Talk to any Wagner-lover about “the green hill”, and he will immediately think about Bayreuth, home of the opera-house in southern Germany which the composer persuaded his backers to build in order to present definitive performances of his stage-works.
Until now. We now have a green hill in the Midlands, high in the Cotswolds just outside the pretty village of Longborough near Moreton-in-Marsh, and where a former farmyard barn is currently housing the only professional production in this country of Wagner’s vast Ring cycle in this, the bicentenary year of his birth.
Longborough Festival Opera has just launched into no fewer than three complete presentations of the tetralogy, attracting Wagnerians and critics from all over the country and beyond, and the place is a-buzz.
We used to think of Longborough as the Midlands’ version of Glyndebourne, but it is different from, and in my opinion, far more pleasant than that glitzy enterprise. Beneath the Sussex theatre’s air of refinement there is always steely business going on, hiring and firing, collisions of artistic egos, and always an awareness of the social calendar.
Longborough does have its similarities: a necessary prominence given to catering, whether in the remarkable, locally-supplied restaurant or buffet marquee, or the spacious picnic area dotted with gazebos and even candelabra-lit horse-boxes.
But amateurs Martin and Lizzie Graham have gradually developed the barn in the grounds surrounding their elegantly-transformed farmhouse into one of the most accommodating opera-houses in the country. There is auditorium space for 500, with seats acquired from a refurbishment at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House.
“Our string section used to be just a solo quintet,” Martin tells me during a break in preparations. “Now we have a full orchestra of 70 players!”
We go back to the beginnings of this former building developer’s (with strong Birmingham links) passion for music.
“The radio was very important. I used to listen to Grand Hotel, Your Hundred Best Tunes, These You Have Loved, all programmes like those. And there was an old boy in our village here who introduced me to Mozart and once said, ‘what about a bit of Schubert, then?’. It was like a whiff of dope!”
Music took a bit of a back seat after Martin left home in his early 20s, but then came his Road to Damascus moment when he was discovered Wagner.
“That happened in my late 30s. I bought recordings of Bayreuth stars in the Ring. I hadn’t a clue about the story! Everyone said the operas went on forever, but for me Das Rheingold – two-and-a-half hours without a break – just flew by!”
The idea of presenting a complete Ring cycle at Longborough began gestating about 30 years ago, with the viewing of Humphrey Burton’s act-by-act production for BBC2 of one of Bayreuth’s best-ever presentations, Patrice Chereau directing, Pierre Boulez conducting. And typically, Martin has invited Boulez to attend here.
So the dream started to come to reality piecemeal, alongside highly-acclaimed productions of other operas, works by Mozart, Puccini, Janacek, Britten and Humperdinck amongst them. The Grahams began with Jonathan Dove’s brilliant reduction (originally commissioned and premiered by City of Birmingham Touring Opera) of the Ring into two evenings, and then, with the new orchestra pit brought into use, mounting the complete operas one at a time, year by year.
And now, at last, all four have been brought together, under the experienced and wise baton of Anthony Negus, who learned his craft when he assisted the legendary Reginald Goodall for Welsh National Opera’s wonderful Wagner presentations several decades ago.
There are already plans for the future. “We’re going to revive the Ring, of course. We’re doing Tristan und Isolde in 2015, with Rachel Nicholls and Peter Wedd, and Anthony Negus is very keen.”
I suggest more Britten, and the response is instant. “We’re going to look at it! We have no administrative boards to please, as our funds come from patrons, and there’s such a huge wave of support. There’s a big feeling of exhilaration.
“And now we’ve got this baby, we’re not going to let it go!”
* Details of Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring, to be followed later in July by Puccini’s La Boheme, are available on 01451 830292 or www.lfo.org.uk .