Queen of The Night - Magic Flute

Opera Anywhere launches its new summer festival

Swashbuckling pirates and Japanese gentlemen are just some of the characters popping up at Cokethorpe School this weekend, discovers Nicola Lisle.

Opera Anywhere founders Mike and Vanessa Woodward have never been ones to stand still.

Since forming the company in 2000 they have come up with all sorts of quirky ideas, justifying the Opera Anywhere name by performing not only in theatres and village halls but also on ice, on punts, in libraries and in railway stations, and popping up unexpectedly at private functions as singing waiters. 

Their latest venture is the Cokethorpe Opera Festival, formed in collaboration with Cokethorpe School in Witney. 

As well as performing in Cokethorpe’s stunning grounds, the company will have a new permanent base at the school with rehearsal space and other facilities.

“We’re delighted to form this new relationship with Cokethorpe School, and I am really exciting about the opportunity of being able to expand our own brand of opera,” says Mike. 

After a special launch event last December, the festival kicked off in April with two performances of one of the company’s most recent productions, Puccini’s Heroines, which includes a selection of Puccini’s popular arias, duets and ensembles plus a staged performance of the one-act opera Sister Angelica.  

Sister Angelica

Now they are looking forward to a three-date summer festival at Cokethorpe, opening with The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, which have been the mainstay of the company’s repertoire for many years, on Friday and Saturday (both at 7.30pm).

Pirates of Penzance

These will be followed on Sunday afternoon by Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which comes complete with a couple of artists illustrating the action as it unfolds.

So, how did the festival come about?

“The head of Cokethorpe School, Damian Ettinger, approached us following our performance of HMS Pinafore on Puntsat Wolfson College last summer,” Mike explains. “His ambition is to be able to use the wonderful locality, grounds and facilities at Cokethorpe to host a professional opera company for performances throughout the year, including this summer festival.”

Future plans with Cokethorpe include Easter and Christmas productions, which will involve the school’s drama and music pupils. A production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitorsis planned for December this year in Cokethorpe’s indoor theatre.

The company has certainly come a long way since its genesis at the Sunningwell Festival in 2000, when they put on two performances of Opera on the Pond. In the early days, the principal line-up was often a mix of professional and amateur singers, but it is now fully professional and the casting of emerging young singers has become one of Opera Anywhere’s hallmarks. 

Vanessa, who was born in Sunningwell and went to primary school there, met Mike while singing in a youth choir in Colchester. The couple settled in Sunningwell in the mid-90s and quickly became involved with a local amateur opera company. From this grew the idea of setting up Opera Anywhere, which has become known for its lively, inventive small-scale productions and for taking opera into places other opera companies don’t reach. 

Now, with the company’s 20thanniversary approaching, there are other exciting plans afoot.

“We are planning a special opera programme book, Glyndebourne-style, which will incorporate images and details of a wide range of our productions over the years,” says Mike. “We’re also devising ideas for a special event in Oxford.”

Meanwhile, in what Mike describes as their “busiest year yet”, there is a new, family-friendly production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretelcoming up at Waterperry Gardens on 15thSeptember, and two performances of Puccini’s Heroinesat Thame Theatre on 1stand 2ndNovember. For much of the summer, the company will continue to tour its ever-growing repertoire all over the south of England, including several outdoor performances in coastal towns, mainly of their flagship G&S productions. 

“The really nice thing about doing G&S is that you can pitch it to the whole family,” Mike says. “That’s the really lovely thing about it. It’s good, accessible fun.”

Cokethorpe Opera Festival is at Cokethorpe School, Witney, on July 26-28. For full details and booking, visit www.operaanywhere.com

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Nicola Lisle, freelance journalist and classical music specialist. nklisle95@gmail.com

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