Rhinegold Photo credit: Sally Green, Arena Pal
1992: A scene from Haydn’s La vera costanza, setting the tone for Garsington’s rediscovery of neglected operas

Andrew Green

How Garsington’s grand designs grew even grander

4:04, 12th June 2019

By Andrew Green

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer, Garsington Opera has come a very long way since it began life as a homespun happening in an Oxfordshire village garden

‘I didn’t realise this was going to be a long-term thing…’ Catherine Ingrams was only 11 when opera suddenly arrived in her family’s back garden, a horticultural paradise surrounding the Tudor manor house at Garsington which was once the playground of Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Bloomsbury Group. The house, just outside Oxford, was bought by Catherine’s parents, Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams, in 1981.

A fine amateur string player and an international financier who managed Saudia Arabia’s burgeoning billions during the oil boom of the 1970s, Leonard Ingrams was a tireless organiser. He staged two performances of The Marriage of Figaro at Garsington in the summer of 1989 to raise funds for the then ailing Oxford Playhouse, hiring Opera 80, an early incarnation of English Touring Opera. The conductor for those performances was no less than Ivor Bolton, who grasped the potential of the site at once: ‘How wonderful Act IV of Figaro, in the garden, would look,’ he thought, ‘in the fading light.’

Soon, Garsington Opera Company Ltd was formed, and, like Rosalind Ingrams’ rambling roses, it flourished. Leonard Ingrams masterminded every aspect of the operation: ‘During each season,’ Catherine Ingrams recalls, ‘my father would go to work in London every day, arriving back at around 4pm. Before the performance he’d walk round everywhere on the site, checking up on things, speaking to everyone, talking on his mobile phone constantly. He felt personally responsible for the success or failure of any production.’

Gradually, Garsington Opera became fully independent in performance terms, rather than importing other companies and orchestras. It progressively acquired such essential amenities as proper seating and cover to guard against the British weather. Yet some of the stand-out memories are of the company’s homespun dimensions. ‘You’d change in one of the bedrooms,’ tenor Adrian Thompson recalls. ‘If you wanted a cup of tea you popped into the kitchen and asked Rosalind or Leonard if you could make yourself one.’ And the sumptuous gardens, with their sculpted box parterres, were put to work: ‘They might form part of the set. That worked especially well if it was, say, a late 18th-century opera. You felt more in character.’

Homespun yet impeccably stylish – a glimpse behind the scenes at the manor house

This being an English summer escapade, cold and rain were mortal, ever-present enemies. Conductor Peter Ash persuaded Leonard Ingrams to present Haydn opera in the early years. During one rain-swept performance, he says, ‘I looked up from the podium and there was Philip Doghan singing the line ‘What a wonderful day!’ while completely bedraggled, his beard soaking wet! The audience was in fits.’ Adrian Thompson recalls rain halting one performance for 20 minutes. ‘Then as I was climbing back onto the set, I slipped in the wet and fell head-first onto the concrete patio. The only time in my life I’ve seen stars! I just picked myself up and carried on.’

Soprano Carol Smith remembers the special challenge of working on an unconventional stage area. ‘You stepped onto the strange crazy-paving of the terrace…you really had to watch where you put your feet.’ There’s also the sweet memory of Rosalind Ingrams gathering fresh flowers from the garden to present as bouquets at the end of a performance.

As for the opera-goer’s point of view, Gill Morbey retains vivid memories of those Garsington Manor days. ‘One of the charms was its intimacy. The gardens – on many different levels due to the hilly nature of the plot – enhanced the whole experience. There were many small areas you could choose to picnic in: there was a rush once the gates opened for the boathouse by the lake!’

