For the Love of Wagner: Longborough Festival Opera

  • Martin & Lizzie Graham
  • Longborough Festival Opera
  • Longborough Festival Opera

There’s something fascinatingly improbable about Longborough Festival Opera – likely, it’s the opera house itself, happily converted from a barn and continuing to exist all these years later despite the early objections of the local council.

Or maybe it’s the sheer size of the dreams of its creators, Martin and Lizzie Graham. As if the creation of an opera house was impossible enough, what they planned to host in it was ever more grandiose.

As is evident from their staggeringly ambitious (and since 2013, realised) dream of staging the entire Wagner’s Ring cycle (very possibly something no other privately owned opera house has ever done) – the operators of Longborough enjoy a special commitment to the works of Richard Wagner.

We interviewed Martin and Lizzie Graham and their long time friend, the conductor Anthony Negus, on what more there is to do with Wagner now that they’ve pulled off the entire Ring Cycle – and how younger listeners can get into opera and Wagner’s music.

Martin and Lizzie Graham

Martin grew up in the Cotswold village of Longborough and left school to become a labourer before starting a building business. He met Lizzie – then a schoolteacher - in 1978. In 1995 they moved to Longborough, where in ‘96-‘97 they began outfitting a barn with seats left over from London’s Royal Opera House. Longborough Festival Opera was born. In 2013 they realised their dream of producing three Ring cycles.

CH: Martin, when did you first fall in love with music?

MG: In the fifties there was nothing in the curriculum at school. I used to freeze when the little old lady who was the headteacher clambered up onto the stepladder – she was so tiny – to turn on a huge radio that was bolted on the wall. The programme that was played was called Singing Together Rhythm and Melody. Not terribly inspiring but it had all the greats of early English music – and it sort of infected me then. I’m not sure if it did anybody else, but I’ve never forgotten that.

CH: As a child, didn’t you have a friend who encouraged the love of music in you?

MG: He was a man named Jack Wilsher, a friend of my dad’s. He was a completely self-taught man. You’d call him a renaissance man, I suppose, he was a working class, East End boy, a cabinet maker who taught himself the violin, the piano, how to sing – everything.

He did all of this from his cottage. I used to go around there and he would play things to me, and sing. He always had a very earthy approach to composers: he would talk about ‘bleeding Wagner, God don’t ever get involved with him…’

However, Jack did not live to see Wagner performed here [at LFO]. I would love to know what his attitude would have been – he always purported to hate Wagner.

If I ever heard anything about music as a teenager, I could talk to him and he’d give me chapter and verse. It was a great thing. When you talk about how to get people involved into music now, just bear in mind that, now, a little boy going into his house and hearing him play the piano would be unheard of. There would be suspicions and all sorts of unpleasantness spoken of. But in the fifties, in Longborough and other villages, children just wandered in and out of cottages that had their doors open. The whole concept of community was different, and if there were any untoward situations, I think people would have sensed it.

Now, I think you have to be more proactive: take the music to the children instead of expecting children to sidle up and listen to something.

CH: When did you first become enamoured with Wagner – and how did that lead into setting up the opera house?

MG: There was a Centenary Ring. It was on the telly every Saturday afternoon, and I became transfixed. By then I was at work, married. I said to Lizzie: ‘This is it. We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to build a theatre and get an orchestra and do the Ring Cycle.’

Well of course you can point out that this was a piece of great conceit – but you never get anywhere in this world without being overambitious. So, thus it was – I wrote to a few people I’d never met, they all told me I was bonkers - to forget it.

But those are the words I love to hear, because I think every time you get an opinion like that the complete converse is true: that they were the ones who were nuts!

One of my correspondents was Sir George Christie, who ran Glyndebourne - he died only a year or two ago - and he replied straight away: ‘Come and see me. I’ll help you.’ Now that’s what I call encouragement, and that’s why kids today should be completely, unashamedly un-censorious and just write to anybody asking for help. Because most people are nice.

That’s how it started – but we didn’t know anybody in the business. We hadn’t got a theatre. But all you need is determination. When the local press and local councillors kept telling us ‘you’ve got to tear this building down before the next season’ – I’d love to see those minutes – the more confident we became that we were onto something.

That all took about ten, twelve years before the Centenary Ring in 2013 arrived. That’s the story, and what needs to be drawn out of it is that anything is possible. Everyone is capable of so much more than they or the system would have them believe.

CH: Lizzie, what was it like to have finally staged the whole of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle at Longborough Festival Opera?

LG: In a way it was a fantastic goal to have – you knew what you were working towards. It took fifteen years from the beginning to the end – in the early years we weren’t too picky about doing the whole Ring Cycle but we thought we’d put our foot down and do the whole thing.

2007 was when we started, and even then it took six years to do the whole thing…when the bicentenary came around, we were the only opera house in the UK to do a full Ring in that year. It was a complete fluke, really – the Opera House had theirs in 2012 to go with the Olympics. It was exhausting – but incredibly satisfying.

CH: There’s been a lot of talk about how to get the younger generation into opera. Where would be a good place to start?

LG: You’d think there would be a very straightforward answer to that! A lot of people start with Puccini – that’s where I started with Madame Butterfly – and get bowled over by it. It’s usually the music that first gets you going, not the story – the story is simple and dramatic, but the music knocks you sideways.

