Can you give us a potted history of Waterperry Opera Festival?
Guy: The whole thing started in 2017 when Bertie and I worked on an opera production together alongside director Rebecca Meltzer. The three of us really enjoyed working together and we knew we wanted to continue to collaborate on projects. At the same time, Waterperry Gardens, which is a large country estate near Oxford, were interested in hosting a touring opera production. We took our show there for one weekend. It was a huge success, and the partnership really grew from there.
Waterperry Gardens has a great history of hosting festivals, along with a community that wants to engage with in classical music. They were keen to have a mixed programme including performances, workshops and educational events, which was something we knew we could deliver. So together, Rebecca, Bertie and I combined our artistic vision to create the organisation from the ground up. It was a perfect set of ingredients in terms of the time, people and place.
Bertie: Initially it was a three-day festival and every year we have grown. Now we transform the estate into our opera festival for two weeks in the summer, plus two months of touring. Our ambitions for the festival and the quality of work we produce have both grown as well, as we’ve got more experience and learnt to use the site to the best of our advantage.
What are your individual roles within the organisation?
Bertie: I am the Music Director, which means I oversee all the musical arrangements for the whole festival. We normally do six or seven productions, and I will conduct two or three of those. Then together Guy and I will choose the conductors for our other productions, hold auditions for the singers and gather our orchestral musicians. It’s a collaborative process between Guy, the directors, and our Head of Music.
Guy: My job has a dual focus. As Chief Executive, I have overall managerial and financial responsibility, reporting to the Board of Trustees. Then I am also Artistic Director, working closely with Bertie and our other artistic staff to realise our productions. As Bertie says, it’s an artistic collaboration and we will have conversations months, or even years, in advance about artistic strategy and the sort of projects we want to be doing.
Can you tell us more about your aim for the festival and its contribution to the field of opera?
Guy: We want our opera festival to be as accessible and inclusive as possible. We’ve tried to remove barriers for anyone who might think ‘opera isn’t for me’ and create a gateway into the genre. We can lean into the location to help with that. Our audience can come for the day and enjoy the experience of the gardens and it just so happens that there is opera happening around them. We have a very good track record of developing new audiences. Last year, 30% of our 4,000 visitors had either never been to an opera before or Waterperry was their only opera experience of the year. We feel we have a responsibility to engage with people who otherwise might not experience the art form. We try to programme a really broad range of shows which can attract lots of different people. For example, this year we have two productions for children – Peter Rabbit and Revolting Rhymes, a dance staging of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, King Harald’s Saga which is contemporary piece, our revival of Mansfield Park and our big opera is Carmen. So it’s a real mix!
Bertie: We are trying to expand on what opera can mean for audiences, without compromising on the core of what opera is. For example, we did a production of The Elixir of Love in summer 2021, just as we were emerging from the pandemic. Our director created a production which was a celebration of community and personal connection, which really tapped into the mood that we all needed at the time. Audiences who are new to opera can be introduced to the classics but also see something which is contemporary and relevant for the society we live in.
For the first time this year we are doing a prom concert. It will have a combination of classics such as Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ and Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’, along with some less well-known pieces. It’s designed to appeal to those who already know and love classical music and those who are coming to it for the first time.
What are your aspirations for the coming years?
Guy: Longevity is a key aspiration for us. I think what we have with the festival is really special and we want to continue our vision and be here for a long time! Our plan is to make what we are doing even better – whether that is working with young artists, developing creatives or reaching new audiences.
Bertie: I agree – we want to refine what we do and continue to build the trust with our audience. It can take years to achieve, but then that means if we ever decide to mix up our programming and try something new, our audiences will still trust us to deliver.
Have you learnt a lot over the past six years?
Bertie: To have the chance to conduct a full-scale opera production at this stage in my career has been an incredible experience. It is very hard to get those sorts of opportunities because opera costs a lot of money to create, so it’s rare for a company to take a risk on a young, early-career conductor. I have conducted many operas for the first time with Waterperry – and when the 2023 festival starts in a few weeks it will be my first-time conducting Carmen which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think our singers have had a similarly formative experience at the festival. Our Carmen was the cover for English National Opera’s production and now she gets to perform that role in her own right.
Guy: The journey from producing small projects while I was at the Academy, to now a half a million-pound opera festival has been a huge learning curve. There has been a lot of trying, failing and seeing what works. I’ve learnt aspects of governance, management and finance through this job. I really enjoy the challenge and it’s an opportunity to learn something new every day.
One of the factors which is so unique to the festival is that pretty much everyone working for the company are in their twenties and thirties. Normally in an organisation, even if it is just starting out, there would be much more experienced staff whereas we have been doing this work for a comparatively short space of time. However, we are all passionate about young people in opera and preserving its future. We bring a sense of vibrancy and hopefully that also helps to attract young people in our audience.
What does the Royal Academy of Music mean to you?
Bertie: It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sian Edwards was the most formative teacher I’ve ever had as a conductor – particularly in opera where she has such experience and expertise. I learnt an incredible amount from her, both in terms of the technicalities of conducting but also how to approach big pieces in general.
Guy: I feel very lucky to have been in a place surrounded by other ambitious people, with great aspirations, who wanted to collaborate. Obviously, it was where I first met Bertie and where the initial ideas for the festival were developed. It was a formative time for me, and I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Academy.
Are there any other projects you are working on at the moment?
Guy: I work full-time for Waterperry Opera Festival, so my focus is very much on forward planning for future years of the festival.
Bertie: I travel a lot in the UK and abroad as a freelance conductor. I recently had my conducting debut at Glyndebourne. Then I also wrote my own opera with a friend of mine who is a librettist. It had been in the pipeline for around six years, and then we finally staged it at the start of the season so that was an exciting project to realise.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow a similar career path?
Bertie: As a conductor, one thing I have increasingly learnt is to be comfortable with how you present yourself to an orchestra. It’s normal to feel a bit awkward at times, but if you can figure out how to move past that and be confident in your position then you’ll be able to convey the music much more powerfully for the orchestra and, in turn, the audience.
Guy: I’d say to anyone who is interested in creating their own company, believe in yourself and the path you are on. Even if you feel like you don’t know enough, you will learn a lot on the way. Surround yourself by good people and don’t let others dampen your fire, because if that had happened to me then we wouldn’t be where we are today!