Leonard Ingrams looked to give something back to the local community, inviting villagers to dress rehearsals and drawing schoolchildren into the opera experience via workshops and performances. Nevertheless, outdoor opera across several weeks of the summer aroused opposition from certain unsympathetic Garsington villagers who felt their rural peace had been violated. For years the company was under the shadow of legal action and strictures from the local council, for alleged noise-pollution. Angry villagers started up lawnmowers close-by during performances. Low-flying light aircraft were suspiciously routed over the performance area as a romantic dénoument unfolded. Angus Boyd-Heron remembers the occasion when ‘…one individual started up his strimmer. A chorus member decided to confront him, dressed in period costume with an imitation scythe in his hand. The strimmer and scythe were being brandished – it looked like something out of Star Wars!’

Despite all the drawbacks and make-do-and-mend of back-garden opera, Douglas Boyd’s foremost impression when arriving in 2009 to make his Garsington conducting debut in Fidelio was of ‘the quality and professionalism of the whole exercise. Extraordinary given the difficult circumstances in which productions happened. I was immediately struck by the warmth emanating from the audience. They weren’t just opera lovers, they were Garsington lovers.’

Those opera-lovers received regular helpings of three composers who dominated the Garsington Manor years – Mozart, Rossini and Richard Strauss. And it was not always the more obvious operas that were staged. That early adventure with Haydn was mirrored by UK premieres for operas by the likes of Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky and Britten enjoyed a look-in. Great British conductors such as Steuart Bedford, Elgar Howarth, Jane Glover and David Parry embraced the Garsington vision.

For Nicola Creed, who joined as executive director in 2000, the highlight has been Garsington’s intrepid exploration of rarely performed Strauss operas, especially those with David Fielding as designer and director. ‘Those designs were so spectacular and stylish,’ she recalls. ‘Leonard had a particular liking for Strauss opera and he championed what were then the lesser-known ones. Perhaps Die schweigsame Frau stands out. Glorious. The partnership of David Fielding and conductor Elgar Howarth was extraordinary and the Garsingon orchestra was fantastic, playing Strauss better and better.’

‘Singing the end of Ariadne out of doors was magical’, remembers soprano Carol Smith. ‘The best moments came when it was fully dark and you were open to the stars above.’

Scaling things up: the opera pavilion on the Getty Estate in the Chilterns

Leonard Ingrams’s death in 2005 came unexpectedly: he had a massive heart attack at the wheel while driving home from a performance of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne. With the loss of the energetic get-up-and-go of Leonard, Rosalind decided that opera’s days at Garsington Manor were numbered, leaving the company to seek a new home for its summer festival. By 2010, 35 sites had been visited by a small evaluation group and today, 30 years after it was founded, the company has settled at Wormsley in the secluded Hambleden Valley in Buckinghamshire, the grand and ravishing 18th-century estate owned by the Getty family.

Now an international operatic institution, Garsington stages 29 performances each summer in a purpose-built pavilion theatre overlooking the lake at Wormsley. Nicola Creed recalls how the first sight of the captivating estate set in rolling acres of classic English countryside made the jaw drop in amazement, but also apprehension: ‘As we padded round in the snow it felt very cold. And we wondered if the intimacy of Garsington could be preserved in such a grand setting.’ Long-term Garsington opera-goer Dick Morbey reckons that aim was instantly achieved. ‘It was a delight to discover that aspects of the previous Garsington incarnation had been mirrored at the new location, including the gardens that adjoin the award-winning opera pavilion. As at the Manor, they can be used as a backdrop and alfresco area for productions.’

The business of preserving the ‘Garsington atmosphere’ has to be a major preoccupation, says Douglas Boyd, now the company’s artistic director. A recurring criticism of rival Glyndebourne in recent decades has been the creepingly commercial, impersonal feel of the opera-going experience as the festival has grown and professionalised. ‘We hold onto the sense audience members have of feeling part of the Garsington family,’ says Boyd. ‘They say they emphatically don’t want a corporate feel to things. What they like is that they’re treated as individuals.’