It depends on your nature, I think. The trouble is our terrible education system, unfortunately. There’s this ‘us and them’ attitude to what is perceived as high culture. It doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be.

We – along with every other kind of arts organisation – have a schools programme. You might go in and they’ll think: “Oh, that’s only for clever people” or “That’ll be really boring.” But at the end of the day, and you ask how they like it, without exception they always say: “It was great! I didn’t know it would be like that!” And some end up begging to come to a rehearsal.

At the end of the day, it’s simply exposure – that’s what it is all about. A lot of people think Wagner is difficult, but everybody’s heard The Ride of the Valkyries – and I’ve yet to meet a child that didn’t love it.

Back when I was in my twenties and first going to the opera, it was always helpful if there was a tune I knew that I could look out for. That really helped. Now, I love going to new opera, to modern opera, and all the things I haven’t been to.

CH: What’s the next grand ambition?

LG: Oh, we’ve still got ambitions! Now the Ring is done, our aim is still to stage all of Wagner’s operas. We did Tristan und Isolde last year, and reviving that again next year, and we’re doing Tannhäuser this year…Wagner only wrote ten ‘biggies’, so to speak, and by the end of this year we will have done six.

Each one of the remaining four will present a different challenge. Certainly one and possibly two will present a colossal challenge, because they’ve got very big choruses. One of the reasons we’re doing Tannhäuser this year is because it’ll give us an idea of how many people we can have in the chorus, how many people we can accommodate onstage.

CH: What’s Tannhäuser about?

LG: Like a lot of writers, Wagner kept writing about the same thing all the time really! This is one he really struggled with, knowing what he wanted to say but not quite sure how to say it.

[The character of] Tannhäuser is Wagner, really, torn between the call of art and noble life and on the other hand wanting all the pleasures of the world. The two are embodied in the ‘good woman’ and the ‘bad woman.’

He’s torn in the way that many people are – caught between the good that they want to achieve and also their longings for pleasure, for beauty. How do you reconcile those things? That’s really what it’s all about: life, really!

[Wagner] did several versions of it, and what we’re using is a combination version. There’s not one straightforward version that you can use because he kept going back to it. Our conductor told me that at the end of his life, Wagner said: ‘I still owe the world a Tannhäuser.’ He viewed it as a work in progress, obviously. Again and again, throughout his work, you see characters that he’s invested a lot of himself into – and the problems that he had.

CH: Lizzie, how did you first encounter opera?

Theatre is really where I started. That’s the other thing about opera – if you like theatre, chances are you’ll like opera, because opera is like Theatre Plus, or even Plus Plus. I used to think that opera was silly and boring, like bad theatre, but now I’ve seen the light [laughs].

So I came from the theatre side, whereas Martin came from the music. Music has always been like a drug for him, really.

I was sixteen when I saw my first two or three operas, which were okay, but I wasn’t that keen to go back. In my late twenties I thought I’d give it another go, and was hooked. I went to two Puccinis in the space of three weeks – Butterfly and Tosca – and I was totally bowled over.

I thought it would all take ages…that somebody would be dying, that they’d be singing for hours while they were dying, and it’d all be very boring – but it all went like a flash! And so I thought: what have I been missing all my life? It was a real Road to Damascus moment, and I never looked back after that.

Anthony Negus

Anthony Negus is Music Director of Longborough Festival Opera and gained international authority as a conductor and coach of Wagner’s works. At Longborough he conducted the acclaimed Ring Cycle in 2013 and in 2015 Tristan und Isolde. In 2016 he returns to the Festival to conduct Tannhäuser.

Born in Buckingham, Anthony studied at the Royal College of Music, the London Opera Centre and Christ Church, Oxford. He was a member of the music staff in Wuppertal and Hamburg from 1970 to 1974 and musical assistant at Bayreuth from 1972 to 1973.

Anthony was on the Music Staff of the Welsh National Opera from 1976 until 2011 and conducted many operas for them. He has recently been appointed Music Director of Opra Cymru.

CH: Tell us about this year’s production of Tannhäuser.

In a way, Tannhäuser is one of the most adventurous things that we’ve taken on so far. We now have a chorus involved – in the case of The Ring Cycle and Tristan we had twelve sturdy men. Now we have ladies as well, for a chorus of twenty-four – it’s the first time we’ve done a chorus like this and it is going to be very exciting.

CH: What’s it about?

It’s Wagner’s most autobiographical work, in some ways. The story very much concerns the sacred and the profane. Tannhäuser is a very extreme character, a ‘Minnesinger’ (medieval singers who celebrated chaste and chivalric love) who instead sings of something very sensual and sexual.

It’s an absolutely sensual Wagner work, and it’s incredibly powerful and moving. The character of Elizabeth in particular is deeply moving, and Wagner writes some wonderful music for her in the second and third acts. Every work of Wagner’s fascinates me as it relates to the others and itself.

CH: How can I get into Wagner?

You couldn’t do better that to listen to the overtures of Tannhäuser and the Venusberg Music, because that would give an incredibly good taste of it. I got into Wagner in my teens because I heard great orchestral excerpts, like Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. A very, very good way to sample Wagner before listening to the more vocal aspects is listening to the more orchestral ones.

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