Open-air operas, a classic -- if chilly -- English tradition
They sit on the grass in their posh frocks and dinner jackets, eating picnics between the two acts of Rossini's "Il turco in Italia". It's summer in England, and the open-air opera has returned.
Rain or shine, music-lovers bearing champagne and blankets are flocking in their thousands to glorious rural locations across Britain to enjoy the delights of Mozart, Wagner or Donizetti.
"It's freezing! But people are so mad in England that they love it," remarked director Martin Duncan at his production of Rossini's comedy at the Garsington Opera, one of the country's leading open-air ventures.
More intimate than the long-established Glyndebourne, Garsington has been running since 1989 but this year moved to a new, more glamorous venue.
Complaints from neighbours at its founding home of Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, north west of London, forced it to relocate a few miles down the road onto the beautiful Wormsley Estate, which is owned by the Getty family.
Amid the extensive park that already hosts a world-famous cricket ground, the organisers have commissioned an elegant temporary pavilion with space for 600 people to watch the opera and enjoy nature at the same time.
Throughout June and July, the Japanese-inspired structure will play host to Rossini as well as Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Vivaldi's rarely performed "La verita in cimento".
Architect Robin Snell, a musician himself, has created a glass auditorium without walls where the public can hear the birds as they watch the opera and are bathed in sunshine during the first act, before night falls.
The design presented a few challenges for director Duncan, who admitted: "You have to be ingenious. There are no sides, and the first act is in the daylight."
But for spectators the result is magical, with the pavilion and the performers lit up against the dusky sky.
It is no wonder that Garsington is such a hit, with 90 percent of tickets sold before the festival began. Meanwhile the waiting list for membership of Glyndebourne -- which confers priority booking -- is ten years.
If you can't wait that long, there are numerous other open-air opera venues across the country, many of them catering for particular tastes, including Longborough in Gloucestershire, southwest England, which specialises in Wagner.
For its part, Garsington prides itself on producing lesser known operas, and for giving younger singers a chance to shine. "It is important to keep your own identity," noted Duncan.
Most offer the same glamorous, pastoral experience -- the dress is formal, with the women in long dresses and the men in black jacket and bow tie, and the tickets rarely cost less than £100 (113 euros, $160).
But for those wanting to spend a little less, or wanting to enjoy open-air opera without the costume-drama connotations, Opera Holland Park in central London is just the thing.
Now in its 16th edition, it is putting on seven operas this year, including Verdi's "Rigoletto", in a relaxed environment. Tickets start at just £12 each, and they are also giving away thousands to youngsters and seniors.
Organiser Mike Volpe said the aim was to make opera more accessible.
"This country has built an enormous structure around opera as a socially elite pastime, but we think a lot of that really is bullshit," Volpe told TimeOut magazine.
By Marie-Pierre Ferey from AFP