What does summer sound like to you? Maybe it’s the pock pock pock of tennis, the buzz buzz buzz of a wasp or the pat pat pat of heavily-applied suncream. For me, summer starts with the sounds of corks popping, sandwiches being unwrapped and singers doing their vocal exercises. By that I mean the season of opera festivals that signal the beginning of British summer time. I’m going to talk about four different opera picnic combo options: Opera Holland Park, Grange Park Opera, Big Screen Opera and firstly, Glyndebourne.
Glyndebourne itself has become known beyond the classical music world and is sometimes used to represent everything I hate about the way opera and classical music are talked about – it’s used as a shorthand for poshness and elitism. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist there (I’ve received the odd dodgy look for wearing a dress that isn’t deemed long enough etc, and I do get the feeling that some audience members are there more to be seen than to see any opera) but my visits to Glyndebourne have been facilitated by a fantastic under-30s ticket scheme. This has meant getting cheap standing tickets for standard performances, or great rear-stalls seats for a specific under-30s performance for only £30. I’ve seen some brilliant performances there, including
- A thoroughly entertaining L’elisir d’amore
- An oppressive and overwhelming Billy Budd where the set really made the audience feel like they were below a claustrophobic ship’s deck.
- A completely gorgeous Ravel double bill with ingenious costumes for L’Enfant et les sortileges, alongside a cheeky L’heure espagnole
- Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen in such a clever staging, it was both moving and heartwarming in equal measure.
- My first experience of my favourite ever opera, Eugene Onegin.
- La Boheme with such convincing acting, I really thought they were in love, and then I fell in love with them.
The festival began in 1934, founded by John Christie and it is still in the family – John’s grandson Gus (married to soprano Danielle DeNiese) runs the festival now. The house was built on the family estate near Lewes, East Sussex. The current theatre was opened in 1994, and it’s pretty gorgeous inside. Thankfully, it also doesn’t have many of the sightline issues you get at older opera houses. Here are my tips for visiting Glyndebourne:
- Summer is the best time to go to make the most of the grounds, but you can also visit at other times of year. The summer season is called the Festival and Autumn/Winter is called the Tour. These productions do travel around sometimes, but there are still plenty of performances at Glyndebourne itself.
- Find out when the booking day is and book early! There’s often a hellish online queue but you need to be in it to win it.
- It is easy to travel down from London – find the performance schedule on the Glyndebourne website and it will tell you which time train to get from London Victoria (the journey is just over an hour) You can then get the Glyndebourne-provided (free!) coach from the station to the opera house. It will get you there in time to have a pre-performance picnic. You can also get the same coach back to the train station to return to London after the performance (though usually not getting back to London until around 11:30).
- Take plenty of food. You can have a picnic before the opera and then during the long 90 minute dinner break. And don’t forget the train journeys… Basically, take every opportunity and excuse – You don’t maintain a figure like mine by not having 3 picnics in one day.
- If you can, get a table on the balconies around the outside of the theatre. In fact, just dash straight to the upper levels when you arrive. You’ll be glad of it if there are 2 intervals because it can get cold in the evenings. Take a jacket / scarf to keep warm. If the weather is bad, there is a marquee with tables where you can take your picnic to keep dry if you aren’t able to get a table, or prefer to sit out on the grass.
- You can absolutely dress up if you want to but is by no means a requirement. I have seen people in black tie and ball gowns, but also in shift dresses, casual suits, and even in jeans. It’s a nice opportunity to dress up – we do love an occasion – but don’t feel you have to.
- If you have standing tickets, take comfy shoes to swap into during the performance.
- Don’t be afraid to ask Glyndebourne for help – in my experience they’re customer service team have been phenomenally helpful. Basically, don’t fee embarrassed or unwelcome.
- Talking of being welcoming, Glyndebourne have some great resources in the Discovery section of their website. The Guides and Podcasts are particularly good for first-timers.
- Make sure you take a stroll around the garden to enjoy some of the sights (flowers, “lake”, and best of all, sheeeeeeeeep.)
