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Grange Festival director Michael Chance: ‘I have a new idea every day’

Michael Chance. Photo: Annelies van der Vegt

As the first artistic director of the Grange Festival, the world-renowned singer talks to Graham Rogers about what’s on offer in its inaugural season and his plans for a more varied programme than the Grange is used to, and not just serious operas but also operetta – as well as ballet, concerts and even a drama season.

The inaugural season of your new summer opera festival is about to start. How did you get involved?

I was invited by the Barings [the family that owns the property, under the guardianship of English Heritage] to a performance at the Grange in 2015. I’d never been there before, and I was knocked out by the place. The quality of the theatre was stunning, the immediacy, the sight lines and the sound. I thought, wow, there is such a range of things you could do in this theatre.

As artistic director, how hands-on are you?

Completely. I make all the artistic decisions, all the casting, choice of orchestras. I’ve called myself music director for Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse. I won’t actually be conducting, but I’m coaching the singers, bringing it all together. I think it’s important that an artistic director is also a performer and gets involved.

How does your experience as a countertenor soloist shape your plans?

My own repertory tends to be either early or 20th-century music. But I’ve been an avid opera-goer since I was a teenager. I’ve queued up overnight to see Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden with Carlos Kleiber conducting and I’ve been to Ring cycles. I’m not saying I have an encyclopaedic knowledge, but the Janaceks, the Handels, the Mozarts, the Verdis and the Puccinis – I’ve pretty much seen them all and have my own likes and dislikes.

The summer opera festival market is pretty crowded. How will the Grange Festival stand out?

Previously at the venue there wasn’t much early opera. So this year we’ve got Monteverdi, next year Handel’s Agrippina, and in 2019 we’re doing a Handel oratorio that’s never been staged before. We want a more varied programme than the Grange is used to, and not just serious opera but also operetta. I’m keen to do The Yeomen of the Guard, for instance, which is my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Presumably you feel there’s an audience for Monteverdi?

Well, we’re doing Ulisse. I’d like to do Orfeo involving an open-air procession through the park. That’s just an idea at the moment – but you have to find a way of bringing people into these things. Then there’s French Baroque –works by Rameau or Lully with a strong dance element that can bring opera and ballet together. One of the first things I did when I got the job was to commission a new opera, which we’ll be doing in 2020. It will be by Elena Langer, who did Figaro Gets a Divorce at Welsh National Opera, on the subject of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Trotsky. And we’ve commissioned Jonathan Dove to write an orchestral version of his Mansfield Park, which we’re doing this September as part of the Jane Austen bicentenary.

The Grange Festival doesn’t specify opera in its title. Are there plans to do anything else?

Next year, we’ll be introducing at least two evenings of ballet: there will be an announcement about that soon. We’re also doing concerts and I have firm intentions to have a drama season too, perhaps a short season of Shakespeare or Chekhov.

What sort of audience are you hoping to attract?

The sense of place is very important. The whole visit should be something substantial, memorable and festive. We are, I think more than any other country-house opera festival, offering a range of ticket prices – up to 76 tickets for every performance will be £45 or less, with cheaper offers for people aged under 35 too. We want to be accessible to a wider demographic, a wider age group and wider degree of pocket size, while preserving the crucial core audience who are prepared to invest time and money.

Will there be a dress code?

People like dressing up. The older ones like to wear dinner jackets, but I’ve said creative individuality is welcome. We won’t have style monitors at the entrance.

Grange Park Opera took its database when it left the Grange last year. Has it been hard to build up a new audience?

In just one year we’ve got to roughly half of where we want to be in terms of numbers, about 5,000. We need to be 10,000 to 12,000, and then we’ll feel reasonably comfortable.

How have you raised funds?

Most of the money has come from private individuals. We have a successful fundraising department and we’ve exceeded all our targets. We’ve still got a long way to go, because we’ve had to raise an extra million pounds to re-equip the theatre. But Cameron Mackintosh gave us nearly 400 seats, which we’ve reupholstered, and our new flying bars and electronic equipment are state of the art.

What else is new at the Grange this year?

The park has been newly reconfigured. It looks magnificent. Until now, all that was visible from the house was a mass of undergrowth, but that’s all gone and a whole lake is revealed which nobody has seen for 40 years. And the driveway is completely new, following the line of the original by Capability Brown.

What are your ambitions for the Grange Festival? Is there anything that you’re burning to do?

I’d love to do the Verdi works that haven’t been done there before – Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth, and Otello particularly. I’d love to do Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, Jenufa and Makropulos Case, and we’re definitely doing one of the Puccinis that hasn’t been done at The Grange before. I’d love to do G&S, and Offenbach’s La Belle Helene. Every time I wake up in the morning I have a different idea.

What is your vision for the festival?

I want to celebrate young singers and bring them on – hence we’re starting an international singing competition in September. We’ve had nearly 150 applicants from 26 countries. I also want to propagate the traditional arts of singing and vocal communication. In a smallish theatre with quite a big stage, a pit that can take an orchestra of 70 at a squeeze, and an auditorium of 600, no singer needs to sing loudly.

CV: Michael Chance

Born: 1955, Buckinghamshire
Training: King’s College, Cambridge
Landmark productions: Tamerlano (Handel), Lyon Opera (1985), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Britten), Glyndebourne (1989), Semele (Handel), Royal Opera House (1995), Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck), ENO (1996), Rodelinda (Handel), Munich State Opera (2004)
Awards: Grammy, best opera recording, for Handel’s Semele (1993), CBE (2009)
Agent: Jonathan Groves, Groves Artists

The Grange Festival opens on June 7

This interview is part of The Stage special on opera. Read more stories here

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