The practical benefits of moving to Wormsley were immediately clear to senior production electrician, Sam Floyd, who originally worked with the Garsington Manor stage crew. ‘From a technical point of view, Wormsley is a world apart from how things used to be. There’s so much more we can do, with so much flexibility built into the space. And of course it’s dry and enclosed. In the old days we had to build shelters for the equipment at the side of the stage. We were always restricted by the power supply available, so there had to be lots of out-of-the-box thinking in lighting design terms. These days it’s fun discussing the wide range of lighting possibilities for each separate opera. But there are always new challenges – like discovering at the start of a season that there’s a newly installed heating duct that you have to work around!’

Preserving the intimate ‘Garsington atmosphere’ in the Opera Garden at Wormsley (Photo credit: Colin Willoughby)

The true magic of the Wormsley Estate is measured in its ability to captivate, however many visits anyone makes. ‘Every time you go down that long driveway,’ says soprano Jennifer France, ‘you feel this is surely the most magical entrance to any opera house, anywhere. The rolling landscape. The woods. The deer and sheep. Amazing.’ Like many another young singer, France came through the ranks at Garsington, first singing as a chorus member before moving into the limelight – now shining on her growing international career. Her example demonstrates an ever-developing feature of the Garsington approach: going the extra mile to nurture young talent. ‘The care taken with your welfare as a young singer isn’t bettered anywhere else,’ France observes. ‘Even when you’re a chorus member, they treat you as a potential soloist, as a professional. You get the chance to cover principal roles – to sing those roles in special schools performances – and to do masterclasses and recitals. You receive expert advice not just on things like auditioning, but on tax and other practical matters to do with how the profession works.’

Garsington Opera’s education and community work goes from strength to strength at Wormsley. ‘It’s absolutely as important as anything else we do,’ says Douglas Boyd. ‘Those who think a company like ours is all about appealing to toffs should be aware that we reach 10,000 young people a year through our work. I think of our production of Roxanna Panufnik’s commissioned opera, Silver Birch, in 2017 – 180 local community members of a wide range of ages interacting with professional singers, meeting the same musical and dramatic demands as for any other performance. We were in tears at what we witnessed from these people – something utterly unique.’

Documenting productions in sound and vision has come a long way from those early makeshift attempts. And who back in 1989 would have guessed that through its Opera for All project Garsington would have reached thousands of opera first-timers by screening productions live onto British beaches? ‘We put on workshops to prepare the local audience,’ says Nicola Creed, ‘but there were so many people who came across the screenings while walking on the beach – such a magical thing to be there in the dark, watching opera. One of my favourite memories is of two parents wrapped up against the cold, loving the music, while their two children dug a huge hole between their deckchairs!’

An adventurous approach to historic repertoire alongside the staples has continued at Wormsley—Offenbach and Vivaldi, for example. As for the future, Douglas Boyd looks forward to the added flexibility afforded by employing both the English Concert period orchestra and the full-bodied sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra. ‘This opens up all kinds of repertoire – a big part of the story going forward. But another key factor of the job ahead is to further spread the word about Garsington both nationally and internationally. Following on from our relationships with Santa Fe Opera and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, we want to take our productions elsewhere in the world…including co-productions. It’s a case of bottling the essence of Garsington and exporting it.’

Mozart (Don Giovanni), Offenbach (the rarely heard Fantasio), Britten (Turn of the Screw) and Smetana (Bartered Bride) make up the 2019 fare at Wormsley. True to Garsington tradition, there’s also concert performance: three outings for the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, preceded by private cricket matches on Wormsley’s world-famous ground, created by the late Paul Getty.

Expect every performance to be a sell-out. Catherine Ingrams reckons her father would be deeply satisfied with how Garsington Opera has landed foursquare on its feet in the Chilterns, not so far from her parents’ beloved Oxford. ‘He’d be very happy that it found a new home in a setting where it can really flourish. It was only ever going to get bigger.’


This year’s Garsington Opera Festival continues until 26 July.


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