It’s enormously exciting to be where we are,” enthuses Nicola Creed, Executive Director of Garsington Opera, as the festival celebrates its 30th season.

Artistically, the opera is thriving. It benefits from a committed membership, about 400 of whom have been supporters since the festival’s 1989 inaugural season at Garsington Manor, just outside Oxford. And the festival’s outreach programme booms.

Garsington recently crammed hundreds of eager schoolchildren into the Royal Albert Hall for an event. Opera tickets for another event, pitched at the under-35s, sold out in under eight seconds. Two youth companies operate year-round. The schedule is relentless.

The 2019 edition of Garsington runs for 39 nights, including performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Smetana’s Bartered Bride, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Offenbach’s 1872 opera Fantasio.

The latter, Nicola explains, visibly warming as she speaks of the productions, has never been staged in the UK before.

“Fantasio really is a forgotten gem,” she gleams. “It has charming, fun, accessible music. There will be dancing. We have a wonderful, lively young chorus singing their hearts out. People will love it. I defy anyone not to have a good time!”

The daughter of a local GP, Nicola attended Headington School, trained as a cellist and was a choral scholar at Cambridge. Yet when she joined Garsington, in the autumn of 2000, it was her flair for planning and publicity that attracted the festival’s founder, Leonard Ingrams.

By the time Nicola was appointed Executive Director in 2013, Garsington had already spent two years at its current home – Wormsley Estate, between Watlington and Stokenchurch.

“Moving to Wormsley was a huge change for the company,” she reflects, overviewing the past three decades. “Having a purpose-built auditorium, which we designed ourselves, means we can be far more professional about our productions.

Garsington’s glass, timber and steel pavilion overlooks Wormsley’s lake and, post-sunset, glows like a fairy palace, lighting the path of festival-goers as they haul their picnic baskets back to the car park.

“We now have two vast stage doors at the back which open, so we can drive the set lorry right up to the front. Our lighting rig is amazing. We can have real fun and games on stage!”

And so Garsington’s singers and orchestra are duly joined mid-performance by automobiles, bicycles and animals, setting off multiple tingles down the spine. Sometimes, as in last year’s Die Zauberflöte, the action spills out into the gardens.

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The gardens at Garsington Manor, originally laid out by Ottoline Morrell, were an arrestive feature of the festival’s first 21 seasons, a crucial member of the cast. Nicola believes their spirit has been lifted onto the turf at Wormsley.

“We have kept the uniqueness of what we had at Garsington Manor” she asserts. “The head gardener from the manor came and designed the garden at Wormsley. She included significant details, such as Irish Yews on the corners of the flowers beds, so we could retain exact memories of the old Garsington.

“Being able to see outside, bringing the outside into the theatre, is enormously special” Nicola adds.

The pavilion presents challenges for lighting designers and directors, attempting to make opera work in what is essentially daylight, at the beginning on each performance. In response to these challenges, productions at Garsington are enormously inventive, overspilling with optical illusion.

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“I think presenting designers and directors with challenges is always a good thing” Nicola says. “It makes them strive even harder. It makes them come up with more and more imaginative things.

“For instance in 2014’s Fidelio, when the prisoners emerge from their dark prison and walk out into the open air, and take in genuine fresh air – it invigorated the audience. We are delighted to have brought such elements from old Garsington to the new Garsington.”

Garsington remains an enthralling experience, made up in part from the joy of being at Wormsley, strolling between tents and cricket pitch, picnicking by the lake, riding the vintage bus along to the walled garden, conversing with strangers in anticipation of the main event. But Nicola is quick to add that the entire experience stems from the quality of what’s on stage. “It would,” she jests,” be at our peril if we ever forgot that.

“So every time we have a little more money we spend it on the quality of what’s on the stage. The quality of singers, directors, designers, of the creative teams involved, of lighting designers, the quality of the orchestras we work with. All of these things are essential to what we are able to thrill people with.”

Part of that thrill this year involves collaborations with the Philharmonia Orchestra and The English Concert, including three special performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 to mark the 30th season. Nicola sees such collaborations and relationships as building an interest in, and love of, opera: “they consolidate the quality of what we want from our productions in the future.”

Garsington plans its future productions a half-decade in advance.

“We’re now completely sorted out for 2020 and 2021,” Nicola reveals, “and we have the actual titles we want planned at least five years ahead. This is hugely important if we want to get the singers and directors we want. We are constantly thinking ahead.”

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The festival’s forward thinking also embraces education programmes such as Opera First, working with children as young as eight. Another recently project engaged with over 900 Buckinghamshire-based primary school children, noisy audiences of the future. Yet another initiative, Opera for All, saw productions beamed onto a cinema screen in East Oxford. Garsington also reaches out through digital media: Opera Vision’s streaming of last year’s Die Zauberflote attracted almost 70,000 views worldwide and 2019’s Falstaff is now available to view at the bang of a thumb.

“Making opera more accessible is very much what we want to do” Nicola concludes.

“There are barriers of perception about what opera is like, that we are trying to break down. There’s no reason for opera to be seen as an exclusive thing, other than the cost, although people might go to a rock festival and spend £250 on a ticket, yet nobody says that is exclusive!

“And yet when you go into schools, and you tell them about opera, when you bring them to the site and show them what a full-length opera is like - they love it. And that is absolutely tremendous.”

And a tremendous way to approach the next 30 seasons of Garsington Opera

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