. The Barings have retaliated with their own festival! It could almost be an opera synopsis.

So why do it, either build an opera house or pay the frequently large sums of money required to get a ticket? There are no government subsidies here. For the hosts and patrons, it is a mark of having arrived and perhaps, more subtly, of being a person of refinement and taste who wouldn’t waste their money on a super yacht or football team.

Picnic Opera
For the audience, in the main people who love the art form, and even a few who don’t, it is a really distinctive experience in which so many pleasures are combined: sneaking off work in the middle of the day; getting dressed up; strolling around the stunning gardens and landscapes of exquisite houses; excellent food and drink; and a performance with, in many cases, exceptionally high artistic standards and the chance of discovering an exciting new singer. It’s irresistible! But it’s also not for the faint hearted. Last year I was fortunate enough to visit Glyndebourne four times, mainly due to kind friends. The first time it was too cold, the second too hot, the third too wet and the fourth too windy. But hey, isn’t that what the English picnic is all about!

Undoubtedly tickets for the country house operas are expensive, but then so is Glastonbury or Premier League football. And they are all successful because they provide those special and exclusive experiences which people value today. But don’t get too depressed about the cost and inconvenience of the festivals. London has its own ‘picnic opera’ in Holland Park. Back in the early ’80s we sat on the grass watching brave performances on an open stage where the singers, who in those days were mostly ‘up and coming’ or ‘slightly over the hill’, battled to be heard above the mating calls of the resident peacocks. In the intervening years it has gone from strength to strength and there is now an elegant temporary theatre with the most comfortable seats and best sight lines in the business. Together with bookable tables on The Deck you can enjoy your own picnic without too much effort. The moderate ticket prices are part of the opera company’s stated aim to make opera accessible to almost anyone.

It’s regrettable in this country that the media always portrays opera as an elite art form. I can vouch for its accessibility if you just give it a try. Back in the ’70s/’80s, I took dozens of children from a state primary school in Tooting to schools’ matinees at the Royal Opera House. For the price £4, a charity subsidised ticket, they were able to see stars such as Placido Domingo in Tosca from the front of the stalls. And they took to even the most difficult operas like ducks to water and couldn’t wait to make a return visit. I still treasure the moment on the rush hour tube when a city gent, seeing the familiar red programme, asked somewhat incredulously what they thought of it and a lively discussion on the merits of The Magic Flute versus Medea ensued.

Picnic Opera
If this has whetted your appetite for a new experience but it all seems too difficult or expensive, I have a suggestion. Right here in Clapham we have our very own opera festival, which ticks most of the boxes. With St Paul’s Opera you can bring your picnic to the bucolic surroundings of the church and this year see an imaginative production of Così fan Tutti, Mozart’s perennially fresh opera, with some hugely talented young singers. And all for £25. Give it a try, bring your friends and you too may get hooked.

About Judith ...

Originally from ‘oop north’, Judith came to London at the start of the Swinging Sixties. She taught music to individuals and classes aged 4-17 in state and private education for 55 years. Judith started to get interested in opera in the 70’s and now a self-confessed addict, and has been a Patron of Iford Arts opera since 2001. However, she still has a soft spot for the Stones. A Clapham resident for 31 years. Other passions: gardens (especially her own), food, art, travel. Her aim in life: to see an opera in a new (to her) opera house every year ….and to keep travelling.