John and Bernadette Grimmett threw themselves into their new lives in France when they founded an annual opera festival, staged in the grounds of their home in the Loire Valley. finds out more
Buying a house wasn’t on the agenda when Bernadette and John Grimmett sheltered from the rain in an estate agent’s office while on holiday in France with their four children, but that is exactly what happened. “It was the only shop open where we could all shelter from the rain, and we came out having bought a house!” laughs Bernadette. The couple had been living in London where John worked as a freelance consultant and Bernadette was a GP, but they had become disenchanted with their busy city lives and were ready for a change.
The house that the couple bought while on that rainy holiday was a small farm with woodland attached, situated close to Baugéen-Anjou in the Loire Valley. They moved into the house in 1989 and immediately loved having outdoor space, a contrast to their former London home with its small garden. “The house had been fully renovated by the owner of the local quincaillerie (hardware store) we bought it from, so no work was needed,” says Bernadette.
The couple soon fell in love with the area. “It has a wonderful golden light, every kind of wine you could imagine, with many traces of English history and we soon made friends,” Bernadette says.
When a beautiful local château – Les Capucins – came on the market, the couple decided that it was perfect for them and bought it in 1997. “It was a totally different proposition: damp problems, miles of inadequate guttering, leaky roofs and four acres of poorly maintained garden,” says Bernadette, adding that the property has a long history. “The crypt dates from the 11th century and part of the house from 1580. We have the names of all the abbots of the original monastery and the owners from when it was sold after the Revolution. From the Edwardian period on, we have photographs, letters and architects’ plans.”
The property has extensive grounds, with gardens laid out in three terraces with parterres, lawns and woodland, a fountain, stream and even a moat. These would prove to be the perfect setting for an annual opera festival that the couple founded in 2002, hosting opera performances on warm summer evenings.
The inspiration for starting an opera festival has its roots in a wet evening at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, in East Sussex. “I asked myself why someone didn’t take this event to somewhere with better weather and longer, warmer evenings. This seed of an idea took years to germinate but, eventually, we said to some musical friends of ours, ‘Why don’t you come and stay with us and let’s make an opera?’”
And so, the Opéra de Baugé was born. Performances are held in a mobile theatre, the only one of its kind in the world. “It was created by a band of travelling actors and has even been to Russia. It is constructed from three long trailers and has stalls, side stalls and galleries. It has a fabulous acoustic because so much of it is made of suspended wood,” says Bernadette.
The first festival took place in the summer of 2003 with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. “It was a great success and people pressed us to continue. The next year was our pearl wedding so we wanted to give The Pearl Fishers. I also wanted to put on Martha as it was one of my favourites. That landed us with two heavy 19th-century works with full orchestra and chorus. Hubris, some said. Our music director wrote to the conservatoires in London asking for students to sing in the chorus. That’s when we hit the jackpot; Gareth Malone, Ben Johnson, Sophie Bevan and others, now brilliantly successful, came, enjoyed themselves, came again and brought their