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Grange Park Opera founder Wasfi Kani: ‘Opera is a form of religious aspiration’

Wasfi Kani. Photo: Robert Workman

Wasfi Kani is one of Britain’s feistiest opera bosses – famous, even notorious, for leading from the front. But our first meeting creates a different, rather endearing, impression.

Looking half her age, dressed like a St Trinian’s schoolgirl and eating leftovers from a plastic box, she is mucking in as a tour guide for her latest, most visionary project. Her audience is a rain-sodden mix of opera lovers, potential donors and concerned local people. The impresario must find a register to suit them all and so she does, just by being herself.

“All this stuff about opera being elitist is simply tosh,” says Grange Park Opera’s founder and chief executive. “You don’t need to know anything about opera to enjoy it. You just sit in your seat and whatever ideas, memories or feelings come into your heart and your head are correct.”

It is just possible to glimpse the charm of the new location – a wooded corner of the rundown Surrey estate unexpectedly bequeathed to historian and sometime quizmaster Bamber Gascoigne by his 99-year-old aunt, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. Not that the damp circle of concrete and isolated red steel girders give much hint of the staggering ambition of the new 700-seat Theatre in the Woods.

Six months later and a drum-shaped venue modelled on La Scala’s magic horseshoe occupies the space. Also in situ is reconditioned seating from the Royal Opera House via the Grange at Northington, Hampshire, from which Kani was “turfed out” in March 2015. She started her own upmarket festival there in 1998 (having already made her name with Pimlico Opera from 1987, probably the first such company to specialise in performing in hospitals, prisons and schools).

She may be the only impresario in England to have started life in a home with an outside toilet, making her way through grammar school to Oxford while benefiting from state-funded music tuition. In the 1980s she was making big money devising office computer systems but, as she insists, “That happened a long time ago. I look forwards, not backwards.”

Despite a succession of seemingly impossible deadlines, she maintains that the new theatre is ready: “It’s all there.” And so it is, even if some internal paintwork and the “ornate brick exterior, a bit like the Tate Modern extension” remain at the try-out stage.


Q&A: Wasfi Kani

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You’re going to have to build another theatre when you are 60.

Who or what was your biggest influence? The idea that culture makes the world a better place and makes you a better person.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself. Don’t push – either your voice or your personality.

Publicity material makes much of the incidentals – the doors to the five grand tier boxes in gold leaf (1,275 sheets), the balcony themed in silver – but what really matters is Kani has commissioned a “real” opera house, the first to be built in the UK this century.

The four-tiered design trumps all England’s other country-house venues, Glyndebourne apart, and its acoustic properties should be “phenomenal”, balance problems endemic elsewhere resolved by the size and adaptability of the pit. This has the potential depth of Wagner’s at Bayreuth – “You could actually put six harps in there,” she claims – but a movable back wall under the stage makes it as suitable for Mozart. Kani speaks of a “bed of sound” supporting the singers; of orchestral musicians no longer admonished to play quieter. Fans of London’s al fresco Opera Holland Park (see p36) will be unfazed by temporary chemical loos.

Did Kani never think of settling for Opera Holland Park’s tent-like structure or Garsington’s glass pavilion? Yes, but only for a fortnight and she can still reel off the dates.

“There was a two-week window after we had notice served on us and before I read about Bamber.”

She is the first to acknowledge the philanthropy of Gascoigne and his wife, Christina, who put the estate and the proceeds of three Sotheby’s sales into the hands of a charitable trust dedicated to the restoration of the main building and its future as an arts and crafts centre. The duchess, whose ashes lie beneath what is now the orchestra pit, surely expected them to sell up. With a 99-year lease from the trust and high-profile supporters such as Joanna Lumley on board, Kani succeeded in persuading Surrey planners to turn a blind eye to strict Green Belt restrictions. Existing benefactors have rallied round and new ones added. Surrey residents Michael Cowan and his wife, Hilary, donated £1 million towards the new theatre in March 2016.

West Horsley Place. Photo: Richard Lewisohn

Spring sunshine lends credence to Lumley’s description of the West Horsley Park estate as a “demi-Eden”, notwithstanding distant traffic noise. The woodland setting is, Kani believes, unique. “Throw open the doors from the dressing rooms and you hear birdsong. It’s quite extraordinary.”

GPO now steals a march on its rivals as the most accessible place for Londoners to experience authentic country-house opera. Kani thinks this could be the “gamechanger” that defines the company’s future as much as the estate’s aged trees and crinkle-crankle wall.

She’s not just thinking about traffic congestion. “Young people, people in their 20s who live in London, don’t have cars.” That there is a station within walking distance sits nicely with her determination to draw in new, less well-heeled audiences with lower ticket prices for under-35s and free seats on selected dates for young people aged 14 to 25.

Kani’s message is down to earth: “Some people who haven’t been to the opera will say, ‘Oh I don’t know anything about opera.’ Well, you don’t need to know anything. Like you don’t need to know anything to go to the cinema. And so all you have to do… You turn up. You sit in a seat. You’ve got surtitles so you know what the story is. And whatever you feel is right. There isn’t a wrong thing to feel. But feeling these things informs your humanity. I’d say culture makes the world a better place.

“Opera is a form of almost religious aspiration reaching upwards to the stars,” she adds, “and into the depths of the human soul.”

CV: Wasfi Kani

Born: Tower Hamlets, London, 1956
Training: St Hilda’s College, Oxford
Landmark achievements: 1987 Founds small-scale touring company Pimlico Opera, which becomes famous for creating productions in prisons involving inmates.
1997 Founds Grange Park Opera at the Grange near Alresford in Hampshire
2017 Transfers Grange Park Opera to West Horsley Place in Surrey, building a new opera house known as the Theatre in the Woods
Landmark productions (by companies she has founded and run): Sweeney Todd, HMP Wormwood Scrubs (Pimlico Opera, 1991), Assassins, HMP Coldingley, Surrey (Pimlico Opera, 2005)
At Grange Park Opera: Fortunio (2001), Anything Goes (2002), The Enchantress (2004), Rusalka, La Fanciulla Del West (2008), Capriccio (2010), Tristan und Isolde (2011), Fiddler on the Roof (2015)
Awards: OBE for her work in prisons

Profile: Grange Park Opera

Founder and CEO Wasfi Kani OBE
Number of performances: 20 evening opera performances in 2017 (nine performances of Tosca, five of Jenufa and six of Die Walkure), one gala recital featuring Bryn Terfel and Zenaida Yanowsky
Audience figures: 17,299 tickets were sold for the 2015 festival. That year Fiddler on the Roof was seen by more than 5,000 people in Hampshire and a further 6,000 at the BBC Proms, where tickets sold out in two hours and 95,000 tuned into the live radio broadcast; 14,739 tickets were sold in 2016
Number of employees: 12 full-time staff equivalent throughout the year. During the festival period the full company is in excess of 120, with about 70 local people employed

Number of members, friends and supporters: About 1,300
Turnover: more than £4 million (2015); £3.9 milllion (2016).
Artistic and admin budget: £3.8 million (2015); £3.6 million (2016). The gap between the cost of the artistic programme and ticket sales is raised from the private sector.
Funding of Theatre in the Woods: the £10 million project is funded entirely by private donations (of which £8.5 million has been raised since November 2015). The venue has been designed by Tim Ronalds Architects and acoustician Raf Orlowski.
Key contacts: Simon Freakley, chairman; Helen Sennett, general manager
Dates: This year’s Grange Park Opera season runs from June 8 to July 15

Visit grangeparkopera.co.uk

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

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