Q & A: CEO Guy Verrall-Withers on the Waterperry Opera Festival’s Past, Present & Future

By Alan Neilson

Most opera enthusiasts across the world know about the Glyndebourne Festival. They may also know about other high-profile festivals set in country houses across England, such as The Grange Opera and the Longborough festivals. Few, however, will have heard of the Waterperry Festival, situated close to the city of Oxford.

Established in 2017, the festival opened its doors the following year, with productions of “Don Giovanni,” Dove’s “Mansfield Park” and Barber’s “A Handful of Bridge,” along with other events, attracting around 1000 visitors over a three-day period. The festival proved to be a big success with visitors, and its popularity grew rapidly. By 2023, audience numbers had increased to almost 5000, and the festival’s program had expanded to cover a ten-day period.

To find out more about the Waterperry Festival and its program for this summer’s festival, which runs from 9th to 18th August, OperaWire met up with the company’s artistic director and CEO, Guy Verrall-Withers.

OperaWire: What are the origins of the Waterperry Opera Festival?

Guy Verrall-Withers: I, along with two colleagues, director Rebecca Meltzer and conductor Bertie Baigent, loved collaborating and working together when we were students. We shared a vision of wanting to create opera that was accessible to young people and to provide young artists with practical opportunities within the industry.

Fortunately, the Waterperry estate was keen to produce something centered on theatre and classical music, and via Rebecca, who had contacts with the estate, we received an introduction. I was only 25 years old at the time, and my experience was limited to fundraising and some work as a producer, but nothing on this scale. I was also the eldest in the group. We presented our proposal, which they were happy with, and so we now have a long-term contract with the estate.

OW: What made you, at the age of 25, think that you were capable of running a festival?

GVW: Partly, this was down to hubris and naivety, but it was also something we really believed in. It was, however, more than just a dream; we really felt that there was a gap in this market. There was not an opera festival in the UK that was accessible, affordable and that also provided opportunities for young people. It was, therefore, a perfect opportunity and we had a strong vision that we thought we could make work.

We wanted to create a meaningful working environment for young singers, directors, musicians, technicians and carpenters and play a role in creating the next generation of artists working in the opera industry. It was also important to us that the festival would not be aloof or elitist but one that would be affordable and welcoming. We wanted to attract people of all ages, including families. It was something we felt the sector really needed.

OW: To what extent has the festival lived up to your initial expectations?

GVW: We didn’t know whether it would work, but we gave it a go and established a varied program of events in order to attract a wide range of people. It could have fallen flat on its face, but it didn’t; the feedback from our first festival was really positive, and we knew that we had to continue.

We discovered there was a real interest, especially from local people, who now view it as their festival. Ten percent of our audience have never been to an opera before, and for 25%, it is their only classical music experience of the year, so we feel we have a big responsibility; it is important that we are able to share our passion with them.

We have been delighted with the progress we have made with young artists, and each summer, we now employ 120 people at the festival, aged between 20 and 35.

We have created a niche within the sector that caters to people from a diverse range of backgrounds and situations, that without us, would have been missed, such as families. It is something other companies struggle with because ticket prices can be prohibitively expensive or difficult to get hold of.

So, what started as an idea and a passion has become something much more and it is something we are very pleased with. We have a strong vision for what we want to achieve, and this is what drives us forward.

OW: What makes the Waterperry estate a suitable venue for a festival?

GVW: Firstly, the Waterperry estate is a beautiful place. It is a 17th century house with an interesting history, and its gardens are really well-known in the horticultural sector. Even without our festival, it makes a stunning destination for a day out, and people really should consider visiting.

Most importantly, for us, it is a perfect venue for staging operas. There are four or five different venues we can use for events, including the gardens and the ballroom inside the actual house. Our main stage is the facade of Waterperry House itself. We build our own bespoke theatre in front of its facade each year, which seats about 500 people. We also have an amphitheater, which is smaller and seats about 250 people. It is a very beautiful grade two listed folly. This gives us great flexibility on how to stage the events. Our big spectacle, the main opera, is performed on the main stage, while for more intimate pieces, like our “Dido and Aeneas,” we use the amphitheater, which provides the audience with a more immersive, intimate and atmospheric experience. We also use the gardens for productions, such as “Peter and the Wolf.”

