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THUNDER AND LIGHTING Martin Duncan and Francis O’Connor talk to Henrietta Bredin about the challenge of a naturally-lit stage

The opera pavilion at Wormsley, designed by the architect Robin Snell for Garsington Opera, appears to hover over the ground, like a sleekly exquisite spacecraft coming in to land. During the daytime light floods through its transparent sides and at night it glows from within. This makes it a very beautiful structure to look at but a challenging one in which to present operas, in particular as far as lighting is concerned. It is not an enclosed space—the original brief was for a building that could be taken down and packed away at the end of each summer opera season—and performances that start in the early evening are surrounded by waning natural light, while the second half, after the long interval, occurs after the sun goes down.

Garsington is unique in this regard among the major contenders in the flourishing country house opera stakes. The director Martin Duncan and designer Francis O’Connor have worked, together and with other artistic colleagues, on operas at both old Garsington—a sort of theatrical lean-to propped up against the eponymous manor— and new—a purpose-built opera space nestled in a fold of the Chilterns at Wormsley, Paul Getty’s Buckinghamshire estate. This summer they are collaborating on an Offenbach rarity, Fantasio.

‘It is the only country house set-up that’s truly outdoors,’ says O’Connor, ‘the only one that relies on natural light, the only one where you’re able to play with and take into account a sense of the environment around.’

‘Ideally,’ says Duncan, ‘you would always try to choose operas that don’t actually start at night. Unlike Fantasio! This is the first time that’s happened to us—we’ve always been lucky before, but this opera is really supposed to start with the moon coming out. Jeremy Sams has done a little gentle doctoring of the text in his English

■  Al fresco Britten: Rebecca Bottone as Tytania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Garsington Manor in 2010

translation to deal with that.’

For O’Connor the challenge is how to calculate the way in which the light will affect what the audience sees on stage. ‘You have to think very specifically about what the light will do during the first few scenes. If you’re designing something in a traditional theatre, indoors, you’ve got artificial light that you can control. You can enhance the colours, achieve a richer saturation. When you’re outside, the light tends to be less forgiving, it’s harsher, and


Opera, May 2019

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