Glyndebourne, Garsington and The Grange among the summer outdoor operas going ahead in Britain this year

Glyndebourne 2021 and several of the other open-air opera events that are such a feature of the British summer are planning to go ahead as planned, as the country looks beyond the global pandemic. Annunciata Elwes reports.

This year’s summer solstice will certainly be memorable. Not only will June 21 be our longest day, but, if all goes to plan, we’ll finally be free to enjoy it. The delirium of those thousands of neo-druids in white robes at Stonehenge will be nothing compared with that of the men in white dinner jackets, probably with shorter beards, holding picnic hampers and floral-clad companions. In short, country-house opera will return with bells on.

Festival organisers have been busy planning how to make this season count and the results are intriguing. Longborough Festival Opera in Gloucestershire (June 1–August 3) will stage three productions in a circus big top, for which they are building an acoustically clever wooden auditorium. Seats will be grouped in twos and fours and the tent’s sides are optional. ‘It’s opera undressed, as the focus shifts to the music, text and performance, rather than big sets and costumes, and the space itself becomes a part of the storytelling,’ enthuses artistic director Polly Graham.

Four operas will go ahead at Glyndebourne 2021 (May 20–August 29), with an audience capped initially at 600 (usually 1,200), which ‘draws on our experience of staging socially distanced events in 2020’, says artistic director Stephen Langridge, ‘without lowering our artistic ambition’. The East Sussex venue will also host orchestral concerts. ‘With a 50% reduction in box office potential, it will be expensive for us,’ explains Sarah Hopwood, Glyndebourne’s managing director, but it is ‘essential to protect the livelihoods of our staff and freelance artists’.

Credit: James Bellorini / Glyndebourne

Grange Park Opera, at West Horsley Place in Surrey, will also stage four operas, selling 376 tickets out of 700. They plan to allocate seats a fortnight before each performance, separating those who’ve been vaccinated from those who haven’t.

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Founder and CEO Wasfi Kani explains that ‘our Theatre in the Woods is on five levels, so they’re already spaced vertically. And we happen to have built the perfect lavatorium rotunda for Covid-19 — it’s spacious, with a one-way system.’ However, ‘social distancing will continue after June 21,’ she adds. ‘I bet you a million pounds.’

Michael Chance, artistic director at The Grange Festival in Hampshire, agrees that ‘we can’t trust June 21′, but if things do go to plan then the festival’s dates should work well: it’s now scheduled to run from 24 June to 24 July. The festival includes three operas, a musical and a production of King Lear.


Garsington Opera (June 2–July 29), at the Wormsley estate in Buckinghamshire, has an advantage in that its Japanese-inspired pavilion is already open-sided. ‘We will be socially distanced, but no less magical,’ says artistic director Douglas Boyd, who has planned four opera productions and a concert.

‘Having staged highly successful pilot performances of Fidelio last September, we’re perfectly placed. It presents major budgetary pressures, of course, but we’re so fortunate in that we can adapt, using our unique hybrid indoor/outdoor theatre. We know our audience are yearning for the live, emotional experience of great opera.’

Garsington’s spectacular opera house at Wormsley. Credit: Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Of course, some operas will work better than others in the constrained settings. The musical dramas of Richard Wagner are of such grand scope and complexity that, in 1872–76, he built his own opera house to accommodate them. Conductors for these works need to be highly muscular and his music brought about a revolution in orchestral composition that is arguably still reverberating.

This need for a large orchestra makes performances in the time of coronavirus tricky — in fact, ‘one should avoid Wagner at all costs,’ quips The Grange’s Mr Chance. But a hardy few are persevering.

At Longborough, despite bringing in a big top, Die Walküre simply won’t fit; it will be a concert production in the main theatre instead. Similarly, the Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde will be a ‘semi-staged concert’. One can only admire such Wagnerian determination.