Belsize Park musicians to perform opera written to Stephen Fry’s libretto

Louis Mander and Jack Cherry, musicians behind Belsize Opera

Louis Mander and Jack Cherry, musicians behind Belsize Opera - Credit: Archant

A musical vicar in Belsize Park is filling his church with concerts including the launch of an opera company run by two young locals

St Peter’s Belsize Park is a church that couldn’t honestly be said to have a high musical profile so far as its worship is concerned, though I’m told the congregation sing for all they’re worth.

But it happens to have a priest, Paul Nicholson, whose path to God took a circuitous route via playing the harpsichord and organ – something he did with distinction as a member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

And from the time he arrived at St Peter’s he’s been working to bring music back into St Peter’s life – with concerts, festivals and other projects.

Recent years have seen the likes of Nigel Kennedy give serious recitals in the church – which has also given a home to a venture called Belsize Academy, the period-performance band Belsize Baroque (which Fr Nicholson himself leads from the keyboard), and a Belsize Arts Festival that involves the spoken word as well as music-making.

But the latest venture there is Belsize Opera, which will launch on July 16 with a recital to raise funds for future undertakings: one of them, a performance of Delius’s rarely-performed one-act opera “Margot La Rouge” in the autumn.

Belsize Opera is the invention of two local musicians, Louis Mander and Jack Cherry, who have featured on this page before as collaborators in new opera ventures.

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A composer/pianist/ conductor, Mander writes prolifically for voices, and only last week had a new dramatic cantata performed at Ely Cathedral as part of a festival for its patron saint St Etheldreda.

But his speciality is small-scale music-theatre of the kind that plays at Tete-a-Tete or Grimeborne: edgy festivals devoted to such things.

That said, his music isn’t edgy in the sense of frightening horses. It’s comparatively tonal, tuneful and accessible.

Among his current projects is a frothy comedy, “The Dowager’s Oyster” , which has a libretto by Cherry and will feature, in extracts, alongside more standard repertoire on the 16th prior to a full staging at the Arcola Theatre in August.

But maybe the most notable thing heard on the 16th will be extracts from an opera Mander has written to a libretto by Stephen Fry, based on E.M.Forster’s under-the-counter tale of gay desire, “The Life to Come”.

It has been waiting for a full performance for a long while, and it may just get one when the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens next year. There are meaningful discussions underway.

Meanwhile, the Belsize concert gives a glimpse of how “The Life to Come” will come - and, no less, how the work of Belsize Opera might turn out.

As yet, it’s modest: opera is expensive. But that’s why it needs support.

If things develop as intended, Delius’s “Margot” will be its first proper show.

And should you wonder why this piece was chosen, it’s because Delius lived around the corner to St Peter’s from 1918-19: a forgotten fact, though there’s a plaque on 44 Belsize Park Gardens to commemorate it.

No great friend of Christianity (he thought it generated bad composers), Delius would not, alas, have been a regular attender at St Peter’s.

But he would have known it and (emphatically) walked past it, quickening his step and muttering abuse. Lucky for him the Church of England is forgiving.

Looking ahead, this year’s Belsize Arts Festival will run from October 2 and include a special appearance by the priest, poet and former archbishop Rowan Williams.

Belsize Opera launch & fund-raising recital, Sat 16th Jul, 7.30pm, St Peter’s, Belsize Square NW3. Tickets: 020 7431 1202 or on the door.