Michael Chance on taking charge of The Grange Festival 2017

Michael first visited The Grange last year and fell in love with its character

Michael first visited The Grange last year and fell in love with its character - Credit: Archant

Until recently, it looked to be curtains for opera at Northington. But now that the acclaimed counter-tenor Michael Chance is taking charge for The Grange Festival 2017, there’s an encore guaranteed writes Viv Micklefield

After almost two decades of opera being performed within the neoclassical walls of The Grange at Northington, near Alresford, not surprisingly it’s become something of a summer institution. So when news broke last year that the incumbent company would be staging one last season here before leaving for pastures new, the worry was that there would be a big hole left in Hampshire’s cultural landscape.

Step-up Grammy award winning classical singer Michael Chance who, having enjoyed an international career spanning more than 30 years, has put his reputation on the line by becoming artistic director of what has already become re-named as The Grange Festival.

“People have this idea that opera is very expensive, that you have to dress up for it and so on,” says Michael. “But, actually, if you break opera down into its constituent parts: the musicians, the actors, the designers, the writers, etcetera, it’s about many of the creative arts that everyone is familiar with, all coming together.”

And he’s a man that should know because since first starting out in a staging of Cavalli’s opera Giasone, Michael has gone on to perform at La Scala in Milan, the Sydney Opera House and Teatro Colón Buenos Aires, to name just a few - and is celebrated for both his recital work and recordings which embrace a broad repertoire from early baroque music to works by living composers.

Taking time-out from his still busy schedule, the 61-year-old is at The Grange to take a look at his latest role. And he begins by revealing a lifetime’s love of music that’s, surprisingly, eclectic.

“There was always music in the home. My father used to play jazz piano and my older brother was a chorister. I went to a very musical school and later got a choral scholarship to Cambridge.

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“Over the years, I’ve queued up many times outside of opera houses to see stars such as Plácido Domingo and the classical conductor Carlos Kleiber. But I also used to go to jazz concerts as well to see Gary Burton and Chick Corea, and enjoyed the folk singer Don McLain too. In fact, anything that’s done well and that’s done imaginatively I think is brilliant.”

No stranger to having performed in Hampshire – he’s sung with the Waynflete Singers at Winchester Cathedral, and at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre with both Glyndebourne on Tour and Kent Opera, it was only last summer Michael confesses that he first paid a visit to The Grange. Then it was as an audience member and, by all accounts, the invitation made by the property’s owners for him to continue the tradition of presenting opera here from 2017 onwards came somewhat out of the blue.

“I saw a very fine production of La Bohéme and met various members of the Baring family who asked what I thought of the place. The obvious thing for them to do might have been to have gone to an established administrator at one of the other opera houses but, in a sense, what they wanted to do was to start again.”

Whilst acknowledging that it was a bit of a leap of faith in appointing a singer to give direction to a brand new opera company, Michael hopes to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Domingo, under whose leadership Los Angeles Opera is thriving. And, with an undisguised self-belief, he considers himself the man to build on the success already achieved at the Hampshire venue.

“I do a lot of teaching at London’s Royal Academy of Music and in Holland, and additionally hold masterclasses and have my own summer academy in Sienna that people come to from all over the world. So giving confidence and inspiration to others, I think, is something that I can bring to whoever comes to work at The Grange in the future.

He continues: “There are two big pluses here for me. The first is that it’s a wonderful performance space, and the second is that there’s a ready-made audience for whom we can now offer something slightly different.”

Recognising the legacy inherited, Michael’s convinced that in this “jewel of a theatre” there’s an opportunity to generate greater interest in coming to watch opera at The Grange. To this end, the 2017 season has already been announced.

“We’re going to do four operas covering quite a range,” he says. “The most popular one of these is Bizet’s Carmen, which is full of recognizable tunes and, surprisingly, has never been done at The Grange before.

“Then, we’re going right back in time to one of the earliest operas ever written: it’s by Monteverdi and is called Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and is based on Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ - we’ll also be doing a Benjamin Britten comic opera called Albert Herring, which is all about village life and is very funny, and then there’s Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, for which we shall be bringing in a wonderful Russian Company that has performed all over the world.”

Laughing-off any suggestion that he himself might be tempted to take-on one of these operas’ major roles, all of which will be sung in their original language, Michael’s keen to encourage new audiences through the doors. He’s already talking of discounting ticket prices tickets for selected seats and is considering the introduction of standing tickets so that more than 550 people can enjoy the spectacle.

And continuing with the tradition of running The Grange’s season over June and July, there’s the exciting prospect of this small pocket of Hampshire becoming an artistic hub that supports emerging creative talent.

“We shall have a young artists programme for singers, musicians and conductors. While for technicians, there will be opportunities for apprenticeships, internships and residencies, and even hopefully bursaries.”

Michael adds: “I would love to explore the possibility of having ‘same day’ workshops so audience members can see the talents of some of the younger members of the company.”

His enthusiasm for what lies ahead is infectious. And with Michael Moody, a co-founder of Grange Park Opera confirmed as general manager, and well-known local fundraiser Rachel Pearson also already on board, this triumvirate are a formidable force to kick-start the next act in The Grange’s history.

While the new company’s full make-up must wait until the autumn, and there will be the inevitable logistical challenges that staging several operas in parallel brings The Grange, it appears, has already cast its spell on Michael Chance.

“Here I am in Northington within the most incredible of secret valleys,” he muses. “However, when you think that one of the earliest opera productions was held in an aristocratic taverna in northern Italy, whilst another was conceived by a group of 15th century Florentine noblemen as a way of recreating some of the traditions of Greek theatre, then this country house setting in Hampshire is perfect.”

The Grange

Built in 1662, this Northington landmark became a royal hunting lodge during the 18th century. It played host to Sir Winston Churchill’s meeting with General Eisenhower when they were planning the World War Two invasion of Europe. And having later been bought by the 7th Lord Ashburton, has remained in the Baring family with English Heritage taking over custodianship in 1975. For full details of The Grange’s 2017 opera season, visit www.thegrangefestival.co.uk.

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