Set the music free
Awalk away from the Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold, site of the final battle of the first Civil War, lies the village of Longborough. Blink and you’ll miss it. Though it has been settled for 5,000 years, its mark on cultural life is a recent one, made possible by the conversion of a chicken barn into an unlikely opera house. It was the dream, realised in 1998, of Lizzie and Martin Graham. They got the idea while watching an opera on television.
Its 500 seats come from the refurbished Covent Garden. The building’s façade — a literal and metaphorical one, for the auditorium remains rather basic — is topped by statuettes of a trinity of composers. The beloved figures of Verdi and Mozart on either side, with Wagner, no one’s idea of a good man, though many more’s idea of a troubling and transcendent genius, standing atop.
For this is a Wagner house, which in 2013 hosted the first Ring cycle to be performed in a privately-owned venue outside Bayreuth, the Wagnerian holy of holies. It will do so again in 2024.
Longborough Festival Opera receives no public subsidy, but it has hundreds of supporters and patrons, a few of whom are wealthy. It has the services of one of the great Wagnerian conductors, Anthony Negus; has an ability to spot and nurture serious vocal talent, much of it homegrown; and employs a fine band of players, with major input from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Longborough’s Ring cycle was greeted with acclaim — one of the two finest accounts of this epic work in recent years. The other was staged not at Bayreuth, Vienna, or Milan, but in Leeds. Roger Scruton, not a man given to lavishing praise where it was not due, considered Opera North’s 2016 Ring the go-to performance, an extraordinary reading by the conductor, Richard Farnes. It is available online, and makes the perfect introduction to this inexhaustible creation. Opera North’s Parsifal opens in June before touring the country.
In the Penguin Companion to Classical Music, Paul Griffiths writes of Britain’s historical “mistrust of opera”. One wouldn’t know it now. Longborough and Opera North share a flourishing operatic landscape with Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and a plethora of country house companies: Glyndebourne, Grange Park, Garsington, as well as London’s own rus in urbe, Opera Holland Park. Hackney’s innovative Grimeborn festival, has embarked on its own Ring, on a scale that makes Longborough look like the New York Met.
Even the Royal Opera House, a gas guzzler of subsidy, all too often wasted, has delivered a landmark Peter Grimes, evidence if any were needed of the vocal talent these islands produce, and not only because of the choral scholarships and peerless training provided by Oxford and Cambridge.
Since Britten, Britain has produced a remarkable line of opera composers, including George Benjamin, whose Written on Skin, premiered in 2012 and widely reprised, can lay claim to be this century’s first operatic masterpiece.
And yet, if one were to read many of Britain’s classical music critics and commentators — though not those who have contributed to this special musical edition of The Critic — one would think opera, and classical music generally, is facing an apocalypse.
Opera magazine leads the way in cultural pessimism, publishing editorial after editorial marked by a severe case of Brexit derangement syndrome — in which everything continental is good, and everything British is very bad indeed.
Much is made of the lavish public subsidy the major European companies receive, the post-Brexit issue of work permits, and the lack of a politically radical (i.e. left-wing) regietheater.
In this precious world, the director is king (they’re usually men), let loose — and amply rewarded — to impose their often incoherent visions, almost certainly at odds with the creator’s intentions, on long-suffering punters, and with little consideration for the singers on stage.
Covent Garden often buys into such nonsense — it has the money to do so — but there is something to be said for the pareddown productions of companies like that of Longborough, and for the simple but clever concert stagings for which Opera North is renowned.
It is years since Bayreuth had a production of any of Wagner’s operas that was worth the while — its last overproduced Ring cycle, complete with unconvincing crocodiles, was a disaster. Those who take their seat in the Festspielhaus are advised to close their eyes for the duration of the performance, and wallow in the glorious acoustic.
It is not just a Wagner issue: at Salzburg, the richest — and most expensive — of Europe’s classical music festivals, only a minimalist production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra sticks in the memory from recent years.
The problem with opera in Britain, like classical music in general, lies not with its gifted practitioners, nor with its enthusiastic audience, but with those weaned on the public purse who declare it challenging and elitist — almost always themselves members of an elite, whether in education, the media, or politics. Ironically, they appear to have little trouble with the elitism of, say, sport.
Britain has a model of classical music that, by and large, works. It has an abundance of talent. The old German quip of a “land without music” could not be more wrong. It just needs advocates, optimists with a bit between their teeth like the Grahams of Longborough. Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.