Claxton Opera

Glyndebourne and Claxton

Two English Festivals

Translation from "Strumenti E Musica" September 1996

You want Opera? Go into the Country

From our correspondent Silvano Sardi

For many interested in melodrama (opera?) particularly in Italy, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera which is held in the summer is a bit like the Arabian Phoenix: they know it exists (it's well known all over the world) but they don't know where it is - precisely - or even what it is. Imagine then the Claxton Opera which is another festival, which you may or may not hear spoken of in the Norwich area, but which is known only by those 104 people (not one more) who regularly attend. Since this year I have had the rare opportunity of enjoying at Glyndebourne the lightest and most elegant of Richard Strauss's operas Arabella and at Claxton a Cosi Fan Tutte, which if Mozart had been present, knowing his liking for fun and eccentricity (and if at Claxton they weren't overdone) he would have been highly entertained, I shall be able to give you some information about these two summer opera engagements which in my opinion gives us more than anything else a clear idea of the English Cultural Scene.

Let us say at once that these two festivals are so different in character as to render comparison impossible. The distance between them is not only geographical (one is in the south, in Sussex, below London, almost at the English Channel, the other is north of London, in Norfolk, a county which faces the North Sea). Nevertheless, they have at least three points in common which make them unique, so to speak.

1.  They do not take place in large centres. In fact, Glyndebourne and Claxton are neither cities nor towns, but tiny villages. Rather, to tell the truth, they are "houses" situated close to a village. And when in England you say "house" you mean simply a building surrounded by land. It can be anything from a castle or a mansion with a park and fields/lawns as far as the eye can see, like Glyndebourne, to the most humble "floor with a roof". The "house" where Claxton Opera takes place, is in between.

2.  The two organisations perform in modern, highly functional buildings.

3.  Neither festival draws from state funds, because they are "private". "Private" for the English means "exclusive", like a club with a fixed membership. In this case there are as many seats available as there are members. The seats are booked in advance by members, then go on sale as at any other theatre. How easy it is to get a ticket I leave to your imagination. Meanwhile, prices: in the central tier where I was (the seats are) £110, roughly 250,000l. Size:- at Glyndebourne, opera on a grand scale with great orchestras, great conductors, great singers, great production - absolute perfection. This year, besides Arabella, they have Theodora (Handel), Cosi Fan Tutte (Mozart), Yevgeny Onyegin (Tchaikovsky), Lulu (Berg), and Ermione (Rossini).

Claxton Opera on the other hand is a one-opera mini-festival. The opera is rehearsed for six months (winter - spring), and put on in the summer: six performances, in two blocks of three each in successive weeks. The choice of opera is the prerogative of the "patron", Mr Richard White, of whom I shall tell you more. There is a small orchestra (max. 37 players) and a regular conductor.

However, despite being "mini", even her at Claxton the requirements of sound and vision are pleasingly blended into an artistic performance, in tasteful surroundings, and this combination, in proportion, is the same in both festivals.

[5 paragraphs followed talking exclusively about Glyndebourne, the productions, restaurants, bars, intervals, picnics, evening dress, the house, lawns and leisurely tempo of it all]

How different is the case of Claxton Opera which is also a Festival Club with limited membership (and also never any empty seats) but in fact exists thanks to the love of its founder, Mr Richard White.

An extraordinary man! I believe he may be about sixty but truly he doesn't look it. He seems like a boy; always lively and apparently carefree. But he has quite a few worries nevertheless. His story is not short, like Mimi's. Born in Norfolk, he lived until approaching retirement far away at Bury St. Edmunds.

He teaches literature but his love is singing. This he has studied seriously as is shown by his fine tenor voice, which he uses every now and then in the operas he produces. Before retiring he decided to settle finally in the area where he was born, and for this reason set about looking in the Norfolk countryside for a big house for restoration. His dream was to have a large room where one could make music, sing and meet with friends.

