Preview: The Grange Festival4:28, 5th June 2019
The Grange Festival, Hampshire
Preview by Adrian Mourby
When I travelled to rural Hampshire earlier this spring, The Grange, a grand country house on the edge of the tiny hamlet of Northington, was already being set up for the summer opera festival which runs for a month until 6 July.
The setting is idyllic: endless views of rolling, classically English countryside surround the visitor. Temporary pavilions designed by John Simpson in Doric style are dotted around the sprawling grounds – including a splendid Portico Terrace Bar for champagne.
Michael Chance, the Grange Festival’s director, showed me around the park’s 400 acres. We stop to view the new road that has been constructed to bring visitors to the festival. ‘It was designed by Kim Wilkie,’ says Chance. ‘He is the best landscape designer working today.’ The new route curves gracefully downhill and as it does, glimpses of the dark Doric façade of The Grange flash through gaps in the trees. ‘That was how they designed approaches in the 18th century – tantalising the visitor.’
I see the view of the lake that Chance – with the help of a few bulldozers – opened up when he took over as artistic director in 2017. Above, there’s the house itself, a wonderfully imposing 19th-century Greek temple grafted on to a redbrick William and Mary mansion.
Wasfi Kani’s Grange Park Opera, which had based itself at The Grange for 25 years, left the venue in 2015, setting up a new base in West Horsley in Surrey. At that point, Chance – with his formidable reputation as a world-class operatic countertenor – was invited by the owner of the estate, Lord Ashburton, to offer his advice on the future of opera at The Grange: ‘The family wanted the festival to continue – it had a huge local following,’ Chance explained. ‘What did I think? Was it possible? By law they wouldn’t even have database access to the names of all the people who had come to previous festivals. I said “Well I think you have the two most important things. You have a loyal audience for whom coming to The Grange is now an annual pilgrimage. And you have a great opera house.”’
What Chance hadn’t realised was that he was actually being interviewed for the job of director. ‘I was coming to the end of my singing career. This was a new challenge.’
What are the advantages, I asked Chance, of having a singer run an opera festival? ‘A singer understands the demands and the tensions of opera – how the whole thing is put together from the inside. And a singer with long international experience can spread the net widely to cast the best people. Here at The Grange, we have one of the best opera houses for the human voice.’
Is that the key to Chance’s vision for his festival? ‘Beautiful singing, yes,’ he agrees. ‘But when we created the new festival, we were told by lawyers that we couldn’t use the word Grange and the word Opera, so we decided to call it The Grange Festival, and I like that idea. It means that there will be opera at The Grange, and there will be dance and concerts – and we’ve done some musicals. And perhaps there will be drama too. So it will be like the Salzburg Festival, where opera is the spine but there are all these other art forms.’
Chance is also keen that The Grange itself shouldn’t only be open during June and July. ‘The heating works here – after a fashion. Let’s use the theatre all through the year!’
The 2019 Grange Festival continues until 6 July and includes new productions of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Verdi’s Falstaff and Handel’s Belshazzar.