Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview: Opera Holland Park’s 2023 Season is as varied as it is accessible  

An eclectic programme from the festival Londoners can find on their doorstep.

Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park (Photo: Sam Smith)

While Glyndebourne, Garsington and the Granges all offer an exceptional summer opera experience, there is one venue in the heart of London that provides a similar taste of bucolic bliss. It is Opera Holland Park where the tented auditorium is nestled amidst beautiful surroundings, and where the ruins of Holland House form a permanent backdrop to the stage. This haven of tranquillity is just a 10 minute walk from High Street Kensington underground, but it is not only accessible in terms of transport. Since it is somewhere to which one devotes the evening rather than the whole day, there is no need to book time off work and, while there is nothing to stop anyone from going to town, there are not the same strict dress codes as apply at the other venues.

In 2021 OHP rose to the challenges posed by COVID-19 by seeing set designer takis reimagine the entire stage and auditorium that lies beneath the venue’s canopied roof, reducing capacity from 1,000 to 400 seats, and facilitating social distancing with moveable chairs. Sustainability underpinned ever aspect of the theatre and, while social distancing is no longer the decisive issue, the new layout proved so successful it was decided to retain and develop it. In 2022 capacity was increased to approximately 700, but the space remained just as flexible as additional levels were added and sight lines improved, and it continues to evolve to this day. 

The season opens on 30 May with Rigoletto, and it is easy to imagine how well the opera will play out in this venue. With the evening beginning in the light but ending in the dark, the atmosphere will be perfect for Act III which takes place approaching and after midnight. It reunites director Cecilia Stinton, a former Opera Holland Park Young Artist, and conductor Lee Reynolds, who both presented an excellent production of Carmen here last year. The designer is Neil Irish whose previous work at Holland Park includes Don Giovanni, which was set on a cruise ship, La Cenerentola and Il barbiere di Siviglia. The title role is taken by Stephen Gadd who has many triumphs to his name at Holland Park including Guglielmo in Puccini’s first opera Le Villi last year, and Germont in both 2018 and 2021. David Junghoon Kim, whose credits at the Royal Opera House include Banquo, sings the Duke; Alison Langer, who sang Micaëla here last year, plays Gilda; another Holland Park regular Hannah Pedley is Maddalena, while English National Opera Harewood Artist Benson Wilson sings Ceprano. 

The last time Hänsel und Gretel appeared at OHP was in 2009 in a production by Stephen Barlow. This year’s new version (from 10 June) is being presented by John Wilkie, who directed Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna here in 2019 and an online production of Walton’s The Bear in 2021. Charlotte Badham, who played Jo March in the UK premiere of Mark Adamo’s Little Women last year, plays Hänsel and Laura Lolita Perešivana sings Gretel. Eleanor Dennis is The Gingerbread Witch, Paul Carey Jones (Wotan in Longborough Festival Opera’s current Ring Cycle) is Peter, and Meeta Raval plays Gertrud. Rising star Kǎrin Hendrickson makes her OHP conducting debut, while this production is also designed by Neil Irish. The evening of 16 June sees the Young Artist performance, which features a different cast alongside conductor Charlotte Corderoy, director Bence Kalo and répétiteur Avishka Edirisinghe.

Holland Park has a long and proud tradition of bringing to public attention works by Italian composers whose own considerable talents were eclipsed by those of their contemporary, or near contemporary, Puccini. In the past it has presented creations by Wolf-Ferrari, Cilea, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Montemezzi and Catalani, but in 2022 it performed a rarity by Puccini himself (his first ever opera Le Villi), and this year it is tackling one of his most famous works, La bohème (from 19 July). The opera last appeared at OHP in 2016 when Stephen Barlow bucked the trend of updating works by putting this one back in time and setting the action in Elizabethan England. On what was the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard, his idea of performing the opera as a Shakespearean drama at the Globe Theatre (which was partly replicated on the stage) may have seemed unorthodox but worked extremely well. This new production is by Natascha Metherell, who in the past has been the revival director for Jonathan Miller’s version for English National Opera. Rodolfo is played by Adam Gilbert, who certainly sounded good when he sang the part for ENO from the side of the stage in February 2022 when David Junghoon Kim was feeling under the weather. Katie Bird sings Mimì, having previously assumed the role for Opera North and played Cio-Cio-San for West Green House Opera and Suzel in OHP’s outstanding L’amico Fritz in 2021. Having stood out as Schaunard last October at the Royal Opera House, Ross Ramgobin now sings Marcello. Ramgobin also sang Figaro here in 2021 opposite Elizabeth Karani’s Susanna, and Karani plays Musetta. Harry Thatcher is Schaunard, Barnaby Rea sings Colline, having also done so for ENO in 2013, while another Holland Park regular Henry Grant Kerswell, who played Fasolt for Regent’s Opera last November, takes on the roles of Benoît and Alcindoro. The opera is conducted by George Jackson, who also led Le nozze di Figaro, while the designer is Madeleine Boyd, who designed Little Women. Joseph Buckmaster plays Rodolfo on 27 June. 

In 1998 Jonathan Dove’s Flight premiered for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, before Glyndebourne Festival Opera presented it in 1999. This year his new opera Itch will be seen for the first time ever at Holland Park (from 22 July). With a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, the piece is based on Simon Mayo’s eponymous series of novels, and sees Itchingham Lofte (Adam Temple-Smith) attempt to save the world from element 126, and save element 126 from the world! The opera has been custom made for the cast that is to perform it, with the singers including Natasha Agarwal, Rebecca Bottone, Eric Greene, Robert Burt, James Laing, Victoria Simmonds and Nicholas Garrett. It will be directed by Stephen Barlow, who created a very successful production of Flight for OHP in 2015, conducted by Jessica Cottis, who led The Cunning Little Vixen here in 2021, and designed by Frankie Bradshaw, whose works include English Touring Opera’s 2019 production of Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra. 