All of which means that we are able to reach our audiences in different ways as well as offer them very different theatrical experiences.

Although the opera is clearIy the centerpiece of our festival, we would like people to come to see the estate. If you are coming to our “Barber of Seville” this summer, then you should arrive early and spend the entire day here so that you can enjoy the gardens, the farm shop, garden centre, tea shop and the house itself. And there is much more. We also put on workshops for people and other events that run throughout the day, so that it is possible to spend the entire day with us and finish it with an opera.

There are also dining facilities that can be accessed before the opera begins or during the interval break. You can visit the tea shop, the dining tents or picnic on its grounds. We can supply a hamper for you, or you can go to our bar. It is all very flexible. You have a slap-up meal and a glass of wine, or simply a sandwich and a coffee.

OW: Your description of the Waterperry Festival with its picnics, gardens and rural location sounds, in some ways, like other summer festivals. Glyndebourne, for example, springs to mind. Would this be a fair comparison?

GVW: I don’t think so. We are not looking to make our festival a very formal affair. There is no dress code, for example. Many audience members do dress up, but if you want to come in a T-shirt, sandals and shorts, that is fine; it is more important that people feel as if they belong here. We aim to be inclusive. Yes, it is partly formal, but it is also partly informal. It is a festival for everyone.

OW: Are all the artists professionals, or do you bring in young singers from conservatories and music schools?

GVW: From the very beginning, we have been a professionally led company, and it has been important for us that we support fair pay for artists. There are plenty of student opera or semi-professional opera companies out there that like to support emerging talent, but they don’t pay their artists well. We do, we always have, and we want to continue to do so.

The major roles are performed by emerging professionals, and for the singers performing in “Carmen” last year, the average age was about 27 or 28.

The smaller roles are cast from our Young Artist Program, which we started in 2018, the year the festival began, and is dedicated to developing talent. It is something of which we are very proud; we have had close to 100 artists come through the program, and it is not just singers but also directors, designers and conductors. It is about creating opportunities for young people, say between 18 and 24, so that they can access working opportunities. We cover their expenses, their food and their accommodation. We also give them a stipend and provide lessons, coaching and workshops. We have had some great success with this. In 2019, for example, bass Jamie Woollard was with us and has since moved on to the Jette Parker scheme at Covent Garden. This is what we want to achieve with our plan. We are not a finishing school for young opera singers. We want to give them the experiences and opportunities that will help them on their way.

We accommodate the artists at Waterperry House during the festival. It becomes their home for two weeks. It is like an opera boot camp. We organize events for them, such as cheese and wine nights, film nights or a ceilidh night. It brings everybody together and is wonderful for the artists.

OW: Looking through your performance schedules over the past few years, it is noticeable that you present a real mix of works, including contemporary, near-contemporary and baroque operas. A couple of composers, however, seem to be regulars, namely Mozart and Purcell. What is the reasoning behind this?

GVW: You are correct in saying that it is a real mix, ranging from early baroque to contemporary music. We have also commissioned work for the festival, and we work closely with Jonathan Dove, who is our patron. These are as important to me as the masterpieces from the past few hundred years.

There are two reasons why we have done a little bit more of Purcell and Mozart than other composers. Firstly, we know the works are masterpieces and that they are able to reach large audiences. But I also admit that some are included simply because they are my favorite works, such as Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and “The Fairy Queen.”

Secondly, it is a matter of scale. I want to make sure that everything we do at Waterperry is not compromised by scale. We have no interest in doing “Die Meistersingers” with an accordion and a set of spoons, for example. I want to make sure that the artistic integrity of what the audience is seeing has not been compromised, and we know we can produce early music, baroque and chamber music to a really high standard. Hence, during our early years, we navigated towards works that we knew would appeal to our audiences and that could be produced without any compromises. Also, for people who have never been to opera before, a name like Mozart may encourage them.

