Why has The Grange grown a moustache?’ my son asked me, as we walked up the drive at half-term. A 12m wide handlebar moustache had sprouted from the front entrance of the Greek temple-style mansion and around the corner we spotted other magnificent ‘taches decorating the opera house. ‘Perhaps it has something to do with The Barber of Seville?’ I suggested.
We were making our way to a family opera workshop, in a large white marquee set up on the lawn beside the lake. Grange Festival volunteers invited the participating children to sit on the floor in the middle and offered their grown-ups chairs around the outside, but we didn’t stay seated for long. Soon everyone was joining in, miming shaving the kids and waxing their moustaches, as we tried acting and singing at the same time like an opera chorus. It really isn’t as easy as the professionals make it look! The temperature inside the marquee increased in the sunshine and Karen Gillingham, the workshop director, said, ‘You know what it feels like on stage now, under the lights.’ After a picnic lunch, we were invited to watch the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville, to listen out for the bits we had learned and enjoy the performance.
When we entered the opera house, the first things I noticed were the bare brick walls, topped by an ornate plaster frieze, which surround the auditorium. This gives a hint about the extraordinary history of the building. It started life as a state-of-the-art iron and glass orangery in 1823, which channelled water down its classical columns to water the plants inside. A grainy black and white photograph from 1860 shows fifty ‘outdoor staff’ stiffly sitting in their best clothes outside the open glass doors: a similar number of ‘indoor staff’ was employed to run the neoclassical mansion at this time. In 1890 the orangery windows were filled in to convert it into a ballroom and presumably the plaster frieze was installed at this time. In 1944 Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower met there to discuss the invasion of Europe.
After the war, no one wanted to live in such a large and inconvenient house, let alone employ the staff. The mansion’s roof was removed in the early 1970s, accelerating its decay, and only a public outcry in The Times prevented complete demolition in 1975. Since then, English Heritage has preserved the mansion as a ‘roofed ruin’. Inside, the un-plastered walls, crumbling doorways and chandelier-swinging, white-netted ceilings (to catch falling debris) make the place look like a spooky film set. However, this mysterious building comes alive as a restaurant for The Grange Festival each summer, because a modern, architectural award-winning opera house was built in the ballroom in 2002.
The stalls, boxes and circle are free-standing, supported by smooth white pillars instead of the interior walls of the ballroom. Looking up, I could see contemporary fibre-optic lights twinkling on the underside of the circle. Hovering in the shadows above them were the tessellated plaster rectangles and crosses of the old ballroom ceiling. My son nudged me in the ribs to make me look down at a glass case set in the floor, which contained broken blue and white crockery discovered during the renovation. Once we had taken our seats, we looked towards what used to be the end wall of the ballroom, now the curtain. When this lifted, it revealed a vast modern opera stage, complete with stage-lights and revolving set. The Barber of Seville dress rehearsal started and we recognised the big tunes, laughed at the plot and even better, somebody’s Dad was abducted from the audience to sit in the barber’s chair to be shaved by Figaro. As a family, we began to understand and enjoy opera for the first time.
Education and outreach activities such as this opera workshop are a new side of The Grange Festival. Michael Chance, the festival’s Artistic Director, says that he wants to ‘find those who don’t necessarily believe (yet!) in the community-building power music has.’ To achieve this ambition, there is a dance workshop on 2nd July and local secondary schools are nominating 80 children to join in an ambitious project to create an opera in five days in August. Their opera, ‘The Time Capsule’, will be performed to the public on 31st August. For tickets, please check https://thegrangefestival.co.uk/