And at last he found it, not far from Norwich, in Folly Lane on the outskirts of the village of Claxton. It was a ruin, but had a good name and a long history. It is called The Old Meeting House. When it was built in 1735, it was a Baptist Chapel: a house of prayer. In the course of the centuries it had several uses, as a refuge, a harvest store and then as the village school. In 1934 it was finally closed. On the spur of the moment, Mr White bought the ruin, with the surrounding land including a small adjoining building which in its time had served as a stable. The first thing to be done was to make the stable habitable for his wife and one son. A grim life; outdoor sanitation, no lighting, and a leaking roof. Then the lighting came, but then also came a second child, and then two more. Meanwhile the old chapel began to take on a new shape, in accordance with the plans of our Mr White. The dreamed-of music room was emerging. Finally when it seemed the hard work was almost finished, his wife fell seriously ill (it was the first of a series of relapses which could lead to paralysis), and everything stopped. But Mr White is tough. He held firm. His wife was getting better. Hopes were raised. Just a bit more effort and we're there!

At last! No Sir! In the middle of the night a fire sent the roof and everything up in flames. Bad luck? Fate? Malice? I am not putting forward any theory. Certainly the neighbours to this day are not completely satisfied about the noise and the coming and going of people through the countryside. Ah well! It's true that nowadays theatres burn better than woods! Anyway, for Mr White this fire was manna from heaven. There was the insurance! The compensation was sufficient to allow for the construction of a fully equipped theatre (small - 104 seats) with an internal frame of steel and indestructible. In the summer, a theatre for six days of opera, for the rest of the year, a luxury home. The dream has become a reality. I am skimming over the thousand and one difficulties still to be resolved (...) parking, viability. At Claxton Opera you arrive via a little lane you can hardly see. We were able to find it because at a certain point, among the various handwritten notices on signposts (advertising apples for sale) we saw one on which was written (by hand!) "Opera". We followed the sign into this little lane. Without this, who would have found it!

Mr White's method is simple: economise, cut down on spending. He is director, organiser and "trovarobe" (finder of stuff?). When necessary he also covers the tenor role. A friend does the lights, the stage manager is a lecturer at the University (!) who enjoys doing it. Then there are membership fees, ticket prices, voluntary helpers. The orchestra is composed of old (retired?) teachers and music students. The former he pays Union rates, the latter a few pounds (this is training for them). He selects the singers according to the opera in hand, but not only does he not pay them, he requires from them £25 a head, if they want to sing. I'm talking about "boys" and "girls" who have studied (music) but then gone on to other things - good, nevertheless. The delicious voices of Fiordiligi and Dorabella in this year's Cosi Fan Tutte, for example, belong to two assistants in a big record shop in Norwich (!). This year Mr White has done it on £5000 - not 15million. This all went on the orchestra (the majority), scenery, costumes and odds and ends. I sometimes think of the richness of human (talent) which we have but do not know how to exploit. (I know this is Utopia). Yet we in Italy could also achieve something of the kind with who knows how many retired and bored music teachers, music students with nowhere to practise, and "voices" being wasted in other jobs. What a wonderful hobby it would be.

Meanwhile, by this means Mr White has already produced a fine series of shows. While awaiting the reconstruction of the house, after the fire - talk about enthusiasm - he started in Norwich theatres: The Magic Flute (Mozart) at the Theatre Royal in 1985, Orff's Carmina Burana in St. Andrew's Hall in '88. Then in '92, with the formation of Claxton Opera, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the Thorpe theatre (?) - and finally he inaugurated the rebuilt Old Meeting House at Claxton with Don Giovanni (Mozart) in '94 followed by The Mikado of Gilbert and Sullivan in '95 and this year Cosi Fan Tutte. And in this unusual Theatre-House, I enjoyed the Mozartian masterpiece. No need to yearn for the great orchestral sound - it was certainly not that of the London Philharmonic, nor for the grand maestro's baton, nor for the strict correctness of the original language (anyway, how many Italian "Carmens" do we see in Italy?). I enjoyed it without being exasperated by that crescendo (which here one would like) wedged between two sotto voce in the terzetto "Una bella serenata"; without "Come scoglio", and also without the emergence of that mocking sound of oboe and clarinet which in the final sextet marks the pitiful outcome of the cruel game. We enjoyed it (and the 104 audience applauded vigorously) because we felt that we were with Mozart's masterpiece in the same surroundings. Free from intellectual prejudice, spiritually well-disposed. Thus, between the fascinating melodies of Fiordiligi and Dorabella and the bitterness of Despina's arias, the mystery of the "dramma giocosa" of the late 18th century in which can be discerned the shadow of Sade, sent us from the "house" with our spirits troubled but satisfied.

Don Prutton