Opera in rural Hampshire is due for a change this summer: in October 2015, Lord Ashburton and his son Mark Baring, the owners of The Grange, announced the all new Grange Festival, to be curated by celebrated countertenor Michael Chance.

© The Grange Festival
© The Grange Festival

The operas for the new festival seem chosen to span the greatest possible breadth of styles, ages and levels of familiarity. Bizet’s Carmen is a top ten opera from the core of the romantic repertoire, often performed on a lavish scale and familiar to every operagoer. Britten’s Albert Herring is a 20th century chamber opera composed for small forces, a hilarious, light-hearted comedy of manners, and not nearly as frequently played. But the jewel in the crown of the season should be Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, written just over three hundred years before Albert Herring and one of the masterpieces of early opera. 2017 contains Monteverdi’s 450th birthday and Albert Herring’s 70th, and in September, after the main festival, The Grange celebrates a particularly local anniversary, Jane Austen’s bicentenary, with a newly orchestrated performance of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park (which was originally scored only for piano).

Artistic director Michael Chance was happy to give substantial answers to our questions.

Michael Chance © Annelies van der Vegt
Michael Chance
© Annelies van der Vegt
Bachtrack: Familiar venue, new team. Aside from the choice of repertoire, how will the experience of attending The Grange Festival differ from the opera seasons that have preceded it?  

MC: The other evening at a Grange musical reception, I was asked by two separate people, rather surprisingly “Are you going to be friendly?” I didn’t quite know what to say, except, yes, we most certainly are! I hesitate to guess why this question might have been asked. Visitors will experience many physical improvements to the site, the theatre, and the whole experience of visiting The Grange will have a totally different feel to it, with a new beautiful drive through the park and a lake newly revealed after years of being hidden from view by overgrown vegetation. The lovely Richard who looks after the building at The Grange every day of the year was positively rhapsodic when looking at the new view: he reckons nobody has been able to enjoy it for over 40 years.

There will be new seats, new stage equipment, improved disabled access, new dining experiences for the long interval and no pre-performance speeches.

The festival comprises very different operas, spanning almost the entire history of opera. What influenced your choice?

What would flourish in that wonderfully intimate and flexible theatre, what’s been successful there before, what are the obvious gaps in repertoire for that theatre, and operas which I have been involved with myself and know are complete masterpieces. The commission for Jonathan Dove to orchestrate his Mansfield Park makes us happy to play a unique part in the bi-centenary celebration of Jane Austen, Hampshire’s most famous daughter.

For people interested in early opera, Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is an undisputed masterpiece – but it won’t be familiar to the standard opera crowd. How will you persuade the more conservative of your audience that this is an opera that simply has to be seen?  

The searingly thrilling and moving telling of the story in a score pulsating with the rhythm and pace of the unfolding drama. I think people are really interested to see the pit partially covered over (for the first time I believe). The singers will come downstage of the proscenium and present this great story as if at The Globe, or Stratford.

You’ve promised to “capture the radical freshness” of the première of Il ritorno d’Ulisse. That sounds enticing but risky – can you tell us more?  

No conductor, but instead a singer-led, brilliant international group of period players forming the continuo team, who all know the score well and who will respond to every nuance of the vocal line and give the whole evening an irresistible pulse and range of colour. We happen also to have a remarkable and unusual creative team including one of India’s leading designers, Sumant Jayakrishnan, and the director, Tim Supple, with a host of extraordinary visionary successes behind him. And, I have not even talked about the cast we have assembled. I believe the pairing of Anna Bonitatibus and Paul Nilon, both internationally acclaimed in their roles of Penelope and Ulisse, is as good as you will get anywhere in the world. It’s always a challenge to cast Ulisse with six tenor parts - I am thrilled with the range of youth and experience and the variety of performer we have got for this show.

© The Grange Festival
© The Grange Festival
For the benefit of the early music nerds – can you tell us about the edition of Il ritorno d’Ulisse that you’ll be using: is there any particular orchestration, choice of continuo instruments etc?

The figuring (in other words the harmonic choices) has been mostly done but will continue to be refined in rehearsals, as will the precise choice of which instrument plays where (two harpsichords, portative organ, two theorbos/guitars and Baroque harp). We use the version prepared from previous productions by Roger Hamilton, with whom I have previously done it in Snape Maltings and at The Globe. Doing these continuo operas is always a process of constantly refining and adapting to precise circumstances.

Carmen is at the opposite end of the audience familiarity scale. What will make this production stand out and attract people who have heard Carmen many times?  

I have rather enjoyed the complicated process of discussion, research, etc which is still going on to get to what promises to be an intensely physical, theatrical production, where everybody involved will be part of a community, and the chorus all individuals who are also participants in the drama. Annabel Arden and Jean-Luc Tingaud have devised innovative and entertaining ways to make the spoken parts funny and involving in the story. It looks like the visceral proximity of a show like this in that theatre will be further enhanced by the way it is going to be performed. No grandstanding. Fully immersive. And what has turned out to be a totally international cast – so the promise of a full palette of tastes, smells and sounds for this extraordinary maverick opera.

If any opera director deserves the label “legendary”, it has to be John Copley. What’s it been like working with him on Albert Herring?  

The trouble with John is that he thinks, really, that he’s a singer, and a great one to boot. In many ways he’s right. He knows every part, and can impersonate so many performers.  I always remember Nick Hytner talking about the various assistant director jobs he did early in his career, and how working with John was so instructive – he knows about the craft of every facet of putting on a show: stagecraft, lighting, text, rhythm, projection, timing etc.  And if anyone can make you laugh till you’re sore in an opera, it’s him. The only real problem is how they’ll ever get through the rehearsals without cracking up, given his unlimited store of stories and delicious vulgarity. So perfect for this opera, I feel.  

Michael Chance © The Grange Festival
Michael Chance
© The Grange Festival
We auditioned very widely and have got a wonderful British cast of singing actors, or acting singers, or however you want to call them. We heard 15 young tenors for Albert, and chose the youngest, believe it or not. And Sue Gritton is rather excited, I believe, to be doing her first Lady Billows, a part, so she tells me, she’s been waiting for for most of her life.

Given your own singing career, we’re not surprised that you’ve assembled a strong selection of singers. Can you tell us about any more of the singers that you’re particularly excited to be working with?  

I’m frankly humbled that so many friends and colleagues and, of course, many others I haven’t ever worked with all chose to come and perform at The Grange long before we were really up and running, and still, really, a virtual opera festival. I believe Na’ama Goldman will be such a classy Carmen (if that’s possible), and with Phillip Rhodes and Leonardo Capalbo playing opposite her, sparks should fly. And the team we have got for Mansfield Park, mostly chosen on a single day of auditions where composer, conductor, director and we were all present, promises much.

Finally, an important question about logistics: The Grange is very hard to reach by public transport. Several of the other country house opera festivals provide transport help for their audiences, but the previous Grange Park Opera was notable in not doing so. Do you have plans to rectify this?

We have a “Festival Express” meeting trains at Basingstoke and returning after each show. Some regional hubs are starting to develop whereby Grange Festival patrons can come together in a single bus from Norfolk, or Hereford, or wherever. I fully intend that nobody should be discouraged from coming because of difficulty of travel. And the new drive will have no potholes in it! So, in short, we want to make the whole experience of going to, and being at, the Grange as easy and as pleasurable as possible.


The 2017 Grange Festival runs from 7th June. You can see the full listings here.

This interview was sponsored by The Grange Festival