Dorset Opera forty years on
Part opera festival, part summer school, Dorset Opera has had fans flocking to Dorset for forty years. Tony Burton-Page tells its story.
Published in July ’14
Writing in The Gramophone last year, Antony Craig said: ‘The big London opera houses have rivals in the strangest of places. I’ve been wowed by great productions and fabulous singers in Wexford, Hamburg, little Longborough and most recently, of all places, Bryanston School in Dorset.’ He was referring to the Dorset Opera Festival, whose La traviata (produced by the great Jonathan Miller) and Der fliegende Holländer he had just witnessed. He wrote enthusiastically about them, unable to believe that he was in a rural school rather than a major opera house, and concluded that Dorset Opera was one of those ‘younger festivals that consistently punch above their weight and show what can be done with limited resources and bags of enthusiasm.’
Not that Dorset Opera is particularly young: the age of forty is often seen as middle-aged – a condition once defined by Chambers as ‘an age between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner’; as a length of time since schooldays, it inspired the most famous of all school songs [at least to Old Harrovians]. Forty years has seen Dorset Opera develop from an amateur experiment into a fully-fledged festival which draws opera-lovers from far and wide.
In 1974 Patrick Shelley, a music teacher at Sherborne School, decided to stage a production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, using local forces and only a few professionals as soloists. Shelley had arrived at Sherborne in 1966 to teach woodwind, but his real passion was conducting. He had studied under Vilem Tausky at the Guildhall in London and later had lessons with Leopold Stokowski, the conductor notorious for appearing in Disney’s Fantasia and shaking hands with Mickey Mouse.
For many conductors the summit of their ambitions is to conduct an opera, and Shelley decided to fulfil this with his own project. He joined forces with Robert Glen, a fellow teacher at Sherborne, and Augusta Miller, the Director of Music at Sherborne School for Girls, and they put together a production of The Bartered Bride. An experienced director, Glen took on the role of producer and Miller was the trainer of the all-important chorus, teaching them their parts from scratch in three days – a remarkable achievement, as no professionals were involved apart from soloists and some of the orchestra. But ticket sales were very slow – probably because Smetana’s opera, although the most popular of all Czech operas in its home country, is not nearly so well known in Britain. At this point, someone had the bright idea of inviting Prince Charles to the performance: he had just arrived at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton for helicopter flying training before joining 845 Naval Air Squadron as a pilot on board HMS Hermes. An avid opera lover, he accepted the invitation, and when word spread that HRH was going to be in the audience, ticket sales improved dramatically.
Despite this, the production made a heavy loss – although in every other way it was a massive success, and there was great demand for the venture to continue. But Shelley had had to guarantee the funding with a small house he had recently inherited; as Molière said, ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive’. So Dorset Opera was registered as a charity, and by 1976 the team was ready to do it all over again – although this time they chose a more familiar opera, Bizet’s Carmen, and they engaged some professional singers for the solo roles, such as Vivien Townley, Paul Hudson and Anne Pashley, the Olympic sprinter turned soprano. The plan worked: it was another success, and from now on Dorset Opera was to be a fixture in the county’s cultural scene.
1977 was Jubilee Year, and an appropriately celebratory opera was chosen: Verdi’s Aïda, commissioned for the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo (not, as commonly supposed, for the inauguration of the Suez Canal). The professionals enlisted that year included Gillian Knight (a regular Carmen at the Royal Opera House) and Janet Jacques, who herself introduced a young bass to replace the original Ramfis who had dropped out at the last minute. This newcomer was Roderick Kennedy, who became a principal bass at the ROH and returned to Dorset Opera as a singer several more times and eventually took over as Artistic Director in 2004.
Roderick relates how at that time the productions still took place in the Big School Room at Sherborne School, despite the fact that the chorus now numbered 182. The stage was so crowded that Robert Glen’s stage directions were: ‘Memphis is on the left and Thebes is on the right. I leave the rest to you.’ ‘It was practically a concert version,’ says Roderick. Nonetheless, it was another great success.
