Imagine a brand new opera house, built in a horseshoe shape reminiscent of La Scala. Yet this opera house is not in Milan, but in sun-dappled woodland in Surrey, beyond a 300-year-old orchard.
Welcome to The Theatre in the Woods, 21st-century Britain’s first new opera house, the home of Grange Park Opera and unveiled to great acclaim in June 2017. The new five-tier opera house in the grounds of West Horsley Place was described approvingly by The Times: ‘Britain has a new opera house. The theatre has excellent sightlines and clear supportive acoustics. Its potential is enormous.’
Indeed, more than 14,000 people visited during the inaugural 2017 season, which was declared ‘outstanding’ by the press. ‘Like a giant mushroom, the Theatre in the Woods has soared from nothing, towering between the trees… with a tangible sense of excitement, the first ever audiences have clambered in with high expectations, but few will have imagined just how big a treat they were in for,’ wrote Culture Whisper.
Only 23 miles from London, close to the Surrey Hills, Grange Park Opera has become one of the major summer opera festivals in Europe. Founded in 1998 by Wasfi Kani OBE, the company has staged more than 50 operas, including acclaimed productions of Rusalka, Tristan und Isolde and Peter Grimes. Fiddler on the Roof with Bryn Terfel was staged as part of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. On the list for next season is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece, Oklahoma!, Gounod’s heartrending version of Roméo et Juliette, and Verdi’s dramatic tale of intrigue, Un Ballo in Maschera.
Grange Park Opera makes opera more accessible through its innovative ticket schemes for under-35s and for schools.
As Kani herself says, ‘You don’t need to know anything about opera to enjoy it. Just immerse yourself – 70 people in the orchestra, 50 people on stage, all performing live, right in front of you. There is no right or wrong on what one should feel. Just feel it.’
Grange Park Opera has become an integral part of the English summer season. The audience – invariably, but not exclusively in black tie and cocktail dresses – arrive in the afternoon, have a glass of champagne at The White Wisteria Champagne Bar, and then explore the grounds of the Tudor house, which was lived in by Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, until her death in 2014.
In the long, convivial interval, the audience can settle into one of the two restaurants, either inside the 15th-century house, where Henry VIII once enjoyed a 35-course luncheon, or in The Walnut Tree Restaurant. Alternatively they can book one of the picnic pavilions in the Crinkle-Crankle Garden, on the Croquet Lawn, or in the Rose Parterre. Then there are those who just fling their rugs and unfold picnic furniture in the orchard and have a feast under the mulberry, damson, apple and pear trees. And once the opera ends, the audience walks out into magical English woodland, fit for the queen of the fairies.
Grange Park Opera West Horsley, surrey KT24 6AN +44 (0)1962 737373