Obviously, this has to be balanced with other works that are more progressive or unfamiliar. The aim is, therefore, to create a varied program in which there is something for everyone.

I would like to add that even though Mozart and Purcell may seem traditional, canonical works, I think the way we produce them is innovative, and this gives us the motivation and reason to perform these works; we are creating a Waterperry version, not using another company’s version or a version that will go somewhere else. For example, our “Dido and Aeneas” from last year’s festival turned out to be an incredibly immersive and atmospheric production, performed on a pitch-black stage with only a fire placed in its centre. It was an incredibly visceral production, much more dynamic, atmospheric and dark, both literally and thematically, than you might consider possible; the large fire lit up the cast and the faces of the audience. I found it brought the opera alive. It was the same with “The Marriage of Figaro,” which is set in a county house and its gardens. We have a country house and a garden, and we use them to make the opera come alive. We set Act four in the estate’s garden. It worked brilliantly. It didn’t feel fake; it was real. The singers really couldn’t see each other.

So, although we produce well-known works, we also produce unique versions of them that I hope audiences find interesting. There are no traditional theatre spaces at Waterperry; we either use our outdoor amphitheater or create new spaces, and it creates different experiences, ones that can bring opera alive.

OW: What are the highlights of this year’s festival?

GVW: We have a varied and diverse program of work so that we can meet different audiences in a different way. Our main production this year is the “The Barber of Seville,” a really well-known comedy, which gives us an opportunity to reach people who have never been to opera before. It will be performed on our main stage.

In complete contrast, in terms of tone and period, we have “The Turn of the Screw” by Britten. It is something I have been wanting to do since the very beginning of the festival. It will be performed in the amphitheater, which will help create a very dark atmosphere and hopefully bring a scary feeling that is perfect for this opera.

As part of our remit to attract very young children, we will also be reviving our production of “Peter and the Wolf,” which we have been doing for a few years now. Normally, performances for families happen inside concert halls or community centers, but we will be doing this in the garden, which is more effective in engaging young children. It is a very special event and sells out each year. There will be six performances, which will reach a combined audience of over 1000 people.

There will also be a series of Jonathan Dove song cycles performed in the Waterperry House ballroom. Again, it will be a very intimate concert and will contrast with the other works we will performing.

We shall also be giving a concert of Mozart serenades in our garden. They are really accessible, beautiful pieces, and will be performed in a very relaxed atmosphere where people can move around and look at the flowers and gardens. The idea is to turn the concert-going experience on its head and create the feeling that you do not have to sit still, be quiet and attend only to the concert.

It is an imaginative and diverse program7 that will allow people to engage with the music in different ways.

OW: How do you manage to raise the money for an enterprise that appears to be growing year on year?

GVW: In 2018, we started with very meagre means. We had approximately £60,000. Now our turnover is around £750,000. So, you are correct; we have grown very rapidly, which is wonderful, of course, but it makes fundraising very difficult.

Our ticket prices are very affordable compared to the quality of what we produce and compared to other companies in the sector, such as Longborough. For our main stage operas, for example, tickets start at £20 and go up to about £80. We sell about 80% of the tickets for the festival, and this covers about 40% of our costs. The other 60% comes from generous donors, who believe in our vision, and from trusts and foundations that we need to contact. It is very time-consuming work, and I have to spend a lot of time working on it. I need to plan 18 months ahead, and so I am currently working on raising funds for the 2025 festival.

We work closely with the estate, but we are a separate charity. Some of the revenue we generate is used to support the 17th century building, the gardens and the heritage of the estate. It is, therefore, a mutually beneficial contract; we get to use the house, its facilities and its grounds. We work together, and it benefits both parties, and it has done for eight years now. We wouldn’t be able to put on this festival without the estate.


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