Small opera house boss likes to think big
- Credit: Alastair Muir
Kentish Town conductor Wasfi Kani runs Grange Park - a country house venue that specialises in big, romantic productions
It’s May: the month when black tie’d opera lovers pack their wicker baskets and go off to Glyndebourne, Garsington or Grange Park (why do all these places start with G?) to picnic on wet grass in freezing weather and convince themselves that summer has arrived when patently it hasn’t.
Having spent a lifetime sitting through the second halves of country operas in damp trousers, I’m familiar with the routine and don’t always love it. Glyndebourne I’d avoid, unless you like the sight of bankers waving £50 notes at the champagne bar: it’s corporate and vulgar. Garsington has nicer people but diminished charm since its move from a Jacobean manor house to an auditorium that looks like Heathrow Terminal 5. And I generally prefer venues like West Green House in Hampshire, where performance standards aren’t so pristine but are still good and the small scale makes you feel more like a house guest than a punter.
Grange Park is the only big name on the country opera circuit that maintains that kind of intimacy – with a host who welcomes you, remembers you and takes an interest in your picnic. And the host is the extraordinary Wasfi Kani who created Grange Park Opera 15 years ago and runs it from her home in Kentish Town. Or rather, homes, since she’s expanded territorially along her terrace, knocking through in search of lebensraum and filing space.
A small but feisty anglo-Indian with a sense of purpose (by which I guess I mean bossy, though I say so with affection as an old friend), Kani was born in east London but spent formative years hanging purposefully around Highgate, taking violin lessons and running errands for Yehudi Menuhin who lived there at the time.
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After an Oxford music degree, she led a double life as a computer programmer-cum-orchestral conductor, setting up a company called Pimlico Opera that took music-theatre into schools and prisons (and still does). But through Pimlico Opera, she developed two connected skills: for making things happen and for raising the money to make them happen.
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Watching Kani work a room of wealthy people is an education. She’s direct – but in a winning way – and 15 years ago, it won over Lord Ashburton, who owned the semi-derelict neoclassical pile that is The Grange near Alresford, Hampshire, and was persuaded to let Kani build an opera theatre in his crumbling orangery.
Less than half the size of Glyndebourne, with 500 seats, the Grange Park auditorium is stylish, chic and managed with what Kani calls “a weekend house party ethos. People gather in the portico of the old house for drinks, then there’s a passeggiata to the auditorium. We like the passeggiata, it’s theatrical and fun. A chance to show your frock off.”
Curiously, though, for a small venture, Grange Park doesn’t do small repertory. “We’re probably the smallest proper opera house in Britain,” says Kani, “but with a huge orchestra pit, big enough for Wagner. And big romantic repertory is what tends to work best here, washing the audience in sound.
“We’re not a Mozart house. We don’t do early opera: Bellini is about as early as we get. And we don’t really do comedy, because what people find funny today is so different from what made them laugh a hundred years ago.”
Pressed on that point, she does admit that Barber Of Seville or Mozart’s Figaro can brighten dull days: “but take Rossini’s Turco In Italia. A guy falling in love with a Turk isn’t that funny and falling in love with a Turk is what it’s about. As for Figaro, it’s the greatest opera of all time but Glyndebourne does it beautifully. They don’t need us.”
In fact, there is a comedy this year at Grange Park: Messager’s Fortunio. But, otherwise, it’s as the lady says: romantic, serious and large scale, with Bellini’s Puritani, Poulenc’s Carmelites and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – all cast at strength since Kani took the conscious decision “to up our game with singers. Expensively. It costs £3million per season to run Grange Park Opera and I spend most of my time juggling with financial decisions I took four years ago – because that’s how far ahead you have to plan – not knowing the world economy would still be in the mess it’s in today.”
Fortunately, Kani has a head for figures and it’s enabled her to pioneer the kinds of access programme for young people that other country house operas are only just taking on board. Grange Park gives discounts to ticket buyers under 35 and, if you’re under 25, there’s a scheme that admits you completely free if you’ve the nerve to write and say why you think you deserve it.
The result is a younger audience than anyone would expect and it’s further proof of the administrative genius that has by now taken over Kani’s whole agenda. She gave up conducting years ago and, though she rules Grange Park emphatically, it isn’t with a baton.
“I don’t even do the offstage chorus,” she insists, “although I often stand beside it, so I know who’s turned up late.”
Grange Park Opera runs from May 30 to July 13. Full details at www.grangeparkopera.co.uk.