Rowan Moore on Mar­ket Har­bor­ough’s new home for opera

Sub­tle and in­ti­mate, this opera house within a sta­ble block is at­tuned to per­form­ers, au­di­ence and the el­e­ments alike

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Rowan Moore Nevill Holt Opera Mar­ket Har­bor­ough

Think of an opera house and you might think of some­thing grand and lush – red vel­vet, gilded stucco, the great chan­de­lier and the­atri­cal stair­cases of the Paris Opéra – or, in a 20th-cen­tury it­er­a­tion, the na­tion-defin­ing, sail-shaped roofs of Syd­ney. You prob­a­bly don’t think of a struc­ture hid­den within a partly 17th-cen­tury sta­ble block, whose ar­chi­tects have con­sid­ered with great care its mul­ti­ple shades of brown.

Such is the 400-seat venue in the grounds of Nevill Holt Hall near Mar­ket Har­bor­ough in Le­ices­ter­shire, a great, ram­bling ad­di­tive work of seven cen­turies now owned by the Car­phone Ware­house mag­nate David Ross. In a way typ­i­cal of a cer­tain sort of English ru­ral com­po­si­tion, a church and ham­let (pop­u­la­tion: 28, ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus) look like an­nexes of the house. The build­ing is de­signed to serve the an­nual Nevill Holt Opera fes­ti­val, which is backed by the David Ross Foun­da­tion, and to hold oc­ca­sional per­for­mances and ed­u­ca­tion events through the year. It re­places a tem­po­rary struc­ture deemed by the lo­cal plan­ners to be too dam­ag­ing to the his­toric build­ing.

It is de­signed by Wither­ford Wat­son Mann, whose Stir­ling prizewin­ning Ast­ley Cas­tle in Nuneaton – where a Land­mark Trust house was in­serted into a ru­ined shell – es­tab­lished their cre­den­tials as ar­chi­tects good at putting new things into old things. In Nevill Holt the ob­ject was to re­tain a sense of the orig­i­nal court­yard, with some of its stone walls still vis­i­ble, within which a struc­ture of steel and tim­ber sits lightly.

Its un­usual sit­u­a­tion means that it dis­penses with some of the usual at­tributes of opera houses. A fly­tower would have been too in­tru­sive on the old ar­chi­tec­ture. And be­cause sum­mer­time au­di­ences drift through the hall’s lawns and walled gar­dens be­fore they get to the per­for­mance, there was felt to be no need for a foyer.

The main achieve­ment of this £5.1m project – mod­est sound­ing but es­sen­tial, and not al­ways achieved in the­atres – is the sense that per­form­ers and au­di­ence are in a sin­gle room. There is in­ti­macy and con­nec­tion, cre­ated by the mod­u­la­tion of stalls and bal­cony, and as­sisted by the con­tin­u­a­tion of the same Douglas fir pan­elling and the same ex­posed stonework through both au­di­to­rium and stage. The tech­ni­cal para­pher­na­lia of the stag­ing and of the build­ing’s struc­ture are un­ob­tru­sive – they don’t get in the way of the uni­fy­ing sur­faces of the in­te­rior.

At the same time the room re­tains an ex­te­rior air, with a cal­cu­lated rough­ness in its sur­faces, an am­bi­gu­ity that the ar­chi­tects say suits opera’s fond­ness for cre­at­ing out­door scenes on stage. A big glazed open­ing in the ceil­ing, through which day­light can flood be­fore sum­mer per­for­mances start, puts you in con­tact with the sky. The sta­ble block’s orig­i­nal por­tal, through which au­di­ences en­ter, cre­ates a sim­i­larly di­rect con­nec­tion to the sur­round­ing land­scape.

In or­der to achieve its sim­ple goals – to make a room, to achieve a sense of out­doors in­side – the de­sign of the build­ing is all about tun­ing. The horse­shoe-shaped bal­cony is raised un­usu­ally high, which re­veals the old stone walls and gives am­pli­tude to the stalls. The slightly chunky tim­ber has a mea­sured rus­tic­ity, off­set by skinny met­al­work, that is skil­fully brought to­gether by the lo­cal con­trac­tors, Messenger. There is a lay­er­ing of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als – stone, steel, wood – that are then given unity through their re­strained range of brown­ish tones. Di­ver­sity achieves whole­ness – as with the in­stru­ments of an orches­tra, it is tempt­ing to say.

Most of the dressed-up oper­a­go­ers prob­a­bly won’t no­tice they are tread­ing on a floor that, in or­der to re­tain the mem­ory of the yard’s hard­ness, is fin­ished in rough-tex­tured con­crete. They may not no­tice, ei­ther, that the bal­cony struc­ture is in­de­pen­dent of the stone walls around, a move that con­trib­utes both to its feel­ing of light­ness and to the in­tegrity of the room within which it stands. They are un­likely to know that the spac­ing of the tim­ber el­e­ments echoes the in­ter­vals of the beams of the sta­ble’s struc­ture – which they can’t see, but which none­the­less helps to cre­ate an em­pa­thy of old and new. The more mu­si­cal among them will, hope­fully, no­tice the way it sounds, to which mu­sic writ­ers gave their stamp of ap­proval af­ter the first per­for­mances last sum­mer. Achieved with the help of the acous­ti­cian Bob Essert, the idea is to achieve a cer­tain light­ness that favours the voices of the young singers whom Nevill Holt Opera likes to sup­port. What still needs to be ac­claimed is the way tech­ni­cal ques­tions of sound trans­late into the vis­ual and spa­tial ex­pe­ri­ence of ar­chi­tec­ture. As with every­thing else about this project, it is achieved sub­tly: there are no con­spic­u­ous acous­tic de­vices, just an in­tel­li­gent choice of ma­te­ri­als and sur­faces.

If the the­atre is not declam­a­tory it is be­cause it doesn’t have to be. The house and gar­dens, which have com­mand­ing views of the land­scape and are pop­u­lated by as­sertive mod­ern sculp­tures, are spec­tac­u­lar enough. So, too, are per­for­mances of opera. The au­di­to­rium has strength and per­son­al­ity but, as the space that in­ter­venes be­tween these dif­fer­ent dra­mas, can be qui­eter.

Wither­ford Wat­son Mann de­scribes its project with phrases like “gen­tly dy­namic” and “qui­etly un­ortho­dox”, and so it is. Its virtues are in­tense lev­els of thought­ful­ness and dis­creet wit. It is not rad­i­cal. It is not try­ing – un­like, for ex­am­ple, cer­tain projects of Rus­sian con­struc­tivists – to rein­vent the na­ture of the­atre. But nei­ther does it sim­ply fol­low con­ven­tional for­mu­las. It is a place that can make opera feel fresh and alive.

The cal­cu­lated rough­ness suits opera’s fond­ness for cre­at­ing out­door scenes on stage

‘A sense of out­doors in­side’: Nevill Holt Opera’s 400-seat au­di­to­rium, with its glazed open­ing in the ceil­ing to let in the sum­mer light.

The Douglas fir pan­elling of the au­di­to­rium, left. The opera house is in the sta­ble block, above, of Nevill Holt Hall, which is owned by Car­phone Ware­house co-founder David Ross. Pho­tographs by Hélène Binet

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