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Behind the scenes at Grange Park Opera’s Theatre in the Woods in West Horsley

PUBLISHED: 09:34 13 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:35 13 June 2017

Wasfi Kani on site at Theatre in the Woods (Photo: Robert Workman)

Wasfi Kani on site at Theatre in the Woods (Photo: Robert Workman)

Robert Workman

The doors of Surrey’s new opera house are set to open to the public for the first time in June. Tinx Newton goes behind the scenes to speak to Wasfi Kani who, 30 years after launching her first opera company, is taking on her biggest challenge to date

A bird's eye view of the theatre coming together earlier this yearA bird's eye view of the theatre coming together earlier this year

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2017

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Wasfi Kani’s first foray into producing operas in unusual settings was in 1987, when she founded the small-scale touring company Pimlico Opera. Following many successful performances in marquees, village halls, banks, castles and a hospital, she staged Sweeney Todd in Wormwood Scrubs, where prisoners took on roles alongside professionals. Her concrete belief that opera is good for our well-being and should be available to all was gathering pace.

In 1998 she founded Grange Park Opera as a charity and since then she has produced over 50 operas, raised tens of millions of pounds, and built a family who think of ‘The Grange’ as central to their summer season. But Wasfi is not one to sit back and reflect on her successes when there is work to be done. She is now frequently seen donning a yellow builder’s hat and pacing the grounds of her biggest venture to date, the relocation of Grange Park Opera to West Horsley Place.

Seemingly unfazed by the enormity of the project she says, “I have built a theatre once before, but this new theatre, with a brilliant acoustic and a bigger pit size, will allow a greater vision. With the help of our thousands of generous supporters, Grange Park Opera at Horsley will let us introduce more people than ever - and young people especially - to the magic of opera and the wider arts. It will also allow us to give the local area something it can support and own, one of the most powerful reasons for holding a festival in the regions.”

West Horsley Place, a 350 acre estate which dates back to the 15th century, was, until July 2014, the home of the Duchess of Roxburghe, a god-daughter of George V and a great society beauty in the 30s and 40s. She bequeathed the house in her will to her great-nephew, broadcaster and writer Bamber Gascoigne, who explains how the association with Grange Park Opera came about. “I have had two very great surprises in the past 18 months,” he says. “The first was the unexpected news that I had been left, by a 99-year-old aunt Mary Roxburghe, a beautiful house in the Surrey countryside. The other great surprise was provided by Grange Park Opera, who described their proposal and asked Christina and me if this might be acceptable. It didn’t take us long to say ‘Yes, indeed’. It isn’t every day that you are invited to have an opera house in your garden.”

Hence the property has been passed to the Mary Roxburghe Trust, named after the Duchess and dedicated to promoting the performing arts and the study and practice of crafts at West Horsley Place. To date over 12,500 tickets have been sold for the 2017 season, and the building isn’t finished yet. Does that worry Wasfi?

“Not in the slightest,” she says. “People are coming for the opera and the musical experience, and the fact that the floor is still plywood and not yet the proposed oak will not put them off. I think people quite like buildings that are not quite finished; they feel part of the journey, part of the coming together of a great place.”

Wasfi’s passion for opera and performing arts is infectious and she is keen to attract a younger audience through the doors of Grange Park Opera. She acknowledges the distractions facing young people today but feels sure that once they dip their toe into the auditorium, they will want to return again. To encourage that first foray into opera, a Meteors scheme offers those Under 35 reduced price tickets.

Wasfi says, “At the moment the world is intent on celebrating the shallow, the quick and the instant. But there is nothing to beat live theatre and performance. The old adage that you need to be an opera buff to enjoy it is simply not true. All you have to do is sit down and immerse yourself in what is going on - 70 people in the orchestra, 50 people on stage, all performing live, right in front of you! And there is no right or wrong on what one should feel, just feel it.”

At its new home at West Horsley Place, visitors to Grange Park Opera will enter through mature gardens and walk amongst box-bordered green spaces until they reach a gate in the garden walls built in 1710. Beyond, a horseshoe-shaped, 650-seat ‘Theatre in the Woods’ will echo the elaborate exterior of the main house. Working to a brief by architectural consultant David Lloyd Jones, Tim Ronalds Architects and Ramboll have conceived a design based upon one of the world’s most celebrated theatres, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. This vast project develops in a sometimes organic way as work progresses. As described by Wasfi, “You start in the ground with some great big holes, but as the structure grows you refine it, which is incredibly exciting. Internally, the acoustics are driven by the reverberant surfaces, the steel and the concrete, and also by the volume of the auditorium. Am I sounding a bit of a swot? OK, I admit I studied acoustics at Oxford – I knew it would be useful one day!”

Wasfi retains great humour in the face of a project that is not for the faint-hearted. But the support for the new opera house in Surrey has been strong, not just in generous monetary pledges but also from volunteers who Wasfi says are, “literally clamouring to help us, which is amazing.” She continues, “I ordered some gorgeous seat ‘badges’ from Delhi, where I originally come from, but there is the rather important practical fact that they all to carefully be stuck to the seat backs and a wonderful team of volunteers have taken that on board. The support has been wonderful and I truly believe that people will gain so much in return by their involvement. Culture helps you connect with yourself and this informs your humanity. Opera is a form of almost religious aspiration reaching upwards to the stars – and into the depths of the human soul.”

When Grange Park Opera opens on Thursday June 8 with world-renowned tenor Joseph Calleja singing Tosca, I’ve a feeling that a very full auditorium will raise the roof with thunderous applause in agreement.

• The Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley Place, Epsom Road, West Horsley, Surrey KT24 6AN. Tel: 01962 737373 Web: grangeparkopera.co.uk

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2017 summer highlights at Grange Park Opera:

• Tosca by Puccini: Joseph Calleja is Cavaradossi and Ekaterina Metlova sings the title role in a production directed by Peter Relton. Gianluca Marciano conducts The BBC Concert Orchestra.

• Jenufa by Janacek: Natalya Romaniw sings the role of Jenufa, Nicky Spence is Steva and Susan Bullock is Kostelnicka. William Lacey conducts The BBC Concert Orchestra

• Die Walküre by Wagner. Rachel Nicholls and Bryan Register return to Grange Park Opera as Sieglinde and Siegmund. Stephen Barlow conducts The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

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Theatre in the Woods - the maths

• Over 140 concrete piles have been used to build the new theatre, some over 20m deep, totalling two miles in length. The Empire State Building only used 100 piles, and The Shard 140.

• That’s approximately 425 lorry loads (carrying approx 2600m³). If all the lorries delivered in one go, the queue would be 2.25 miles long.

• Approximately 370 tons of steel will be used in the project, end-to-end, that equates to about seven miles.

• About 400 lorry loads, which is over 6000m³, of soil has been moved from site area to date.

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About West Horsley Place

• West Horsley Place is a Grade I listed house of significant historic and architectural importance.

• The house, which dates from the 15th century, has passed through the hands of illustrious owners including Carew Raleigh, son of Sir Walter Raleigh, and Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, ‘Fair Geraldine’ of the Earl of Surrey’s sonnets. It has also hosted royalty – Henry VIII is known to have enjoyed a 35-course lunch in the Great Hall, and Queen Elizabeth I to have stayed on several occasions.

• In October 2016, West Horsley Place was placed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ Register. To rescue and restore the house and estate, owners Bamber and Christina Gascoigne transferred its ownership to the charity, the Mary Roxburghe Trust.

• Once restored, West Horsley Place will become a vibrant centre for the performing and visual arts, and for the teaching of crafts. The collaboration with Grange Park Opera is an important first step in achieving the trust’s goals.

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