When British TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne unexpectedly inherited a 350-acre estate from his 99-year-old great-aunt in 2014, he was stunned by the tax bill he faced, not to mention maintaining a crumbling 50-bedroom house. which was once briefly owned by Henry VIII.
His solution: Create a registered charity or trust to turn it into an arts center, including a summer opera festival looking for a new home. As an intervention of the gods in a Wagner opera, the tax bill was reduced, a 700-seat theater was built in about 11 months, and the well-to-do came to frolic at West Horsley Place, which had been largely free of frolic for decades.
The success of Grange Park Opera (current season runs through July 17), about 37 miles west of London, exemplifies a symbiotic relationship between old English estates profiting from becoming a British charity and a thirst for highbrow art and fun away from the hustle and bustle of the capital in summer.
It is one of many so-called country house operas in Britain. Others include Garsington (in a temporary structure on the Getty estate) and The Grange Festival (in a dilapidated Greek Revival mansion, which was Grange Park Opera’s first home in 1998). There’s also Glyndebourne, which began in 1934 with day trips to an opera in the country, complete with champagne while strolling the grounds, picnics on lawns or tucked away in garden corners, and sumptuous meals in dining rooms sheltered from the elements.
“When you go to the opera in London, you have to have a drink or something to eat within 20 minutes,” said Wasfi Kani, the founder and chief executive of Grange Park Opera. “But instead of just a few hours a night, make it half a day, take a walk across the country, and enjoy your dinner at a leisurely pace.”
That pace — and an unofficial dress code of tuxedos and evening gowns — also harks back to the opera of yesteryear. For some, the country house operas are not only steeped in England’s romantic history but, ironically, can also provide a glimpse of how opera can survive.
“Houses like Grange Park are somewhat the future of opera because they are smaller and have less overhead, which can accommodate a dwindling audience,” said Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who will return to the festival this summer at “La Gioconda” after opening. from the opera house in 2017 with “Tosca.” “They built it all in less than a year, and right up to the last minute. We did ‘Tosca’, and the soprano sang ‘Mario, Mario, Mario’ to the sound of drills.”
The company, which usually stages four operas or musicals each summer, has an annual operating budget of about £4 million, about $4.9 million, and a full-time workforce of about 12 (with 300 to 400 part-time workers in the summer). Like most other mansion operas, it is funded entirely by ticket sales and donations and receives no government funding.
Gascoigne, the original host of the hit TV show ‘University Challenge’, died in February at the age of 87. But his vision to turn West Horsley Place into a trust — akin to an American nonprofit — is intact, and the opera company, a separate charity, has a 99-year lease on the estate.
The core of the 50-room mansion dates back to the 15th century and Mr Gascoigne’s great-aunt, Mary Innes-Ker, the Duchess of Roxburghe, was the last occupant (her ashes are buried under the orchestra pit). She lived alone for years in an almost Miss Havisham-esque existence with few visitors outside the front rooms. When she died in 2014, the house and grounds were in disrepair.
“Every time there was a new drip, she thought, get a new bucket,” Gascoigne said in 2018.
Ms Kani was looking for a new home for Grange Park Opera as the previous house was quite far from the main London audience. She read about Mr Gascoigne and the house and the debt he was burdened with. It seemed a moment to seize.
Converting the property into an arts center with an opera house seemed like a great idea to Mr Gascoigne and his wife Christina. Many of the house’s furnishings and artwork—along with silver, crystal, servant outfits, and even a long-lost pencil and crayon drawing that Sotheby’s experts raved about—were auctioned off to offset the remaining tax bill and make repairs to the house. to pay. Mr Gascoigne gave up around £20m in assets to create the trust.
“Grange Park Opera approached me and Bamber at the perfect time,” said Ms Gascoigne, who had been married to Mr Gascoigne for 57 years. “What was a potential financial burden, almost became community service for Bamber in his final years.”
And his legacy is set in a five-year-old opera house and its winding gardens, honoring opera’s laid-back origins when Europe’s elite, on any given day, had little more to do than listen to opera and fuss over their formal clothing.
“I’ve always said a third of them come because it’s a great place, a third of them come to see the opera and a third to say they’ve been there,” Ms Kani said.