Just as you were getting used to online music as the new normal, along comes Waterperry Opera Festival taking the bold step of staging an actual live event. 

Okay, it’s not quite the ambitious programme originally planned for this year – that’s all now been deferred until 2021 – but a mini festival with outdoor performances of Mozart favourite Cosi fan tutte and Jonathan Dove’s little-known Ariel. 

Audiences will also still be able to enjoy picnics in Waterperry’s glorious grounds.

So how is all this possible, bearing in mind the need for social distancing?

“It’s been a huge challenge,” admits artistic director Guy Withers, who co-founded the festival in 2018 with Rebecca Meltzer.

“We’ve put in a number of systems, including one-way routes around the site, stewards in PPE directing people through and signage everywhere. 

“We’re not able to use the amphitheatre this year, so we’re going to transform the front lawn and use Waterperry House as the backdrop for Cosi fan tutte, which allows us the flexibility to place people in marked pod areas where they can sit and enjoy a picnic, safely distanced from others, and be able to see and listen to the performance.

“For Ariel, the audience will be socially distanced around the rose garden, the idea being that people can come with their household and they can stand or sit in these areas and enjoy nature and the outdoors and have a lovely time, but they’re also safely distanced from people nearby.”

Cosi fan tutte, with its cast of six, and Ariel, a one-woman show, were perfect choices for a socially-distancing festival. 

Cosi’s a wonderful work anyway, and it will bring a lot of joy to our audiences at this time,” says Guy. “It’s also perfect for us – it’s a good length, it’s six singers and we think we can do that really well.

Ariel is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s a beautiful work by Jonathan Dove, but as it’s for one woman only it’s perfect for this summer.

“The two balance each other out very well. Once is a very well-known work, while the other is completely unknown and has never been staged before, so they’re completely different and offer a little glimpse of what we do at Waterperry.”

As always, the productions feature talented young singers, some of them familiar to Waterperry audiences. Isabelle Peters, Nicholas Morton and Beth Moxon, who played Pamina, Papageno and one of the Three Ladies respectively in last year’s The Magic Flute, return to sing Fiordiligi, Guglielmo and Dorabella in Cosi.

Oskar McCarthy (Peter Rabbit’s Musical Adventure and Leporello in Don Giovanni, 2018) returns as Don Alfonso. 

The title role in Ariel will be sung by Australian/British soprano Daniella Sicari, a runner-up at Bampton Classical Opera’s Young Singers’ Competition in 2019.

Guy Withers directs Cosi fan tutte, Rebecca Meltzer directs Ariel, and Bertie Baigent is music director for both productions.

Rehearsing the productions – particularly Cosi – has been another enormous challenge.

“All the preparations have been via Zoom,” Guy says. “All the singers have got their scores, they’ll be having coaching and they’ve got their directions – what they’re going to be doing and how they’re going to be doing it. 

“We are doing costume fittings remotely, and we’re sourcing everything remotely. 

Waterperry Gardens

“The singers will arrive a couple of days before the performances, and that’s when we put it together. We’re keeping the whole thing as compact as possible, because it’s quite a risk for us to do this, financially as well as artistically, so we’re preparing everybody as much as possible, and then coming on site and linking it all together.”

Needless to say, it’s not quite what Guy and his colleagues had in mind when they were excitedly preparing for the 2020 festival earlier in the year.

“Normally I’m in rehearsal with my company of a hundred people for three weeks, and I’m in a building with lots of different shows rehearsing at the same time, and it feels like a real family. 

“This year is a complete contrast. I haven’t seen any of my colleagues for months, I haven’t seen any of my singers, and we won’t be together for a long time, either. It will feel like a very small event for us, and that’s going to be quite painful, I think. Even when we meet on site, we can’t enjoy being a family, as we would normally. We’ll still have to socially distance, the dining options for our cast are very strict, and the whole thing is going to feel very unnatural. 

“We all feel sad we’re not doing much more, but at least we are together doing something.”

For Guy, trying to put on something live, rather than online, was hugely important.

“We’ve done online events and they are wonderful, but I believe that space and people and atmosphere make theatre and music,” he says.

Rebecca Meltzer and Guy Withers

“What’s wonderful about opera festivals, but particularly Waterperry, is that you come for a day, and you come for an experience.

“You come for the gardens, you come for the atmosphere, you come for the weather, good or bad – you come for everything. You come for the moments you have with the performers – you see them, and it’s a visceral experience. 

“There’s nothing like going to see live theatre and live music, especially when it’s something like Waterperry where you’re so close to the performers and you’re surrounded by the beauty of the space and the beauty of the sound and the music.

“That’s why we tried so hard to make it happen. I don’t think we could have done anything online that could have come closer to that.”

As the festival approaches, Guy admits to mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness.

“Once we had the go-ahead from the government that it was definitely allowed, I breathed a sigh of relief that we would be able to do something. But this is quite scary as well. There’s a huge unknown about how people will feel – singers and audiences – so I just hope it goes smoothly. 

“But I’m also really excited about the fact that people are excited to come and see what we’re about to offer, so it’s a real mix of nervous energy because the situation is so unknown but also incredible excitement and joy to be able to do something.”

Waterperry Opera Festival is on August 13th, 15th & 16th . For tickets and full details, visit www.waterperryoperafestival.co.uk

NICOLA LISLE

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