“…there is one venue in the heart of London that provides a… taste of bucolic bliss”

Ruddigore (from 9 August) represents a collaboration with Charles Court Opera. When the same pairing presented The Pirates of Penzance here in 2021 (and in 2020 in reduced and relaxed performances) it represented the first Gilbert and Sullivan that Holland Park had presented in 20 years. However, with it going on to perform HMS Pinafore 12 months later, an operetta from this partnership looks set to become a regular feature of each season. It is directed by John Savournin, who played Captain Corcoran last year, and this time he is Sir Despard Murgatroyd, the man cursed to commit a crime every day. The rest of the high calibre cast includes Holland Park regulars, such as Stephen Gadd who plays Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, and people who appeared in Pinafore, such as Llio Evans who sings Rose Maybud. It also includes undisputed Gilbert and Sullivan legends, with Richard Suart, who has played Ko-Ko for ENO in every revival of Jonathan Miller’s The Mikado since the late 1980s, portraying Old Adam Goodheart. As with Pinafore the conductor is David Eaton, and the designer Madeleine Boyd.

The City of London Sinfonia constitutes the orchestra for all of the productions, all choruses will be provided by the Opera Holland Park Chorus, and every opera will be performed in its original language with English surtitles. With the exception of Rigoletto one performance of each of these productions will constitute a Discovery Matinee, all of which begin at 14.00. These are designed to welcome people who want to try opera out for the first time in a relaxed environment, and for those who love opera but find the normal theatre going experience inaccessible. There will be 2 additional Schools’ Matinees, both at 12.00, for Hänsel und Gretel with a full performance of the work being presented on 14 June, and an introduction to the opera and the instruments of the orchestra on 21 June.

Alongside its 5 main productions, Holland Park has many other events over the season including Opera in Song, a recital series exploring the characters and storylines of featured works through songs by different composers. The series is curated by Julien Van Mellaerts and Dylan Perez, and the first recital, ‘All the Future Days: A celebration of contemporary British art song’, includes a feature on Jonathan Dove’s music to celebrate the world premiere of Itch (13.00 on 29 July). The others are entitled ‘Vissi d’arte: Life for art’, which features songs by Puccini, Verdi, Debussy, Strauss and Schönberg (30 July), and ‘Through the woods: From the Witch’s perspective’, which retells the Hänsel und Gretel story from the viewpoint of the supposed villain of the opera (31 July). Participating musicians include Nardus Williams, Laurence Kilsby, Anna Tilbrook, Sophie Bevan, Eleanor Dennis, Simon Lepper and OHP Young Artists. 

The season also includes Waterperry Opera’s new family friendly version of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. This co-production with OHP, which will embark on a UK tour in July and August and is delivered in partnership with the Oxford Festival of the Arts and Lichfield Festival, appears at Holland Park itself on 1 July at 10.00 and 13.00. The Royal Ballet School also returns for its annual showcase with a rich, diverse programme of dance across 5 performances from 5 to 8 July. Featuring all years of the school, with dancers ranging in age from 11 to 19, this is a rare opportunity to glimpse the stars of the future as they hone their skills at one of the world’s leading ballet establishments.

Songs on the Steps is a series of 7 free lunchtime recitals (occurring fortnightly at 13.00 between 5 May and 28 July) that will offer a range of new and familiar songs and arias to any picnicker or passerby. No booking is required and anyone is welcome to bring along a rug or cushion and enjoy 40 minutes of free music from artists of the company on the steps of the theatre.

On 27 June Irrational Theatre, which specialises in ‘The Best of British’,  presents Holst’s little known opera The Idea. Lasting around 50 minutes, the composer’s early composition, which feels a world away from The Planets, only enjoyed its UK premiere last year. The story sees the Prime Minister of a great and glorious country interrupt the wacky court of a rambling king and clown faced queen to announce his great idea! Holst’s collaboration with his 22 year old contemporary at the Royal College of Music Fritz B Hart fuses a sharp, humorous and satirical libretto with catchy tunes, inspired in part by Gilbert and Sullivan. Everything is woven into a joyful fresh new arrangement by Patrick Vincent, and a witty and surreal adapted staging by director Paula Chitty.

Last year innovative historical performance ensemble Figure presented Handel’s Serse to great acclaim. This year they return with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (29 June to 1 July), accompanied by Mendelssohn’s enchanting incidental music. Beyond the famous Overture and ‘Wedding March’, this varied score also includes music for soloists and upper voice chorus (performed here by local children’s choirs, including Theatre Peckham), and filmic passages that sensitively underscore the dialogue. Figure’s musicians will play on historical instruments, modelled on those from Mendelssohn’s time, and, in sympathy with this mid-19th century sound world, the production will be visually inspired by the world of the composer’s literary contemporaries, the Brothers Grimm. This is just one of many productions across the season that contributes towards making Opera Holland Park’s 2023 programme so eclectic and diverse, and it all suggests that there is a hugely enjoyable summer to be had right in the heart of London.

• Opera Holland Park’s 2023 season runs from 30 May to 12 August.

• For full details of all events and initiatives, and to book tickets, visit the OHP website

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