Next up, Grange Park Opera. I only went for the first time this year and I have to say that it isn’t set up quite as well for newbies as Glyndebourne is. It’s moved to a new location this year, in a beautiful part of Surrey called West Horsley (it was previously based in Hampshire), where they’ve opened a new Theatre In The Woods next to the 15th-century house and its walled gardens. There’s a little exhibition in the gardens about the house’s history, and the theatre isn’t quite finished yet but is extremely impressive for something that only started being built in Summer 2016. (Here’s a radio item about the new house with founder Wasfi Kani). The gardens are gorgeous and there are lots of secret corners to explore and wander through in the interval.
We did travel down by train (this time from London Waterloo to West Horsley), and there is a bus that takes you from the station to the park for £10 return. However, the bus had no spaces left so we ended up walking to the house – about a 15 minute walk through some lovely countryside. Can’t complain about that, but we needed to take a taxi back after the performance. This did mean we ended up getting an earlier train that the coach-users, but still got back into Waterloo after midnight (partly due to rail-replacement bus services, but it meant we were too late in London to catch the last tube on a Sunday). The walk to the house from the station was beautiful but I’d definitely suggest looking up the route before you go (and note, it isn’t detailed on the Grange Park website). As you can see, the day we visited had beautiful blue sunny skies and we were fine to eat our picnic outside in the garden. But I don’t know what would happen if it rained. There is a marquee but we weren’t allowed to go in because we hadn’t booked (and didn’t know that we needed to). Let’s be positive though and say that these are teething problems of the new location. I’m sure they do want to welcome new visitors and a few bits of extra information on the website or in a booker’s email will do wonders.
But to the positives (and these are two BIG positives…) There’s a good Under 35s scheme at Grange Park called Meteors. We had really excellent rear stalls tickets for £35. And then the biggest positive of all was THE PERFORMANCE WAS INCREDIBLE! I saw Janáček‘s Jenufa and it was incredibly moving, powerful, emotional and just musically overwhelming. The cast were just stunning – every single role, even the smaller parts, were sung to perfection, particularly Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa, Susan Bullock as Kostelnicka and Peter Hoare as Laca (I’ve seen Laca played as a bit of creep before, but he gave him real humanity). I was genuinely holding back tears. To be honest, some of the aforementioned issues with travel etc had made me feel negative towards the festival, but the performance itself persuaded me I absolutely must go again. Just maybe next time I’ll hire a car….
Next, we’re staying firmly inside the M25 with a visit to west London’s Opera Holland Park. Now obviously there are many advantages here, most obviously the travel! The tickets are more expensive because there isn’t a young-persons scheme like the other two, but for that day when I hit 36 (sob), the ticket prices for OHP are more than competitive. (I was fortunate enough to befriend a lovely person who worked at OHP and so my ticket didn’t cost anything at all…) There’s a gorgeous summery feeling to the place, and I had a simply lovely time watching L’elisir d’amore with my mum. It was her first opera experience and she really enjoyed it.
The theatre is in (you guessed it) Holland Park, just a short walk from both Holland Park and High Street Kensington tube stations. So it’s ideal so you can just go after work (if you’re based in London) and enjoy a bit of outdoor culture, and you certainly don’t need to worry about getting a transfer bus back home! The performance standard was really great, with stars at the beginning of their careers, and they perform lots of repertoire that is just my cup of tea. It’s definitely somewhere I’ll be visiting more often in future.
And last but not least, if you are completely new to opera, I’d heartily recommend going to see one of the Big Screen relays – find out what’s on here. There are various screens around the UK but the showings I’ve attended have all been in Trafalgar Square. The performances are presented in a fun way and are good for newbies – they’ll tell you a bit about the opera’s story and history, show you backstage, talk to the performers, and encourage (mostly cringey) crowd participation during intervals. But best of all it’s free, and you’re sharing with other audiences who love opera, or are giving it a try for the first time too.
So what are you waiting for? Pack that picnic hamper, uncork the sun cream and soak up some sun and some culture!
Pins on this post
- Grange Park Opera
- Opera Holland Park
- Trafalgar Square