Will they come back? It’s the question on the lips of every UK opera festival director. A summer of drought – in which only a handful of operatic performances could be cobbled together – has given way to a winter of doubt: will reopening be permitted? At what capacity? Will performers be able to travel? And, most of all, will performances be filled with opera lovers desperate for a fix of the art they love, or will audiences cower at home in fear of a virus which has claimed so many lives and which has by no means been defeated?

Buxton Opera House
© Buxton International Festival

The UK is blessed with dozens of summer opera offerings and it looks as if nearly all of them – including all the major country house festivals – are planning to go ahead with a 2021 edition. The Prime Minister announced in February that reopening would be “guided by data, not dates”. Assuming that he meant the exact opposite (an assumption that most people made and that has held true so far), theatres will re-open to socially distanced audiences on 17th May and to full audiences on 21st June.

Most festivals open their ticket sales to members (aka friends/patrons/etc) before the general public. But the ones on public sale give plenty of grounds for optimism. Longborough Festival’s four operas are sold out. Grange Park Opera is sold out apart from a pair of Rimsky-Korsakov works which they’re presenting as Ivan the Terrible (which promises to be fascinating but which you can’t exactly describe as mainstream repertoire). Nevill Holt, who are staging La traviata and Don Giovanni, was the only festival where I found ready ticket availability – but those performances aren’t happening until August. The proof of the pudding will come in the next few weeks, with public sales opening up for Glyndebourne, The Grange Festival, Opera Holland Park and Waterperry Opera.

Nevill Holt Theatre
© NHO | Gary Summers

One of the effects of the pandemic is that top singers have fewer opportunities to travel the world to perform. Which goes to show that even the worst problems have their upsides, because there will be rather more big names strutting the stages of summer festivals than you would see in a usual year. Glyndebourne’s opening Kátya Kabanová features three Covent Garden regulars (Aigul Akhmetshina, Nicky Spence and David Butt Philip) as well as top European stars Katarina Dalayman and Kateřina Kněžíková; other big international stars like Elena Tsallagova, Simon O’Neill, John Relyea, Charles Castronovo and Alessandro Corbelli will also be visiting Sussex. At Garsington, Matthew Rose puts his fine bass voice on display as Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin, while their Comte Ory includes Katie Bray, Patricia Bardon and Jacques Imbrailo. Grange Park Opera’s Falstaff is particularly strongly cast, with Sir Bryn Terfel, Natalya Romaniw and Luis Gomes. With singers relatively well rested and desperate to perform, we can expect some fabulous singing performances this summer (acting and stagecraft is more difficult to practise offline, so we’ll have to wait and see whether that’s suffered from the enforced layoffs).

While most of England’s summer opera is concentrated in a 100 mile radius of London, there are prominent offerings further away from the capital. Buxton International Festival, in the Peak District, is probably the most substantial, with an eclectic selection of four operas plus a Stephen Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music (which seems to be popular this year – it’s also being planned by Opera North). Opera North has announced tour dates for Fidelio, as well as a pop-up format that they call Whistle Stop Opera which will tour to small-scale venues across the North of England.

The Fairy Queen at the 2019 Waterperry Opera Festival
© Greg Goodale

Scottish Opera also plan to tour a pop-up format, flexibility that’s needed because the reopening rules will be different in Scotland: so far, no dates have been given for reopening of live indoor performances. They currently have one ambitious outdoor show in the works: a McVicar-directed Falstaff to be performed in the same Glasgow car park as their Bohème last year. For their part, Edinburgh International Festival has declared that the festival will take place “using bespoke outdoor venues complemented by digital broadcast”, but they have not yet released details of any productions.

The Midlands and the West won’t be without their own opera: there will be festivals in Leicestershire (Nevill Holt), Gloucestershire (Longborough), Wiltshire (Iford Arts), Dorset (Dorset Opera Festival) and Oxfordshire (Waterperry Opera), which mixes standard fare with lesser seen pieces such as Jonathan Dove's Ariel.

It’s easy to forget that, even in a normal year, there’s plenty of small scale opera in the UK, and Opera North and Scottish Opera’s pop-up offerings are by no means the only ones. Hampstead Garden Opera’s primary purpose is to provide career opportunities for young singers, but they also provide small scale performances which are popular in North London, this year’s being a rare chance to see Cavalli’s L’Egisto. There's more small format opera just outside the capital, where Vache Baroque is staging its second edition.

Glyndebourne Festival
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | James Bellorini

Summer opera repertoire can be a little on the predictable side, and in 2021, as in many years, there’s going to be plenty of Traviata and Così. But there are a few surprises, such as four different opportunities to see Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with more Handel in the shape of Amadigi at Garsington. In a year where female composers have been in the spotlight, Buxton are eschewing Rossini and Massenet’s versions of Cinderella in favour of the operetta by Pauline Viardot. Cumbria Opera has an interesting double bill of one act operas which explores the dark side of the American Dream: Barber’s A Hand of Bridge and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. And Grange Park Opera have a world premiere of an even darker offering: The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko, in which fund manager turned composer Anthony Bolton explores the 2006 London murder by Polonium-210 poisoning of the former KGB officer who was one of Vladimir Putin’s more annoying critics.

The Royal Opera has just announced a return to the Covent Garden stage: it’s unchallenging repertoire in the shape of Mozart and Puccini, but will come as a great relief to opera fans who have been awaiting the reopening with bated breath. English National Opera has just the one production announced (a semi-staged Tosca at Crystal Palace in August). Birmingham Opera has yet to announce dates for its forthcoming Rheingold, and we await more announcements from other notable companies such as Welsh National Opera and English Touring Opera.

For a while, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged through last year, Oskar Schmitt’s notorious 1904 tagging of England as “The Country without Music” seemed fearfully close to the bone. But now, as we move into spring and English people return to their pubs and hair salons, the green shoots of recovery are distinctly visible. Let’s hope that we don’t suffer from a late frost and that opera in the UK has a lush, flourishing summer. I’m already booked in for three country house operas in the first fortnight of opening, starting with Kátya Kabanová at Glyndebourne. It can’t come soon enough!


[Update 2021-04-19: a previous version of this article referred to a Bartered Bride at Midsummer Opera, but this is in fact not scheduled until 2022. My apologies for the error]