Into the woods for Grange Park Opera

There are two Grange opera festivals this summer, based at two different country houses in Hampshire and Surrey, both created by the conductor Wasfi Kani. Simon Tait visited the newest

Grange Park Opera’s third season in its new £11.5m home opens on June 6 at West Horsley in the shadow of a medieval manor house and runs until July 10, but for the first time its quirky round “Theatre in the Woods” will be complete.

It will be the personal triumph of Grange Park’s chief executive Wasfi Kani OBE, the conductor who founded Pimlico Opera and put on full opera productions in prisons. She has raised all the funding herself from around 150 donors, and imposed the quirks that characterise the 700-seat theatre with its four tiers of balconies. They include the final touch, the colonnade of unclad columns made of larch and birch that now surround the building. “It’s because it’s all in a wood – I had to get permission to chop down trees – so it’s made of wood” Kani explains, “the only theatre in a wood I know”.

Wasfi Kani OBE

But the making of an opera house in the woods is only half the story of this place. Another new attraction will be the dining available in the 1425 manor house a few yards away, West Horsley Place.

This is the house that the writer and former TV presenter of University Challenge Bamber Gascoigne unexpectedly inherited from his great aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe, in 2015.

There has been a house on the site since Saxon times, but the 50-bedroom West Horsley Place – listed Grade I - that now stands on it was built early in the 15th century, and while it has been adapted through the ages much of it is original. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both trod its stone floors, but it has been allowed to decline and is now on the Buildings At Risk Register, even though it has been in almost continuous occupation.

Historic England says it is in need of “major renovation”, that it has “suffered from deferral of maintenance under private ownership” and its condition is “poor”. But Gascoigne created a charity, the Mary Roxburghe Trust, transferring the house to it, and there is a detailed programme of repair under way.


The view of West Horsley Place from the Theatre in the Woods

With the house is 350 acres of Surrey countryside, with delightful gardens that date back at least to the estate survey of 1735 and probably to long before that. It is in a coppice in these grounds that the Theatre in the Woods has been built, and its third festival on the site opens with Verdi’s Don Carlo on June 6. That will be followed by Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess and a final concert by the coloratura singer Joyce DiDonato.

Forty miles away, at Northington near Winchester, the Grange Festival opens on the same day with its own programme of opera, dance and concerts. There, Wasfi Kani masterminded the conversion of orangery buildings on the Grange Park estate to create an award-winning opera house, and with Micahael Moody operated it as Grange Park Opera from 1998.

But in 2015, in a dispute over a new lease, she and Grange Park Opera left – just as the news of Bamber Gascoigne’s extraordinary inheritance was announced. Kani contacted him, the local authority was consulted, architects were interviewed, and five months after the first contact was made plans for a new opera house, to be built by Tim Ronalds Architects, were announced.

Planning permission was given in May 2016, work began in July 2016, and in ten months the Theatre in the Woods was ready for its first opera festival as Grange Park Opera, albeit naked in its breeze-block state, a horseshoe-shaped auditorium with its seats inherited from the Royal Opera House. Why did Kani risk confusion by keeping the name? “The company is the same – should we forget 20 years of productions, the memories of Bryn Terfel, of Simon Keenleyside? No, this is who we are. Wall we’ve done is move…” she responds. Upwards of 14,000 tickets are expected to be sold for the season.

Rehearsals under way for Don Carlo

In the next two weeks the gravel approach surrounding the building will be finished, the resin floors inside completed and those quirks put in place. They include “The Duchess of Roxburghe Museum”, glass cases in the corners of the pinewood staircases with memorabilia found in the old house after the duchess’s death at the age of 99 in 2014; 50,000 pre-decimal currency coins in min-condition donated by Kani’s supporters embedded in the resin of the balcony passageways; and beneath the ground floor passageway, a toy railway circumnavigating the auditorium and passing through opera towns around the world. Just outside, the “Lavatoria Rotunda” is an echo of the round theatre, with its own quirkiness, such as flags popping up above cubicle doors (there are 19 in the ladies’ to cancel queueing) to indicate occupancy, 1940s lampshades, and in the gents’ a font-shaped washhand basin and wire boxes on the wall above the urinals in which to lodge one’s programme.

Grange Park Opera is a separate charity from the Mary Roxburghe Trust, the former has a 99-year lease from the latter, and Kani expects the two to become closer. This summer for the first time dinner will be served to opera-goers in the old house itself, and more of West Horsley Place may become available as restoration is completed.

“Opera is magical, and here the audience enchanted by what they’ve just seen and heard will step out into this enchanted wood” Kani says. “It has to be an experience you can’t forget.” 

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