Roderick Kennedy sang in ten operas for the company over the next two decades. He has strong connections with Dorset, having lived in Bournemouth for many years, with all his children attending schools there, before moving to Witchampton in the 1990s. But it was not only proximity which kept him involved with Dorset Opera. He has an interest in unusual items in the operatic repertoire, and Patrick Shelley was highly imaginative in his choices. The list of past productions does admittedly include such favourites as Bellini’s Norma and Puccini’s Tosca, but the company also staged two little-known Verdi operas, Giovanna d’Arco and Un giorno di regno, as well as Gabriella di Vergy and Maria Padilla by Donizetti, neither of which had been performed on stage in the UK before.
Shelley became ever more adventurous: in 2000 he chose Salvator Rosa by the 19th-century Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes, which was receiving its European première; indeed, the subsequently released CD, an amalgam of the two performances, was the first recording of the work. For 2003, he decided on Ferenc Erkel’s Hunyadi László, a staple of the Hungarian operatic repertoire, but virtually unknown on these shores. The choice was influenced by the Magyar Magic festival celebrating Hungary’s entry to the EU, but even so it was a brave decision to go ahead with it.
Alas, Patrick Shelley was never to see it: he died suddenly in May that year, shortly before his sixtieth birthday. The show (in Hungarian) went on, as he would have wished, but with difficulty: a new conductor had to be found, and half the chorus of the Hungarian State Opera had to be imported.
The company took a year out, returning in 2005 with a new Artistic Director – Roderick Kennedy – and a new venue – Bryanston School’s Coade Theatre, which is still its home – but with the same ethos: to bring people, especially the young, to opera. The soloists and instrumentalists are professionals, but the chorus is not: just as in 1974, they have three days to learn music which many of them have never seen before – and in a language which may be unfamiliar to them, as all the company’s operas are performed in the original language.
The difference in 2014 is that there are two operas to learn, a trend started in 2011 when Dorset Opera officially became a festival. About one hundred people of varying ages, but mostly young, stay in or near Bryanston for two weeks of what Roderick Kennedy calls ‘the Dorset Opera experience’. ‘We are totally unique,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing that does what we do in the way we do it, in such a short amount of time and to such a high standard, and at such a reasonable cost – and I guarantee that anyone who participates will have the time of their life!’
The first production of the new era was Verdi’s Nabucco. The faithful devotees had the unfamiliar experience of seeing their opera in a 600-seat stand-alone theatre with comfortable seats, all with a good view of the stage. This had not been an option in the Big School Room, whose facilities were diplomatically described by one critic as ‘character-building’.
And the faithful followers kept the faith, turning out for a Massenet rarity, Hérodiade, and an even rarer rarity, La Carosse du Saint-Sacrement by the English eccentric Lord Berners, which had not been heard since its Paris première in 1924. The choices for the 40th anniversary year are a little safer: Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, and the ultra-celebratory Aïda.
A recent development is a collaboration with Nederlandse Reisopera (the Dutch Touring Opera company), whose General Director, Nic Mansfield, comes to Dorset every summer to train the chorus and create his now famous ‘wall of sound’ – a phenomenon invented by pop producer Phil Spector, whose favourite composer was actually Wagner. Dorset Opera’s Music Director is Jeremy Carnall, a Kapellmeister (conductor) with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. But, as Roderick Kennedy is keen to point out, there are also hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers who pull together to bring off these remarkable productions – constructing sets, making costumes, selling programmes, and the like. Andrea Bocelli is reputed to have said that opera needs two things: the voice and
the passion – ‘but above all the passion’. The Dorset Opera Festival certainly has the voices – and it simply oozes passion. ◗
❱ Aïda will be performed on the evenings of 22, 23 and 25 July at 7.00, with a 2.00 matinée on 26 July; there are two evening performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio, at 7.00 on 24 and 26 July. All at the Coade Theatre, Bryanston, 01202 499199 (Regent Centre box office), www.dorsetopera.com