LFO: "This is a bit of a shock, as if I had just found Bayreuth in someone's backyard"

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 15 May 2011 | 7:08:00 pm

"This is a bit of a shock, as if I had just found Bayreuth in someone's backyard. And there are parallels with Wagner's theatre in Longborough. "We've kept adding to the theatre each year, as the productions have changed," Martin says. Discovering the pit wasn't big enough to accommodate the 65-strong orchestra conductor Anthony Negus needed for the Ring, Martin's solution was simple. "We got a digger in and had a go underneath the theatre. It was a pretty big job."


The Guardian's Tom Service visits LFO and finds, bankers, barns, diggers, dungeons and a new Ring Cycle.



Bringing Wagner to Gloucestershire

Tom Service: The Guardian July 2010.

Longborough
Martin and Lizzie Graham outside their opera house. Photograph: Stephen Shepherd

The village of Longborough in Gloucestershire is the epitome of Cotswolds sleepiness, a vision of pastoral English loveliness in which you might expect the most exciting events of the year to be the charity cricket match or the bring-and-buy sale. You could imagine a visit from John Nettles investigating one of those cheerfully rustic murders. It's not a place where you can imagine the world's biggest operatic challenge being staged. But that's until you follow the signs to Longborough festival opera, and discover the inspired madness of Martin and Lizzie Graham, who are putting on a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. In their barn.
That's only a slight exaggeration. The venue for Longborough's annual opera season is a converted building beside the Grahams' spectacular country house, perched on a hill with jaw-dropping views across the rolling fields. Over the 20 years they have been running their unsubsidised summer opera festival, the theatre has grown from barn to a respectable impression of an opera house. Martin proudly shows off the sculptures of Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart that adorn the theatre's pink-painted mock-Palladian facade. "How old are they?" I ask. "About four or five years," Martin says. Like everything else at Longborough, there's an illusion of antiquity, but the reality is that Martin, who works in the property business, has designed and built the whole thing himself.
Longborough now has a proper artistic pedigree to go with its grandiose pretensions. A cycle of Mozart operas is under way, expertly steered by the Italian conductor Gianluca Marciano and, a few years ago, they staged a cut-down version of the Ring, much abridged and scored for a reduced orchestra. But Martin's dream has always been putting on the Ring – for real. "Georg Solti told us we were mad," he says cheerfully, as we make our way through a building site at the back of the theatre, "and we still need to find a million quid from somewhere." That million will go towards productions of all the operas that make up the Ring cycle: having put on Das Rheingold three years ago, this season it's the turn of Die Walküre, and the plan is to perform Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in the next two years, and stage the whole cycle for Wagner's bicentenary in 2013.


Lee Bisset as Sieglinde with ValkyriesIt all sounds marvellous, but charmed as I am by the situation and their enthusiasm, I'm beginning to think the Grahams may have fallen off the edge of a Wagnerian precipice of insanity. The Ring is enough to bring any international opera house – let alone a tiny outfit in the sticks – to its knees, financially and artistically. And then Martin shows me the theatre. "Oh – I'm sorry, they still haven't polished the wood on the boxes." There's no need to apologise: I'm gobsmacked by the sight of a perfectly proportioned 480-seat opera house, complete with the Royal Opera House's old red-velvet seats, thrown away after Covent Garden's refurbishment.
This is a bit of a shock, as if I had just found Bayreuth in someone's backyard. And there are parallels with Wagner's theatre in Longborough. "We've kept adding to the theatre each year, as the productions have changed," Martin says. Discovering the pit wasn't big enough to accommodate the 65-strong orchestra conductor Anthony Negus needed for the Ring, Martin's solution was simple. "We got a digger in and had a go underneath the theatre. It was a pretty big job." The result is an orchestra pit that's like a smaller version of Wagner's in Bayreuth, descending yards underneath the stage to create the ideal sonic balance between the singers and the orchestra. "Let's go down to the dungeon." After limboing under girders and ladders – health and safety take a distant second place to operatic ambitions at Longborough – I see where the brass players will play for Die Walküre, deep in the bowels of the Cotswolds earth.